Manmohan Singh is too occupied with the telecom scandal at the moment to worry about the shenanigans of Rakhi Sawant and company but perhaps he should, once the current logjam over the telecom licenses is resolved. It sounds flippant perhaps but bear with me a moment
The Rakhi Sawant show on Imagine is now officially classified as adult programming – many would say justifiably so – and so is Big Boss on Colors. The Bombay High Court has stayed the order on the latter for the time being and the matter is sub-judice but we are sure to hear more about this. For anyone watching the TV industry, there is a certain de ja vu about the whole thing. TV channel goes overboard, or is perceived as such, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sees red and issues restrictive orders, channel goes to court and the judiciary becomes an arbiter.

Why does this happen again and again? The state of TV regulation has simply not kept pace with the vast changes in the landscape of Indian TV since the Supreme Court first freed the airwaves from government monopoly. In sheer size, India is now the third largest TV market in the world with perhaps the most vibrant satellite TV industry anywhere on the globe but the regulatory framework underpinning it is one that was created for the command economy of the 1960s, not the new TV age that we now have.

The United Kingdom has Ofcom, an independent regulator for its entire communications industry, and the United States has the Federal Communications Commission. These bodies are responsible for everything from licensing to content regulation to setting standards to redressing consumer disputes. The key thing is that they are independent and seen to be so; their members are drawn from diverse backgrounds, including from business, broadcasting and academia. What this means is that everyone – broadcasters, producers, advertisers, owners – knows exactly what the rules are and how far you can stretch the line.

What do we have? A Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, originally created to run Doordarshan and All India Radio as a monopoly, that issues broadcasting licenses and guidelines and tries to exert control over networks but is almost always challenged. Historically, in disputes with private networks, the courts have more often than not overturned ministry fiats. Legally speaking, apart from the 1995 Cable Networks Regulation Act (which has limited uses) every attempt for broadcast reform through Parliamentary legislation has failed. The only exception is the 2007 Act on mandatory sharing of sports feeds. And that only passed because of the immense drawing power of cricket.

What does all this have to do with Rakhi Sawant? It does because in the absence of a clear, impartial and binding regulatory structure, channels do what they can to reach the holy grail of the ratings. There is virtually no road map and every time the Ministry puts up a danger sign, the industry responds with tall promises of self-regulation. In the daily rush for the ratings, these promises are often only as good as the paper they are written on.

This is an issue that applies as much to news TV, as it does to entertainment programming – though many would question whether there is any difference between the two anymore. Just think back to Priyaranjan Dasmunshi’s draconian draft of a new Broadcasting Bill in 2007 which had severe restrictions on live news discussions though it is thankfully now on the backburner.

In a system where broadcasting regulation – including content guidelines – is basically run by the legal equivalent of jugaad, problems such as what we have now are bound to keep recurring like a broken record. In fact, this is exactly what the Supreme Court had asked for in 1995 in its landmark judgment that freed the airwaves from state monopoly: a new regulatory structure for a new industry. What we need is an impartial, transparent regulator with clear cut rules and legitimacy who can balance commercial and public interests.

This is even more important at a time when survey after survey reiterates the influence of television, particularly in an aspirational society like ours. The independence of any future television regulator is absolutely crucial. Private broadcasters have so far resisted change essentially because most previous attempts at reform have been seen – and rightly so – as a way for the state to regain control by the backdoor.

For those wary of any change and interested in keeping the status quo, just listen to the noises coming from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It wasn’t just Bigg Boss and the Rakhi Sawant show. A ministerial committee has also examined shows on UTV Bindaas, Hungama channel and Zee Telugu, among others. A ministry source has been quoted as saying that “”more decisive action”” on some other channels could be on the anvil soon.

Rakhi Sawant has made a career out of loud television. Now wouldn’t it be ironical if her loud visage could serve as the catalyst for reform in one of the great unsolved muddles of the post-liberalisation era. We could even call it a Rakhi Sawant Commission.