New TRAI rules on TV channel pricing by mid November

Sharma at Friday’s discussion on new tariff order

Media regulator TRAI will come up with a modified set of rules to increase transparency in the pricing of television channels in the next 20-25 days, Chairman RS Sharma said on the sidelines of the open house discussion on the subject in New Delhi.

Sharma’s statement comes in the wake of widespread complaints about broadcasters ‘subverting’ the new tariff plan — originally intended to allow consumers to pick and choose their TV channels — to push unwanted channels down subscribers’ throats.

Both cable operators and consumer organizations have accused TV broadcasters of pricing their individual channels very high to force consumers to buy bouquets or packs that often contain junk or unwanted channels.

Sharma said the 2017 tariff order, which came into effect seven months ago after lengthy legal battles, were originally intended to benefit the consumer and give him the ability to choose the channels he wants.

“However, there are some things [in the new tariff order] that we need to rectify [to realize its aims],” Sharma said, talking to News18.

He added that the regulatory authority is seized of consumer complaints about how their cable bills have been inflated since the roll-out of the new system, and added that the planned tweaks are aimed at safeguarding their interests.

“Consumer is at the center of all these discussions. So it’s obvious that he will benefit,” he said in response to a question of whether the consumers can expect their bills to go down.

Asked if TRAI will also put hard limits on channel prices, number of packages and so on, Sharma said the regulator is not in favor of heavy-handed regulation.

“We don’t believe in control, but we want to ensure that the consumer benefits [from the new tariff scheme] with complete transparency.”

It is almost a given that TRAI will put in new clauses in the tariff order that will link the price of individual channels to the price of bouquets and packs, thus preventing broadcasters from making individual channels more expensive compared to packs.

At present, most popular channels are priced at Rs 22.40 per month each, but these channels are offered at around Rs 7-8 if consumers are willing to buy several less-popular channels alongside the ones they want.

This practice helps broadcasters improve the reach of their so-called laggard channels, while saturating cable and DTH networks and driving out the channels of smaller and newer broadcasting companies.

Once the new rules come into effect, a channel that is sold at Rs 6 or 7 in a pack will also have to be sold at around the same rate outside of the pack too, thus helping consumers buy such channels at cheaper rates without having to buy unwanted channels.

Cable operators have also called for TRAI to put limits on the number of bouquets and packages that a broadcaster can publish — complaining that neither their systems nor their subscribers can cope with hundreds of packages. They have also asked TRAI to put a limit on the number of bouquets that a channel can be made part of.