Give a Break From the Breaks

Television watchers in India have to undergo a gruelling carpet bombing of commercials every few minutes making the television watching exercise a sheer torturous experience. Frequent and long ad breaks with screaming commercials, interrupt viewers’ concentration, sisrupt the thought process and makes one loose coherence. Of course it is irritating—exasperating even.
In spite of the the viewers paying a subscription fees for watching news & programs of their choice, being subjected to long and frequent stretches of commercials. We all feel helpless.
In private conversations, we share the angst privately but no one quite knew what to do about it. However the viewers, you and I, may be in for some relief. The Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of India, TRAI, has initiated a rescue mission with a plan proposal to regulate the frequency and duration of ad breaks. If implemented it will be a great relief for the TV audience. In support of the viewer experience and consternation is some revealing data compiled by The Center for Media Studies. In 2010-2011 35% to 48% of air time was being consumed by commercial time. The situation worsened in the last two years! During festival seasons like Dipawali, the share of the content in total air time goes down to 15-20 percent. Each episode of any popular TV serials contains only 15-18 minute of content. The rest is filled by ads. A two hour movie take between 3 to 4 hours to get over.
In most established news channels a half hour slot of news or programme means 15 to 18 minutes of content. This can go down to 12 – 13 minutes during peak festive seasons. Apart from that several ads in the form of graphics clutter the screen and disturb the viewing continuously. Add to this telemarketing, paid programmes like religious discourses of self styled gurus and Nirmal Baba’s third Eye, one can imagine the state of the viewer who has tuned in for a quick news update or catch up on his favourite soap. Channel surfing navigates us from one ad break to the next, which means that the malaise is a universal one.
The broadcaster community is far too engrossed with commercial bottom lines to care about viewing experience. It is none of the viewers’ business, is it? So “watch the ads or go take a walk, we will be back when the ads are done.” If someone raises a strident objection they will hark back to financial conditions of TV channels, mounting costs of production and distribution and slow down in the Industry. If any government body tries to regularize this, up goes the red flag red flag and shrill sloganeering against interference and and a sporadic chant for self regulation, which to me sounds like a territorial issue. Of course they dig out compelling logic in their favour citing current international practices consistent with their interests – read incremental revenues. Greed!
It is in this context that we should evaluate the resistance from broadcasters and the resentment they are showing against the latest regulation enforced by the TRI with regard to the fixing of duration and frequency of commercial breaks on channels across the board. In fact this is neither new nor surprising that broadcasters have put up their arms against the limit of twelve minutes ads duration in a clock hour. Last year, when TRI first time tried to implement it, the broadcasters made a lot of hue and cry. Consequently, TRI had to restart the consultation process and revisit some of the issues, many of which were very valid at the time, raised by broadcasters. However they are unwilling to accommodate the idea that this will automatically lead to re-adjustments in ad rates and the revenues may not take the beating that they are so scared of.
In August last year, after the rejection of regulation by the broadcasters, the TRAI issued a consulting paper and discussed the matter again with all the stake holders. Subsequently, it made some amendments too. The latest version of the regulations has already addressed most of the grievances and demands of the broadcasters. But the regulations are facing stiff resistance from the broadcasters over two counts – one is obviously the specter of revenue loss but the other and a more disconcerting one is the fear of regulation itself . The broadcasters are afraid that giving in to these regulations will set precedence for future regulations.
No one else but the broadcasters themselves are to blame for matters having come to this unsavoury impasse. They had enough time to prepare themselves for this situation. It is not that the broadcasting community is waking up to a rude and surprising new set of regulations from the TRAI. On the contrary, the TRI is only demanding adherence to a regulation which is already there. The Cable Television Networks rules of 1994 have this provision from the very beginning. However the broadcasters have ignored it up till now. They were not awakened when the TRI started consultation two years back. Now, when the heat is on, they are pointing at the adverse effects the regulation may have on the growth of the industry.
The Industry is also objecting to the regulations citing international norms also. But it is overlooking the fact that in most western countries including the US, these regulations are in place and strictly implemented. After all, unlike India they do not have freedom to break the rules with impunity and take the consumer for granted, in this case the viewers. Though, things are far from perfect there also but consumer rights groups are very strong and together with the regulations manage to leverage some protections for the TV audience as well.
It is true that most of the broadcasters fear that in the absence of alternative sources of revenue, their business model may not withstand the regulations and collapse. Most Indian channels are dependent on ad revenues alone, unlike in the west where they also generate good revenues from the subscription fees. However, the situation is changing in India too and a few pay channels are collecting revenue from distribution as well. But for most this is a distant dream and the majority remain free to air.
Distribution is the main cause of concern for most channels. They have to pay huge amount to the cable operators as carriage fees, sometime even 50-60 percent of their total yearly outlay. The process of digitization may reduce the cost drastically, but it is going to take at least a couple of years. Digitization of the first two phases which is supposed to complete by March, 2013, will provide them sufficient leverage to handle the impact. But otherwise also they are going to be benefited in the long run as fewer and smaller ad breaks will increase the audience and then they will be able to increase the ad tariff. In fact this will be win-win situation for everyone. Advertisers will get better impact in an uncluttered space. Channels will get better revenue and audience will have better TV experience.
After digitization, there is every indication that these regulations will prove to be the turning point for both, audience and the TV industry. It is going to impact the content of the channels as well. Therefore, instead of opposing the regulations the industry needs to welcome it. Yes, process and time frame for the implementation of this regulation may be decided amicably by all the stake holders and no party should use blackmailing tactics.
And last but not the least, all the parties must bear in mind that while the growth of any industry should and must be encouraged, it is the consumer-- the audience that is supreme and its interest cannot be compromised. After all that is what a free and fair market place is all about.
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