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Media says No to restrictions on cross-media ownership
Just imagine a regulation where no single company can sell more than one variant of a chocolate brand or any other product or service. Since most marketers like to sell to a majority, all that consumers have, is duplication of the same variant, albeit with different brand names from different marketers.

Moreover, no one company can sell its one chocolate brand variant across the country in keeping with the letter of this law. Obviously, in such a case, consumers' outcry will invariably result in the law being scrapped outright or least rewritten in favour of consumer choice in the free Indian markets.

In the media sector, giants such as the Bennett Coleman and Company ltd (BCCL) has presence across print, television, radio, internet and outdoor services. Essel Group has its interests in television, print, DTH, real estate and sports. Can this lead to a monopolistic scenario, the session on cross-media ownership on the third day of the FICCI Frames answered this and much more.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is evaluating stakeholders' response on the issue of need for cross-media ownership. Based on consultation papers, the regulatory body has solicited suggestions and comments from the stakeholders.

N Parameswaran, principal advisor, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), said, "We are evaluating the response of stakeholders on various issues that are connected with the consultation papers on cross-media ownership."

Parameswaran added that "we have received response from 35 stakeholders. In December last, we held an open-house session in Delhi and are now evaluating those views as well."

Media houses argue that media businesses require huge capital investments and have long gestation periods ranging up to 10-years or more and imposing cross-holding limits at this stage will retard the growth of the media industry. They also argue that it would affect the efficiency of the media businesses.

Today, there exist 300 television channels, and 100 others waiting for a nod from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting; 8,600 newspapers and 250 FM stations. In this scenario, the government feels the need to put certain restrictions on the Indian media sector, Parameswaran claims.

"The I&B Ministry has made a reference of this to the TRAI, with the objective of rationalizing this issue. We are formulating a recommendation and will present it to the government," Parameswaran said.

It is important to understand not just the provisions of cross-media laws in some of the most developed, vibrant and pluralistic markets such as the USA, but also the genesis of these laws.

Shantonu Aditya, executive director, UTV Global Broadcasting stated that there is no reason for regulation and that variety is good. "A consumer is not bothered by which media company produces what newspaper or launches what channel. The consumer seeks variety entertainment," he stated.

Aditya continues to explain that India is not a land of one language. "We have over 15 official languages with hundreds of dialects, as you move from one region to another. Print media has a reach of over 200 million, compared to TV's 500 million. If anyone has a monopoly today, it is Prasar Bharati. No C&S TV channel in India commands an audience share greater than 20%, let alone the 45% threshold prescribed in the US cross-media legislation." Aditya says.

Giving a perspective on the US market, Monica Desai, chief, media bureau, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), USA, said that strict legislation exists in this regard. "The FCC sets the rules on how many media outlets a single entity can have. This is reviewed every four years," she said.

Desai noted that cross-media laws in the US were a result of big television channels controlling terrestrial networks and, therefore, the need to prevent their control over other media in newspapers and radio. In India, terrestrial television is the sole monopoly of the government with Prasar Bharati running terrestrial television in Doordarshan.

"In 1975, the FCC banned cross-media ownership for players operating in the same local market. In 2007, however, we evaluated the pros and cons and decided on a few combinations, depending on whether it is favourable or not," she said.

Aditya also said that with news and views on radio being a monopoly of the government-run All India Radio, as also AIR's monopoly over short-wave and medium-wave radio broadcast, the very talk of any one private FM player's 'dominance' sounds ridiculous.

Aditya requested Parameswaran to consider the fact that the consumers are used to what they see and read and that the restriction must not hamper this. "What needs to be taken into account is that regulation in media will be put in after its decade-long existence, whereas in other sectors such as telecom, it was there right from the start," he added.

The government's intention of supporting plurality of media voices and preventing anyone's control over this voice for the benefit of consumers is best served by supporting both old and new media.

The government should not put spokes in the growth of old media, or mitigate the size and scale of media organisations. Most of all, it should not deny them their fundamental right of free speech or access to new media technologies.

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