How Republic TV and Zee group reached millions of viewers ‘illegally’
In 2017, Republic TV became available for telecast on DD Free Dish, Doordarshan’s DTH service, as did 31 other TV channels. This was in violation of the norms and cost the state broadcaster Prasar Bharati, which runs DD, at least Rs 52 crore, documents accessed by Newslaundry show.
Simply put, these 32 channels indulged in illegality to exploit a public DTH platform for free, with the help of Dish TV, a private DTH service then owned by the Zee group. Over half a dozen of the channels were from the stable of the Zee group.
The illegality was brought to the notice of the central information and broadcasting ministry, then led by M Venkaiah Naidu, which forwarded the complaint to Doordarshan. The ministry also asked Dish TV to come clean about the “unauthorised usage” of DD Free Dish by Republic TV.
Responding to the ministry, Doordarshan accused Republic TV and Dish TV of diluting competition and defeating the due process of auctioning DD Free Dish slots, and urged action against the private DTH platform.
DD Free Dish is a free-to-air DTH service provided by the Indian government. In 2017, it reached in the country, mostly rural, Hindi-speaking regions. To be available on this platform for a limited period, broadcasters have to bid for a slot and pay a fee amounting to crores of rupees.
Republic TV and Zee network channels circumvented this system to gain viewership on DD Free Dish.
A letter to Arnab Goswami
On May 31, 2017, Doordarshan sent a letter to Republic TV managing director Arnab Goswami and CEO Vikas Khanchandani. Marked “most immediate” and written by a section officer in the office of director general, Doordarshan, the letter read, “It is stated that Republic TV channel has not been placed on the DD Free Dish platform by Doordarshan. However, the channel has claimed that it is available on DD Free Dish platform. This amounts to fraudulent misrepresentation of facts.”
The letter noted that DD had received the complaint that the channel was “available illegally” on Free Dish from the I&B ministry. It enclosed a tweet by Republic TV and asked Goswami and Khanchandani to explain how they had “falsely claimed” to be available on Free Dish and why “action should not be taken against Republic TV”.
Goswami had quit as the editor-in-chief of Times Now in November 2016 to start his own English news channel. Republic TV, a pro-government megaphone, went on air on May 6, 2017.
On May 5, the day before Republic TV went live, it had tweeted out a list of DTH platforms it would be available on. The tweet was soon removed, but by its then staffers . The channel would be telecast, the tweet said, on the DTH platform of Videocon, Airtel, Tata Sky, and importantly, Dish TV and DD Free Dish.
So, Republic TV claimed to be on the state-owned DTH service when it had not participated in the allotment process. This raised eyebrows at the I&B ministry, specifically DD, which operates DD Free Dish.
How to game a DD Free Dish slot
Government for procuring a slot on Free Dish, introduced in 2011, are quite simple. Prasar Bharati announces e-auction for private channels wishing to join its DTH platform. There are different slots, or buckets, up for bidding. Hindi general entertainment channels are the most expensive; followed by Hindi film channels, Hindi and Bhojpuri music and sports channels; Hindi, English and Punjabi news channels.
Fifty four slots are up for auction and they don’t come cheap. At the second annual e-auction held in February this year, 13 Free Dish slots were by news channels at the average price of Rs 10.85 crore per slot. Though the reserve price for a slot in the news genre was Rs 7 crore, the highest bid was Rs 12.25 crore.
But there’s a way to game this system and avoid paying crores: a technical maneuver at Dish TV would put a channel on Free Dish without having to buy a slot.
The state-owned DTH platform offers free-to-air channels to millions of its subscribers, so they don’t have to pay a regular subscription fee to DD. For this, Free Dish has been allowed by the government to carry channels in an unencrypted form. Private DTH platforms, however, are from doing this by the 2001 DTH guidelines. This means all channels on Dish TV or any other private platform must be encrypted. The for TV channels also state that it “should be carried in encrypted mode, so as to be receivable only in closed user group”.
The position of Free Dish and Dish TV satellites in earth’s orbit, however, provided a loophole: they are so close that if Dish TV disregarded guidelines and carried an unencrypted channel, it would be available for telecast on Free Dish to 22 million potential subscribers without spending a penny.
The ministry gets a whiff
On May 18, 2017, the I&B ministry wrote to Dish TV. “It has come to the notice of this ministry about unauthorized usage of Republic TV on DD Free Dish platform,” wrote Manoj Kumar Nirbheek, undersecretary, Broadcasting Policy and Legislation. “The matter is presently being examined in this ministry.”
Nirbheek hinted that Dish TV was defying guidelines and asked the DTH platform to confirm whether it was “carrying any unencrypted channels on their platform”.
On May 22, Dish TV told the I&B ministry it needed two weeks to file a response. It didn’t, despite two reminders by the ministry, in June and July. A Dish TV spokesperson told Newslaundry that the DTH platform “does not uplink any channels from its DTH in an unencrypted form”, and the ministry was given “intimation to this effect” in November 2017.
However, communication between DD and the ministry from the time shows otherwise. In June 2017, Doordarshan realised that Republic TV wasn’t “misrepresenting facts” when it told its viewers the channel was available on Free Dish. The channel, in other words, was actually on the government’s airwaves – illegally. In a letter to an I&B additional secretary on June 20, Supriya Sahu, the then director general of Doordarshan, acknowledged Republic TV was on Free Dish, as were 31 other private channels.
Noting that Republic TV had not responded to the May 31 letter, Sahu told the ministry that 81 channels not placed by Doordarshan on Free Dish were being received on the platform. “Out of these 81 channels, 32 channels are of Dish TV DTH platform, 33 channels of MHRD and 16 channels of Vande Gujarat,” she added.
The offerings of the ministry of human resource development and Vande Gujarat were state-owned “educational” channels. But, the director general noted, “32 FTA channels of Dish TV platform are private channels which includes Republic TV being uplinked by Dish TV”.
A list enclosed by Sahu shows that apart from Republic TV, Dish TV was enabling eight channels of the Zee network to flout the guidelines. They were Zee 24 Taas, 24 Ghanta, Zee Punjab, Zee Rajasthan, Zee Purvaiya (now Zee Bihar-Jharkhand), Zee MP-Chhattisgarh, and Zee Kalinga (now Zee Odisha). Zing, an entertainment channel under the Zee group, was also on the list. Non-Zee channels included the Hindi news channel Channel One News and TV channels showing religious content such as Shubh TV and Ishwar TV.
What exactly was wrong with this arrangement? The director general told the I&B ministry that Zee’s move was “a big threat to DD Free Dish” because it enabled private channels to avoid paying for slots on the state-owned DTH platform. “Such channels are available to viewers of DD Free Dish without any payment to Prasar Bharati,” Sahu wrote. “It is also diluting the competition in buying of slots through auction. Further, it is unfair to channels coming on DD Free Dish through the auctioning route. If this continues, the entire purpose of auctioning will be defeated.”
In March 2017, Prasar Bharati had set the for news channel slots on DD Free Dish at Rs 6.5 crore. If we count just the eight news channels, including Republic TV, that were illegally made available on DD Free Dish through Dish TV, the loss to Prasar Bharati was at least Rs 52 crore.
In her letter, Sahu concluded, “To safeguard DD Free Dish, I request you to take appropriate action against DTH platforms which are uplinking channels without encryption.”
Asked about this, the Dish TV spokesperson said “the channels are being uplinked in ‘ku’ band teleport under valid permissions dated 28.11.2019 and 31.10.2019” – over two years after Doordarshan raised concerns – ”granted by the Government of India as per its uplinking policy.”
Officially, neither Republic TV nor any of the Zee group channels listed in the original complaint are on now but the exploitation of the DTH platform persists. Earlier this year, Exchange4Media that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and Prasar Bharati had written to the I&B ministry alleging similar violations, without naming names. “Some private channels which are not on DD Free Dish are available in unencrypted form to viewers illegally,” the Prasar Bharati CEO wrote. TRAI, in its letter, said that “this may be causing revenue loss to the public exchequer and also affecting other competing television channels”.
In 2019, the Republic network launched a pro-government Hindi news channel, Republic Bharat. The channel in the auction that year and was allotted a slot on DD Free Dish. The network declined to comment for this story.
For a TV channel, gaining access to 22 million Indian subscribers is no joke. In the lucrative age group of 15-30 years, in India comes from rural areas. While news gets only about 8 percent of the total TV viewership, it corners a disproportionate amount of advertisement revenue. At least 38 percent of the 44,000 metered households of the Broadcast Audience Research Council, or BARC, an industry-led body that measures TV ratings in India, are located in rural areas.
To tap into this audience, the Zee group and Republic TV circumvented the auctioning and allotment system and disregarded the DTH norms and the uplinking guidelines formulated by the government of India.
The DTH guidelines say a violation of licence conditions can not only lead to the revocation of a company’s license but also a penalty of up to Rs 50 crore. The uplinking guidelines prescribe cancellation of permission to use satellite news gathering technology in case of violation.