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DD, the bad loser

By Dorab R Sopariwala
January 30, 2006 11:43 IST
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So they are at it again; DD (Doordarshan), a bad loser, using the might of the entire Indian executive to squash a small guy from Dubai who was smart enough to strike a television deal that came good. But who found that in this beloved land of ours, we play it not by "the" book, but by "our" book.

First, the facts. In 1999, the Pakistan Cricket Board was willing to offer a contract involving matches played in Pakistan. With the problems there, virtually no one was willing to bid for it. Abdurrahman Bukhatir, a brave soul, was willing to pay more than anyone else and got the contract.

And what were our friends at DD doing at that time? Twiddling their thumbs. Now they will tell us: "But don't you know that when the bids were being assessed we were close to a war with Pakistan? How could we have bid?" Fair enough. But what about all the other bids that they have lost? Incidentally, they did win one bid  --  for televising the most exciting Zimbabwe series!

NRS 2005 estimates that 108 million households have television sets. 61 million have access to cable. DD National, being a terrestrial channel, is available in all 108 million households. As per NRS 2005, no sports channel has a reach exceeding 26 per cent that of DD National.

It is true that during the period when cricket is being played, the reach of the channel carrying the match does go up significantly. Even if that 26 per cent goes up to 50 per cent of cable households, the match reaches 42 per cent of all TV households. So, DD has well over twice the reach of its competitors but has lost out again and again to much smaller organisations.

When all of us know the commercial market for world cricket is dominated by India, why has DD won just one contract? Some months ago, the CEO of Prasar Bharati was asked why Prasar Bharati did not bid for long-term contracts for cricket matches. His response was that he was spending the people's money and, therefore, could not afford to take chances with it. So, you don't bid and yet you want the fruits of someone else's risk taking. "Nothing ventured, everything gained"!

Given that the top episodes of Kaun Banega Crorepati had higher TRPs than cricket matches, I think Star Plus should be happy that DD did not fire its big guns in the Supreme Court seeking a direction that KBCalso be transmitted on DD!

Why do the private channels bid large amounts to win these contracts?

First, cricket probably provides 90 per cent of the advertising revenue of a sports channel, though it occupies possibly just 10 per cent of the time.

Second, the revenue stream is from the distribution revenue. We need to understand the unorganised system that is used to distribute TV signals. Cable operators are often unsavoury characters. So, for every 100 subscribers that they have, they probably declare 10. The cable operators not only under-declare the number of subscribers but also give the channel a hard time when payments are due.

But when cricket is "on," the shoe is on the other foot. The channel gets better declarations and also recovers its past debts from the cable operators. Thus, it is vital for a sports channel to win bids for cricket. When the government or the courts dictate a "must share with DD" policy, the cable operator knows that he does not have to declare a higher count or pay his debts to the channel.

One of DD's pleas before the courts has been that all leading countries ensure that events of national interest are telecast on a terrestrial network. "Fib" is the only word that can be described to describe this plea. For instance, the Premier League football matches in England (as big as cricket in India) are televised on BSkyB and not on the BBC or other terrestrial channels.

And it is only in June, 2005, that BSkyB's reach hit 30 per cent of all UK households  --  it was considerably lower when it won the Premier League contract. Or take cricket, the sport that is under discussion in India. The England & Wales Cricket Board has awarded a four-year contract until 2009 to BSkyB.

However, to ensure that terrestrial viewers are not entirely deprived of the opportunity to see cricket, a 45-minute package of highlights will be available on terrestrial channel "Five". And the British government has not interfered with this deal.

In the recent confabulations between the government, DD and the sports channels, it is believed that the former two have suggested that the "must share" must also include the Football World Cup, Formula 1 motor racing and the tennis Grand Slams. We know how rural viewers would fret if they could not watch the finals at Roland Garros! Of course, DD does not appear to have asked for a "must share" for hockey (our national sport?) or kabaddi. Why? Because there ain't no bucks there.

In the case of cricket, in addition to the sports channel, the sport itself also loses out. If there is a "must share with DD" policy, the bids are bound to be lower. Why should the sport or the TV channel subsidise DD? Finally, DD has been quiet when it lost the bid to "share" the current Indo-Pak test series.

Let no one think that they have turned into gentlemen. No, they have not raised the "national interest" bogey because they know that Tests generate only a fraction of the advertising revenue of the One Day matches.

So much for "national interest". So expect them to be in the Supreme Court next week, with their battery of expensive taxpayer-funded lawyers, pleading that they, being the government, should be allowed to wrest rights legally acquired by another party.

Over the years, Indian courts have protected the small guy from the big guy and the law-abiding from the might of the government. Long may they continue to do so. Satyameva Jayate.

The writer, a student of the media scene, is not associated with any sports channel.

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Dorab R Sopariwala
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