Last week, the cabinet approved financial restructuring for Prasar Bharati to write off Rs.1,300 crore of debt. It agreed to meet 100% of its salary and salary-related costs for the next five years, but not its operational costs.
But, is the group of ministers (GoM) that recommended this decision the right forum to arrive at the surgical solutions needed for a sick institution like this one? Again, in 2010, it was a GoM that recommended amending the Prasar Bharati Act so that around 30,000 people could retain the benefits of being government employees—something they had been clamouring for. The amendment was passed in 2011.
The core of the problem with Prasar Bharati is that employees are prioritized over the institution, and the institution is prioritized over the objective for which it was created. The fundamental problem is that the government of India wants public service broadcasting for its huge population but does not have the conviction to foot the bill or create mechanisms to fund it.
The cabinet decision taken last week is a political one that won’t meet operational costs, which include programming. The latter has to come from commercial earnings. The minute you say that, you undermine the purpose of a public service broadcaster.
The undermining began in 1991 when the government appointed the Mahalik Committee to recommend ways to increase Doordarshan’s commercial revenue. Once competition set in the same year, it abandoned convictions on public service broadcasting and set out to compete with more commercial programming. From then on, it has been a broadcaster with a split personality.
The sensible thing to do, if the idea of an Indian public service broadcaster is to have a future, is to drastically prune and re-energize. You might want to meet some needs of your population which are related to agriculture, education, health, employment and culture. But do you need 37 channels to do that? Even if you need one for each major language, less than half the number of the existing channels would do nicely. Rather than a GoM, what Prasar Bharati needs is an unsentimental management exercise to restructure it.
Before you meet 100% salary costs, reassess workforce needs. The programming staff is decimated, though programming presumably is what a broadcaster’s raison d’etre should be. The majority of employees are in the engineering force necessitated by a terrestrial network. But a few years down the line, how many people are going to be watching Doordarshan’s terrestrial network? Once digitized, it will need a set-top box for access. If people want to watch other channels too, you will need integrated set-top boxes. Or will future TV sets come with digital decoders? Has the government taken a hard look at the prospects for terrestrial digital?
If it did, its own engineers and audience research people would tell the government that the numbers of those without cable connections in the villages of India are dwindling every day. There is rural growth not just in cable, but in direct-to-home (DTH) television. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, there is noticeable growth in rural DTH, and antenna households are diminishing in number. Doordarshan is better off investing much more seriously in its DTH broadcaster DD Direct than in a digital terrrestrial network which is currently going forward at a massive cost. The entire network of low power transmitters and high power transmitters has to be digitized by 2017. When India is already 75% on cable and satellite in 2012, does anybody in the Planning Commission ask questions that should be asked?
DD Direct, meanwhile, is treated like a cash cow, charging an impressive carriage fee for private channels. So smaller private regional channels simply cannot get on it. That makes DD’s bouquet less attractive than that of a private sector DTH competitor.
Wandering around some of its kendras in the country over the last few months has been educative. Doordarshan’s narrowcasting programmes are being rebroadcast on the satellite channel in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa because the audience for terrestrial TV is dwindling. This is surely a very unique approach to narrowcasting?
Even as Doordarshan is being aggressive about TAM (television audience measurement) and threatening to sue on grounds that the ratings do not reflect its audience, the broadcaster’s own audience measurement system in a large state like Andhra Pradesh has about the same sample size (500 households) that TAM does! The difference being that all of Doordarshan’s diaries are in the rural areas, and most of TAM’s people meters are in urban or semi-urban households.
Its own audience research feedback is illuminating. In Andhra Pradesh, Doordarshan’s Telugu channel is the fourth most watched in cable households. But the programme that gets those ratings is the weekly film. The top sellers are film-based programmes and news.
When was the last time someone did a serious audit of what Doordarshan’s channels show? What public service programming translates into in practice is programming on government schemes such as the rural jobs programme, Indira Awaas Yojna, Saksharta Abhiyan, and so on. They also do awareness creation on issues, carry news, and cultural fare. But on Doordarshan National, for instance, all of this, including classical music, dance, added up to around 50% of programme time for the month of August, when measured. The remaining 50%? Commercial entertainment of the kind general entertainment channels (GECs) do—serials, reality shows, film music. Sure, people want to watch that. But 50% of the total telecast time? (The percentage is usually higher—entertainment made way for Olympics highlights.) Is that necessitated by the policy decision that Doordarshan must raise its own resources?
In Orissa, on Doordarshan’s Oriya satellite channel, you get several slots of teleshopping during the day. The North East channel has tribal dances of the Republic Day tableau kind. In the morning, at 8.30, and in the evening at eight, and probably in between. People in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland have both problems and aspirations; they surely don’t want to tune in to watch tribal dances all the time?
India desperately needs a quality public service broadcaster. Even if the demoralized, cadre-obsessed individuals who provide Doordarshan’s programming were to rise to the task, the budgets provided are miserable. So much of the agriculture programming, for instance, is studio-based.
What’s been done for Prasar Bharati last week is no more than applying an adhesive bandage to stop bleeding. But what it needs is reconstructive surgery, with the government footing the bill if it has some real conviction about what kind of broadcasting a still-developing nation needs.
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.