PIL seeks legal changes to take the free transmission of sporting events beyond television

A large segment of India can not afford paid television channels or platforms owned by private broadcasters. In order to provide access to the live broadcast of certain sporting events to a large number of spectators and listeners, the Law (Mandatory Sharing with Prasar Bharati), 2007, (Sports Law) was enacted in 2007.

The Law directed the owners of the rights to share with Prasar Bharati the signals of transmission of sporting events of national importance; and allowed Prasar Bharati to further retransmit these signals live for free on its own terrestrial network (transmission through the antenna) and DTH network (through its DD FreeDish open access service).

The mandatory exchange rule applies to events that are reported as sporting events of national importance by the Union's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) in consultation with the Union's Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. Some of these events are ODI and T20 matches played by the Indian men's cricket team, semifinals and finals of the Men's World Cup and, Summer Olympics, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games , etc.

A public interest litigation filed recently with the Delhi High Court challenges the key provisions of the Sports Law.

The challenge is mainly based on the fact that, at present, the Sports Law does not achieve its objective and, in fact, prevents Indian citizens from accessing sporting events of national importance free of charge. The basis of this argument seems to be that, although Prasar Bharati's terrestrial and DTH networks are obviously obsolete, the Sports Law does not allow Prasar Bharati to retransmit the signals live through any medium, except through its own terrestrial networks. and DTH.

The matter is pending before the court. It will be interesting to see if the courts appreciate the fact that some legislations should be revised and modified over a period of time for reasons such as technological development. And especially if a legislation does not fulfill the purpose for which it was enacted or because of its inability to adapt to changes in technology.

In 2017, the Supreme Court, while interpreting the Sports Law, noted that it does not contemplate that Prasar Bharati shares signals with cable operators. The MIB in October 2018 proposed an amendment to the law that deals with sporting events of national importance. The amendment sought to extend the exchange of signals from Prasar Bharati to other networks where it is mandatory to carry Doordarshan channels such as DD National and DD Sports. Since then, there have been no updates and the amendment has not yet entered into force.

The proposed amendment recognizes the need to revise the Sports Law and to cover its scope. But it does not take into account the big change: that terrestrial and DTH have become obsolete, and with the advent of digital over-the-top (OTT) platforms, the number of subscribers to cable television is constantly decreasing .

Statistics in a recent report from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India show that there are only 69.5 million active DTH subscribers (excluding Doordarshan's FreeDish) but 538 million mobile/wireless internet connections.

In this new context, the simple expansion of the scope of the Sports Law to include cable networks will not allow the Law to achieve its objective of providing access to such sporting events to a large number of spectators free of charge.

Given the easy availability and access to content through the use of mobile/wireless internet connections, the Sports Law must look beyond radio and television as means of distribution and also review the restrictions of Prasar Bharati in terms of media. of distribution allowed under the Sports Law.