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Wanted: A Straight Bat

Stalemate The spat between TV channels and SET Max over sharing of IPL clips for news bulletins can be sorted out. It just needs some goodwill from both sides.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2010 00:27 IST

IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi probably can’t help it. He gets drawn into controversies even when he isn’t – or, at best, is only peripherally – involved.

Many people would call the current controversy much ado about nothing.

Consider the facts: SET Max, the official broadcaster of the Indian Premier League (IPL) places some conditions on providing free clips of IPL-III matches to news channels. The latter considers these conditions unfair and decides to boycott coverage of all IPL matches (see Deciphering a Controversy for details).

And Modi, as IPL’s head honcho, gets involved.

Deciphering a Controversy

What is the genesis of the controversy?
SET Max, which paid $1.03 billion (Rs 4,600 crore approx) for 10-year broadcast rights in 2008, has stipulated that it will provide news channels with 7 minutes of free footage a day for news bulletins. The other conditions: each bulletin can carry 30-second clips, each clip can be aired a maximum of thrice a day and these clips can be aired with a 30-minute delay.

Is SET Max after money?
The broadcaster has never demanded that news channels pay for footage. The spirit behind the sharing of footage is that news channels use it in an editorial sense. However, channels have, in the past, routinely flouted norms and ignored embargoes.

Then what is the problem?
The News Broadcasters Association believes SET Max is being unnecessarily restrictive. SET Max, on the other hand, feels it is merely protecting the rights it has paid a large sum to acquire.

How is footage of the Olympics, English Premier League and NBA handled?
In England (for EPL) and the US (NBA), the norms are even more strict than the ones stipulated by SET Max. News channels are also much more careful about adhering to agreements as the threat of potentially expensive and damaging litigation is never far away.

What happened at IPL-II?
In IPL-II, the only stand-off was between the News Media Coalition (NMC), under whose umbrella international agencies Reuters, AP, AFP and Getty Images operate. NMC objected to certain clauses regarding sale of photographs, and once these clauses were withdrawn, NMC covered the tournament.

What is IPL’s role in the controversy?
IPL has sold the rights to SET Max and so, the only role it can play is that of an honest broker.

“The spat is not between TV channels and IPL, but between our rights holder SET Max and the two news broadcasters’ associations,” Modi said on Twitter, which is fast becoming the only mode of communication for a man who was, till recently, quite accessible to the media.

The News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a grouping of 34 news channels including CNN-IBN, Times Now and ET Now, has taken a strong stand on the issue.

“In view of the position unilaterally taken by IPL-SET Max, members of NBA are unable to offer to their viewers any coverage in relation to IPL or its proposed matches,” said Annie Joseph, NBA secretary.

“After discussions with news broadcasters, IPL had come up with a mutually acceptable set of guidelines in 2008. Now, instead of continuing with that, they have come up with a new set of guidelines arbitrarily, without consulting news broadcasters. It can’t do this unilaterally,” she added.

But SET Max, which paid more than Rs 4,600 crore for the rights to broadcast IPL matches over 10 years, sees things differently.

“The question here is: how much access should news channels have? IPL broadcast rights belong to us. News channels are complaining that they were not consulted before the new guidelines were issued; but guidelines have to be issued by rights holders,” said Sneha Rajani, executive vice president & business head of SET Max.

“News channels don’t consult us before they do anything.”

The 40-member Indian Broadcasting Association (IBA), which includes NDTV, Prasar Bharati, Aaj Tak, ESPN, among others, wants the government to intervene.

“The failure of a negotiated settlement will have serious consequences. If access to cricket is so restricted… it will not be beneficial to any of the parties involved and the ire of general public may have to be also faced by them,” it said in a statement.

There has been speculation in some quarters that the SET Max conditions are only the thin end of the wedge – that IPL is going the way of foreign sports franchises like National Basketball Association and English Premier League, which sell photography and other rights to the highest bidder, which then sells these to the print and audio-visual media.

But none of the parties was willing to come on record on this.

At the moment, both SET Max and the two broadcasters’ associations are sticking to their guns.

“I'm not denying news channels access. I just don't want to give them unlimited access,” explains SET Max’s Rajani. “The access has to be reasonable. They should look at it from our perspective. My interest is clear – if the viewer wants to watch the IPL matches, he should come and watch it on SET Max.”

What gives it the moral high ground in this issue is the manner in which news channels conveniently flouted embargoes and violated norms in earlier editions.

“Last year, news channels flouted our guidelines,” said Rajani, but refused to elaborate.

The bottom line, however, is that it is in everybody's interest to resolve the matter at the earliest.

Modi, who makes no secret of his low esteem for the media in general and news channels in particular, is a shrewd enough businessman to realise that IPL’s sponsors and franchises need the hype and the noise surrounding the event to make money.

Hence, his interest in resolving the crisis.

“We will make all efforts to resolve the impasse,” he tweeted recently.

“News channels are important for all of us. Similarly, our rights owner SET Max is most important too.”

But IBA has a different suggestion.

“In the interest of millions of cricket-loving viewers, the ministry (of information & broadcasting) must intervene and hammer out a compromise,” its statement added.

Given the primacy of cricket, and particularly IPL in India, the I&B ministry has stepped in – it has appointed Special Secretary Uday Verma to play mediator. Verma will meet both groups shortly.

If the past is anything to go by, the situation is unlikely to reach a stage where the boycott becomes a reality. All it requires is large doses of goodwill, transparency and the will to resolve the crisis -- unless there is a more sinister design at play.