About a week ahead of 16 May, when the results of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections will be out, Sunit Tandon looks adequately hassled. The chief executive of Lok Sabha Television (LSTV) is busy working out the logistics for the channel’s election day coverage. “We don’t even have a broadcast van like all the private channels or Doordarshan,” explains Tandon in the trademark baritone that made him a popular news presenter on national broadcaster Doordarshan for many years.
Watching over: LSTV’s studios are housed in the Raj Rewal-designed library complex next to Parliament House. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Top on his mind is the issue of access to the data feed from Doordarshan—the stream of numbers from various locations where votes are counted. Access to this is critical for LSTV’s counting-day plans. Without the massive cast of reporters and bureaus that other channels depend on, LSTV is pegging its plans on this data feed coming through.
Every few minutes a little red light flares up on Tandon’s telephone. Between calls, staff members walk into his office and hand him a file or document, already peppered with signatures, for one more.
Still, Tandon manages to talk about the channel that he describes as the “only one of its kind in the world”. “There are other TV channels in the UK, US, Australia and other places that are dedicated to broadcasting what happens within the legislative assemblies. But none of them are actually directly attached to parliament itself,” says Tandon.
Lok Sabha Television, launched in 2006, is the brain-child of outgoing Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. Tandon explains that Chatterjee wanted the channel to bring citizens closer to the functioning of Parliament: “The intention is to help anyone in the country observe what is being discussed and debated by (the) government. So that there is transparency in the government’s functioning (the channel’s focus on transparency also means that Lok Sabha Television does not accept any advertisements from the private sector).
“We largely broadcast advertisements for public sector companies and public service campaigns. Jaago Grahak Jaago, for example,” says Tandon.
This then requires LSTV to be a lean operation with a limited budget. But it has been adequately supported by the government. For instance, the studios are housed in the Parliament library complex, right next to Parliament. And in his capacity as the head of department of space, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh handed LSTV a free transponder on Insat 4A to broadcast signals (Procuring a new transponder and setting up an earth station, including initial licence fees, can cost up to Rs2 crore).
The 24-hour channel broadcasts proceedings live when Parliament is in session and fills the rest of the time with programming that revolves around parliamentary issues and debates. And it is not averse to the odd award-winning film or documentary either (on 11 May, the channel broadcast On Death, a documentary made by Vidhu Vinod Chopra when he was still studying film-making).
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This is the first general election since the channel’s launch and despite some initial misgivings—Tandon himself wasn’t sure there was a point in LSTV covering counting day on 16 May, when the private channels would pull out all stops, but “my team was really enthusiastic so we decided to plan something”—LSTV has put together a 6-hour schedule of programming.
Spearheading this initiative will be Pankaj Saxena, the executive director of programming at the channel. Saxena is a 10-year veteran of documentary broadcasting at Discovery Channel, a self-proclaimed “parliamentary democracy nut” and is just over six months into his stint with LSTV. On a wall-mounted TV in one corner of Saxena’s office, LSTV is broadcasting the usual 2pm lecture. This one’s on “What Indians can expect from President Barack Obama”.
One of Saxena’s first tasks at LSTV was to draw up a programming schedule for the channel that would bucket different types of shows into various time slots. “Viewers should know what to expect when they switch on our channel. It should not be random,” Saxena says.
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The 6 hours of programming today, Saxena explains, will be divided into three slots of 2 hours each. The first slot will look at trends as vote tallies are obtained from various counting centres. The second will consolidate results and analyse candidate performance. The final slot will have experts looking at coalition arithmatics.
“People always complain that we are a pure studio-based analysis channel. I am not bothered by that,” says Saxena. “We play a different role from the private channels with their provocation and breathless anchors and debates.”
Tandon expands this idea further: “We are an extension of the Speaker’s office. Which means we must be prudent with our spending and also be as unbiased as possible. Sometimes I remind my anchors that unlike private channel presenters, their job is not to provoke the guests.”
Now with a new government and Lok Sabha Speaker just days away, does Tandon have any apprehensions about Chatterjee’s pet project? Will it be affected by a change in government? Tandon says: “I can’t predict the future. But institutions don’t change just like that. There is a role LSTV needs to play. We will do our best to keep doing it.”