The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Can a regulator restore some sanity to the chaotic situation that currently prevails in the Indian media and entertainment industry' Going by the controversies sparked off by some regulators like the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India for instance, the answer seems to be a firm no. Experience proves that a regulator cannot exist or function without intense bickering. And this becomes more pronounced when the media is involved.

The Indian media, in fact the entertainment industry, has recently been undergoing a major transformation. The introduction of the conditional access system has stirred up a hornet’s nest, but the problems were latent in the system. It will be simplistic to dismiss the CAS controversy as a war between the swadeshi and the videshi media owners. This impression may be gathered from the apparent show of solidarity among the Indian media barons who met recently. But there were quite a few notable absentees as well. It goes without saying that there is deep-seated distrust among those who function in this arena.

A more critical problem is the rotting advertising pie. Indian business has been passing through a prolonged phase of change. The number of big advertisement campaigns is slowly shrinking. The print media here is at a disadvantage in comparison with the electronic one as smaller brands prefer advertising on television. Many newspapers, at least in the capital, have been surviving on statutory and government advertisements. The regional press does not even have such a fall back option. Campaigns are few and the advertisers want to extract the maximum out of a very tight budget.

Out of order

No less critical is the competition within the electronic media. Reading habits are slowly dying as people would rather watch television than take up a book in their spare time. Newspapers have been desperate to push up sales. Those that have a number of publications are doing it in two ways — offering competitive rates to advertisers and selling their paper to readers at a combo price. Those who are not among the top naturally stand very little chance of surviving.

Can a regulator bring order in this scenario' “As TRAI has done in the telecommunications sector'” one may quip. True, failure of one regulator cannot be held against the system of regulation as such. In the United States of America, the federal communication council has been successful. This despite the fact that law-makers there had taken umbrage at a recent FCC attempt to hike foreign control in the US media. More important, when politics is taken away from the first stage of regulation, there is normally a greater element of objectivity.

The right one

A regulator is expected to be a hardcore professional with a wide experience in the relevant field, unlike a politician or a bureaucrat who is, at best, a generalist. If one examines closely the reason for failure of certain regulators in the country, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the hunger for limelight has created a number of avoidable confusions. The matter could have been handled better had regulators been level-headed and come up with a carefully considered and objective judgment.

Even then, one may say, what is the guarantee that a regulator will not fall prey to the inherent weaknesses in the system' There can be ways to ensure this. First, the regulator must be made subject to a certain code of conduct. Second, for any utterances outside the regulator’s office, the chief regulator must be made answerable before the country’s Parliament. Third, the regulator should be selected by a special panel comprising of eminent personalities who wield some power — the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, the vice-president, the chief justice and the like. It has to be kept in mind that the status of any office depends primarily on the incumbent. Select the right one and the regulator will work wonders even in a flawed system

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