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August 30, 1999


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With big revenue comes bigger responsibility

Harsha Bhogle

In the space of two hours last Friday, I was staggered by two sets of numbers I heard. The first was the size of Doordarshan's successful bid which was more than Rs. 200 crores over five years. The second was a set of numbers I saw which said that in spite of spending over Rs.5 crores on advertising, several companies weren't even remembered after the World Cup!

Are we overdoing things a bit? Is cricket in this country going overboard? Or was it undersold for all these years and is only now realising its true value?

I think the truth lies in between. Like the stockmarkets in the early nineties, I fear that cricket is being sold on hype at the moment; on expectation and on estimates that may not come true. If they do, I will be delighted because it would mean that the cricket industry is in far more robust health than I had imagined, but I fear it will be at the cost of the viewer.

Doordarshan has just committed to paying approximately 43 crores every year to the BCCI. That, if the numbers are to be believed, is more than what the Board earned over five years from their earlier contract. That is the kind of growth that comes in successful start-up ventures and that too, because such companies start with very small bases. Clearly, DD not only expects to recover this money, and fairly substantial sums that will be spent on production and satellite costs, but make a bit of a profit as well. There are only two ways to recover money in the television industry: to resell a section of the rights and the footage, and to pack in more advertising.

Advertising isn't a bad thing because very often, it funds development. For example: it is out of the money that television stations earned from advertising and which was reflected in what they paid out as rights, that the BCCI was able to pay its cricketers more, contribute to the benevolent fund, pay its senior cricketers and fund junior and first class cricket in India. But advertising has necessarily to be the side-show and the moment it starts interrupting a cricket match, it is time to draw the line.

That hasn't always happened and I am a little disappointed that the BCCI hasn't paid too much attention to it because the product being shown finally belongs to them. Too often in the past, we have missed seeing the first ball, we have had nasty crawling ads covering the graphics and worse still, important replays have been mutilated by more advertising.

This is the outcome of two factors: spiralling costs and inadequate controls. All over the world, television networks are required to maintain a cap on the amount of advertising they carry. Consumer movements are fairly strong in those countries as well and they act as an element of restraint over indiscriminate amounts of advertising. In India, we have no such controls and I fear the television viewer is going to lose out.

Over the years, Indian cricket has forgotten the spectator; his amenities are ignored and he is taken for granted. We are on the brink of the viewer being similarly ignored. I remember earlier this year when cricket in England moved to a commercial terrestrial station for the first time, from the BBC to Channel 4, they insisted on a clause which said that there would not be advertising after every over. In the competitive markets on the sub-continent I don't think that is realistic but to have four or five ads between overs is ridiculous.

When Geoffrey Boycott was in India for the India-Pakistan-Sri-Lanka triangular in April, he asked me how we tolerated the amount of advertising we did. "I just can't watch the cricket you know. These ads, they are everywhere. In England, there would be an uproar if this happened."

I believe we need a cap somewhere and I think two ads between overs (about 40 seconds) is just about right. The moment someone slips in a third, viewers miss out on the scoreboard which is always put up at the end of the over. As soon as there is a fourth, the first ball is doomed.

Now to those other numbers. The same evening that the television rights were awarded, the Advertising Club of Mumbai had a series of presentations on what the World Cup actually meant to advertisers. Some of the numbers were revealing because they showed that, amidst the clutter of ads, very few companies managed to get their brands noticed and that three or four of them who had spent in excess of Rs 5 crores weren't remembered in post World Cup studies at all.

This has two implications for television viewers. It either means that some companies will drop out, which is a very normal practice, or they will start spending more on their advertising. That money has to come from somewhere and I fear the first casualty will be the development programmes that some companies run. If, for example, MRF are forced to spend more to be noticed, would that affect the outstanding work they are doing with their pace bowling academy? Or would Castrol be forced to cut back on their awards for promising Indian cricketers?

Luckily, the news isn't only grim. There was one very good announcement that the BCCI made: a request that regular readers of this page have been forced to read many times! As part of the rights package, DD will have to televise 21 days of live domestic cricket which is a very good opportunity for cricketers to be noticed and which will allow sponsors of domestic cricket and Ranji Trophy teams some mileage. I am a bit curious though about how this will be implemented.

It is very important that the quality of coverage of such events is close to what viewers can expect from international cricket. Otherwise, even the hard core fan, at whom this is really aimed, will switch off. His attention needs to be held and that is why I am just a bit surprised at the selection of matches to be televised.

Of those 21 days, the Ranji Trophy final, the Duleep Trophy final and the Irani Trophy take away 15. The Challenger gets four, which is fair, and that leaves the Wills Trophy and the Deodhar Trophy with just one game each.

If we want people to watch domestic cricket, we have to do it through one-day cricket. That is where our young cricketers need to experience pressure and that is how domestic cricket can be popularised. I would have thought the approach would have been to pick five or six one-day Ranji Trophy matches, four days of the Challenger and all matches from the Wills and Deodhar Trophy.

The Ranji Trophy matches could have been moved around so that each zone got enough exposure though, sadly, we would struggle to get a really good match in the East Zone, maybe Bengal vs Orissa. It is not difficult and this would have been my list: Delhi v Punjab, Mumbai v Baroda, Mumbai v Maharashtra, Karnataka v Tamil Nadu, Karnataka v Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh v Madhya Pradesh and Bengal v Orissa.

More television brings with it greater responsibility as well and the BCCI needs to see to it that they are associated with respectable sponsors who will follow contracts and who will speak the language of commitment. For example: the Mumbai Cricket Association entered into a contract with Today's Pens to sponsor their Ranji Trophy team. All such contracts require the sponsors to use a minimum of four or five players in each ad so that it doesn't appear as if an individual star is promoting the product. It was on that condition that Sachin Tendulkar, in his capacity as a Mumbai player, agreed to appear in a commercial for Today's Pens. But, according to a report in the Times of India, when it was actually screened, it had only one player visible in it. Apart from being extremely mischevious, that is contrary to the contract as well and the MCA should not only take legal action, they should terminate such contracts and make a very big issue of it in the press so that future sponsors know that there is a damaging side to such behaviour as well.

That is where companies like ITC have been very solid. You may not approve of promoting cigarettes through sport but you have to admit that as a company, they have been very respectable and while there were strong commercial gains to be made, they have done their share of promoting cricket.

The BCCI have shown that they are ready to move into the big financial league. Hopefully, they will also show the responsibility that comes with being in that league.

Harsha Bhogle

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