On Wednesday, 23rd May, the Madras High Court Justice MM Sundaresh upheld Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) regulations and Tariff Order dated March 3, 2017, preventing broadcasting companies from mixing free-to-air channels with pay channel in bouquets.
In March, the First Bench comprising Chief Justice Banerjee and Justice M Sundar of the Madras High Court had delivered a split verdict in Star Vijay’s litigation against the regulations, arguing that content pricing should be left to broadcasters’ discretion. The matter was referred to a third Judge, MM Sundaresh, who gave the order on Wednesday.
Justice MM Sundaresh heard elaborate arguments advanced by a battery of Supreme Court-based senior counsel representing the broadcasters as well as Additional Solicitor-General G. Rajagopalan, representing the Centre, and senior counsel P. Wilson, appearing on behalf of TRAI, before reserving his verdict on April 26. He concurred with the view taken by Chief Justice Indira Banerjee, who held that the regulations would protect end consumers from getting misled or duped by inclusion of free channels in paid bouquets.
The Court said, “A division in the Bench created this reference. Ironically, answering the reference would create a decision of the Division Bench. And if patience is a virtue, it could be stated to have well served upon hearing the submissions of eloquence of the learned counsel representing competing interests.” In so far as the merits of the case were concerned, the judge said the Chief Justice, in her short yet clear judgment, had rightly held that TRAI was well within its powers to issue the Telecommunication (Broadcasting and Cable) Services Interconnection (Addressable Systems) Regulations of 2017 and Telecommunication (Broadcasting and Cable) Services (Eighth) (Addressable Systems) Tariff Order of 2017.
"Suffice it is to state that TRAI Act involves regulation of airwaves and frequencies being public properties, touches upon various stakeholders with primacy to the public interest. "To put it differently, the general public is the king, being the subscriber whose interest should be guarded and protected under the Act as a prime factor. TRAI is thus obligated to take adequate measures as mandated by the statute," Justice Sundresh observed. According to Wilson, by virtue of the majority judgment, the entire broadcasting regime will be completely changed from today." "Now, the broadcasters have to declare in public domain, their free to air channels and maximum retail price of their pay channels... they cannot discriminate against any distributor," he said. As many as 100 free to air channels should be offered at Rs 130 per month. The price of pay channels shall be transparent. The regulation fixes a maximum 20 per cent fees on MRP for distributors