Broadcast regulator TRAI said it is examining the issue of broadcasters like Star and Zee supplying some of their channels free of charge to Prasar Bharati’s DTH service Free Dish, while charging money for the same from subscribers of private DTH and cable operators.
Several broadcasters had declared their free channels as ‘pay channels’ ahead of the implementation of the new tariff rules from December 29.
They had done so because the new rules stipulate that they cannot create a channel bundle or pack that contains both free and paid channels.
Broadcasters did not want to create two separate packs for free and paid channels as they feared that consumers may simply opt for the free channels, leaving their pay channels in the lurch.
As a way around this, they declared their existing free channels as pay channels — albeit with nominal prices — ahead of the transition to the new tariff regime next week.
TRAI indicated it was not willing to let the broadcasters get away with the move.
“As per the regulations, a broadcaster has to declare its nature of channels as either pay channel or Free to Air for addressable system. Therefore, nature of channel should be same on all addressable platforms. TRAI is seized of the matter and is in correspondence with those concerned in this regards,” it said today.
The topic is a sensitive one, as DD Free Dish is the country’s largest television distribution platform with an estimated reach over 30 million households, mostly in the Hindi-speaking belt.
So far, it was assumed that the new tariff regime does not impact the free operator as it was not yet an ‘addressable’ system.
In other words, DD Free Dish transmits its signals without any encryption and any person can point a dish at the satellite and watch the channels without any authorization or permission from Prasar Bharati or any of the channel broadcasters — a key reason for its success.
TRAI’s clarification seems to suggest that it does not believe that Prasar Bharati’s DTH service is a non-addressable system, but an addressable one. DD Free Dish is in fact in the process of rolling out encryption on its service.
The only way for channels to get around the problem would be to either revert their channels back to ‘free’, or to pull their channels from DD Free Dish — something that will have an immediate impact on the advertising revenue generated by these channels.
Alternatively, the broadcasters can rebrand and repackage their channels on DD Free Dish under a new name and declare them ‘free’. However, that would in turn lead to private DTH and cable operators also carrying those channels for free, something that the broadcasters are not very keen about.