The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting published the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, on 10th November 2023, soliciting suggestions and feedback from stakeholders as well as the general public. The draft Bill, once approved, shall replace the existing Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995. There is an urgent need to replace the existing legislation as there has been significant diversification in media and broadcasting services with internet-based services such as OTT platforms, IPTV, etc.

Therefore, the proposed Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 is aimed at regulating the different types of Broadcasters and Broadcasting networks in India and is divided into four parts, i.e.

Part A pertains to broadcasters and cable and satellite broadcasting networks. It outlines the procedures for broadcasters, cable and satellite network operators, etc. Broadcasters need approval for transmitting programs, while network operators must register to operate. The broadcasters, satellite and network operators are required to fulfil specified obligations and maintain accurate subscriber data. The regulations aim to ensure compliance with standards, fairness and smooth functioning of broadcasting services in the country.

Part B pertains to radio broadcasting networks. Individuals or organisations intending to operate a radio broadcasting network must apply by filing a letter of intent. Permission may be granted subject to prescribed clearances and requirements.

Part C pertains to Internet Broadcasting Networks. Unified license holders can provide IPTV services by intimating the Central Government. OTT broadcasting service providers meeting the prescribed threshold must inform the Central Government.

Part D relates to terrestrial broadcasting networks. Persons intending to operate a terrestrial broadcasting network must apply for permission, which will be granted subject to prescribed terms and conditions and clearances.

These regulations state that no person shall operate a broadcasting network or broadcast anything without a proper license or intimation. However, Government Departments, Political Parties, and Public Authorities are not eligible for registration except for authorised entities like Prasar Bharti and the channels operated by Parliament. In addition, the central government may also regulate broadcasting services or networks in terms of parameters like eligibility criteria, terms, conditions and fees.

All broadcasters and network operators must transmit their programs in adherence to the Advertisement Code and Program Code. The broadcasting services must not interfere with the authorised telecommunication systems and must meet specific interference standards. Operators must comply with government orders and provide information on request to show that all equipment used is as per government standards. The government can make different rules for different types of network operators and broadcasters, thus allowing for bespoke regulations suitable for different kinds of operations. Also, guidelines may be issued for providing platform services for other broadcasting network operators. Further, the broadcasters are required to transmit certain specific channels compulsorily.

The next Chapter outlines the regulations pertaining to content standards, accessibility and access control measures. The significant sections outlined in this Chapter are as follows:

Section 19 outlines the Advertisement Code and the Program Code to be adhered to by all broadcasters. Section 20 clarifies that the Advertisement code and Program code mentioned in Section 19 apply to all individuals and organisations broadcasting news and current affairs content online, such as through websites, social media or news portals.

Section 21 further lays down guidelines for broadcasters to classify their programs into different categories based on factors like content, theme and target audience. These categories will have relevant ratings and descriptors, and broadcasters must prominently display the program classifications at the beginning of the show to help viewers make informed decisions about watching the show.

Further, Section 22 requires the broadcasting network operators to implement access control measures for programs that are classified as appropriate for restricted viewing due to the nature and classification of the content. These measures ensure that only the intended audience can access such content.

Section 23 provides that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting may issue guidelines to make broadcasting services more accessible to persons with disability. This may include aspects like adding sub-titles, audio descriptions for the blind, sign language translations and use of accessible applications. Broadcasters may be required to make a certain percentage of their content accessible to people with disabilities within a prescribed time frame, failing which penalties may be imposed on the defaulting network operator or broadcaster.

The subsequent chapters outline the regulatory framework to be followed by the broadcasters and network operators. All broadcasters and network operators should appoint a Content Evaluation Committee (CEC) with members from various social groups such as women, child welfare, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, minorities and any other relevant categories defined by the government. The government shall also specify the quorum, size and further operational details of the CEC from time to time. The broadcaster must disclose the details of the CEC members on their website and inform the government through a specific communication to the effect. Broadcasters are required to air programs only after obtaining the CEC's certificate, which should be displayed with all prescribed details at the beginning of the program. These provisions will be implemented 180 days after this Bill becomes an Act.

Further, every broadcaster and network operator must appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer to handle complaints related to violation of guidelines for content on their platform or channel. The process for making complaints and handling them should be prominently displayed on the website.

All broadcasters and network operators should also be part of a self-regulatory organisation that should work in the interest of all the members. The self-regulatory organisation must be registered with the government and look into complaints related to content violations that the member broadcaster or network operator does not resolve at an individual level.

A Broadcast Advisory Council shall be formulated by the government, which will consist of government representatives and independent experts to oversee the implementation of these Regulations. The Council shall receive complaints regarding content violations and share its recommendations after reviewing the content and the complaint. The Council can appoint review panels that can be assigned specific cases examined by the panel, and recommendations are given, which will be considered to be the recommendations of the Advisory Council. The government shall issue appropriate orders and directions based on the recommendations of the Advisory Council.

The next Chapter addresses the issues of inspections and penalties for non-compliance. Any seized equipment can be confiscated if the operators and networks do not demonstrate compliance with orders and directions of the government. Non-compliance to the Program Code and Advertisement Code may also result in taking the program in violation off the air and cancellation of registration of the broadcaster or network operator and can also result in monetary and punitive measures for the responsible persons from the broadcaster or network operator. For serious offences, imprisonment may also be prescribed in addition to a monetary penalty.

The amount of penalty is proportionate to the size of the broadcaster or network and defined up to 100% for large, 50% for medium, 5% for small and 2% for micro category of broadcaster or network operator.

Other miscellaneous regulations pertain to the sharing of broadcasting infrastructure and equipment by multiple network operators and broadcasters for which application must be made to the government for prior approval subject to terms and conditions imposed by the government on the entities sharing the equipment and the roles and responsibilities of each of the parties to the sharing arrangement.

Grant of Right of Way on public property and the process for obtaining the same by the network operators or broadcasters is another crucial aspect covered under Section 38 of the Miscellaneous Chapter. All disputes pertaining to the Right of Way will be resolved by the District Magistrate, and his decision shall be final and binding on the parties. Additional provisions under this section include provision for open access through common ducts and cable corridors set up by the government for the benefit of all network service providers, cable operators, and broadcasters. Any request for relocation or removal may require compensation to be made to the network operators for the disruption of services.

The draft regulations are comprehensive in scope and allow the government to regulate and govern the landscape for new and emerging methods of streaming services, OTT platforms and other network operators. Attempts are being made to transition the existing operators and broadcasters to the new regime smoothly and seamlessly. The regulations are expected to soon be implemented as an Act, which will address the grey areas that have so far escaped specific legislative control in recent years since the evolution of online and web streaming services.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.