If there is one thing which you cannot accuse the folks in government of lacking, it is optimism. Yet another committee to solve the problems of Prasar Bharati and “examine its relationship with the government” has begun work. This time headed by Sam Pitroda. This is the fourth problem-solving committee since 1996. Never say die.
India does not have enough imaginative public broadcasting because the idea of such a service remains entwined with the fortunes of a permanently troubled broadcaster. No government has been broad-minded enough to set up a committee to look at the best ways to provide people programmes that meet their needs. If you could not bring yourself to give autonomy in the 15 years since you notified the Prasar Bharati Act, stop trying. See how you can remain a government platform and bring the best kind of broadcasting from any source on board.
Indian broadcasting is in a strange bind. It is a country awash with private sector broadcasting in a dozen languages, much of it advertising-dependent, chained to ratings, and fundamentally unviable.
At the same time, the government spends thousands of crores of rupees on its own network, the sort of funds that the others can only dream of, and remains increasingly unwatched. Reconciling the two realities is a major management challenge.
Wandering around the countryside asking people about their broadcasting needs can be quite illuminating. They have common sense, and no biases either for or against Doordarshan. They take what they can from it and look elsewhere for the rest. And they have huge, unmet public service needs. Including wholesome yet compelling entertainment.
The problem is not just about Doordarshan, it is also about all the others. Why don’t more private channels offer quality non-fiction programming? Why don’t they re-imagine some of their endless fiction sagas, which people watch because there are no other options? Both public and private sector need to credit viewership of all income levels with more discrimination than they do today.
Less than 10 days ago in Bhilai camp, a semi-urban colony in Chhattisgarh’s Durg district, a farmer asked, how come in a country with 75% employed in agriculture, nobody has started a farm, dairy and animal husbandry channel? His figure may be slightly off the mark, but his logic is irrefutable. That is something for DD Direct, Doordarshan’s DTH service, to do right away—have a farm channel on its platform. DD’s own farm programmes are popular, but often miss their mark because either there is no power when they come on, or people are not free to watch at that hour. But have a 24- or an 18-hour channel with repeat cycles and it will meet needs. Also, agriculture programming, as people in DD’s Andhra Pradesh Kendra will certify, never lacks advertisers.
The youth in the villages of Chhattisgarh and Orissa say they need career and employment information. They are desperate for both. Get a good bunch of people to helm a youth channel for DD Direct. One with clear slots at different timings where universities and institutes from different parts of the country can run syllabus-based tutorials, career-advice tutorials, and carry employment advertising for different parts of the country. And with good production qualities. Rural viewers complain constantly about Doordarshan’s lack of brightness (chamak). Somebody in the establishment should recognize that the biggest driver for development is aspiration, and wanting better production qualities in public sector television is an aspirational thing.
If the new committee recognizes that the technological platform of at least the next five years is DTH, you need to urgently figure out how Doordarshan’s DTH platform can give people a real option. Carriage fees are now so prohibitive that regional channels don’t come on board.
Because you do not offer OTV on DD Direct’s free service, people in Orissa prefer to take a DTH service that they pay Rs.200 a month for. Bring more regional news channel on board. If Congress parliamentarian Rajiv Shukla’s family’s news channel can be offered on DD Direct, surely others can too?
Then figure out how many of the 50-plus DD channels you should continue with and which ones need replacing with something for which there is a clear demand. The first thing wrong with being hell-bent on reviving Prasar Bharati’s institutional capacity is the notion that this centralized giant is essential to the future of good broadcasting for public needs. If its staff has shrunk anyway, consider making it lean, mean and catalytic, rather than central, to the goal for public broadcasting.
In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that the airwaves belong to the people. Two years later, in 1997, the government notified its experiment in autonomous broadcasting and set it on the road, with a former secretary of the ministry of information and broadcasting at the helm. Over the years, every single chief executive officer has been a former Indian Administrative Service officer. The human resource-depleted mess that Prasar Bharati is today does not say much about the government’s managerial skills. Time for a public-private partnership model for public broadcasting?
Technologically also, Prasar Bharati is in trouble. In countries such as the US, terrestrial broadcasting has survived because private networks are on the digital terrestrial network. In India, the government ensured its demise when it could not bring itself to let go of its own monopoly on terrestrial broadcasting. People have moved away from terrestrial broadcasting in the villages to DTH, and in towns and cities to cable. What does the government of India propose to do about that? Continue its Rs.5,397 crore digital upgradation plans, or revisit its digitization model?
Currently, Doordarshan is this bizarre place where somebody sitting in Delhi or Mumbai (which is the centre implementing digitization) despatches equipment to the kendras without asking them what they need. These rot in their godowns. Last November, two new news channels starting up in Gurajat were dismissive about outdoor broadcasting vans. Nobody needs those any more, they said. But the government’s planning, approval and tendering process is hardly geared to keeping up with rapid technological change.
Finally, while Mr Pitroda is gung ho about social media for Doordarshan, what he really should be looking at a lot more is the mobile phone. That is the technology which today connects you to almost every adult man and woman in this country. That is where your public service messaging can go, that is where people can sign up to receive localized weather and farming alerts.
Public service broadcasting does not have to be about doing it all yourself. Particularly when you don’t have the human capital. It is about bringing the burgeoning broadcast industry in this country to serve the needs of your platform. All solutions to Indian needs don’t have to come from government institutions. But if the government is smart, it can manage future change to its own credit.
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.