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Prasar Bharati: Where is the money for programming?

In 2011-12, the operational cost of distributing Doordarshan’s signal was `723 crore. Of this, 88% was spent on terrestrial distribution, which reached 8% of the audience. Only 7% of the cost went towards reaching the 53% of the audience in cable and satellite households. And only 6% went towards reaching the 37% in direct-to-home, or DTH, households.Premium
In 2011-12, the operational cost of distributing Doordarshan’s signal was `723 crore. Of this, 88% was spent on terrestrial distribution, which reached 8% of the audience. Only 7% of the cost went towards reaching the 53% of the audience in cable and satellite households. And only 6% went towards reaching the 37% in direct-to-home, or DTH, households.

Today, Doordarshan is a broadcaster without resources; it can't be made relevant without fixing that

How relevant is Prasar Bharati the broadcaster? That question is best answered by looking at where its money goes. Technology and manpower eat up all the money the government allocates for Prasar Bharati. There isn’t any left for programming.

The Pitroda committee report puts out a simple statistic. In 2011-12, the operational cost of distributing Doordarshan’s signal was 723 crore. Of this, 88% was spent on terrestrial distribution, which reached 8% of the audience. Only 7% of the cost went towards reaching the 53% of the audience in cable and satellite households. And only 6% went towards reaching the 37% in direct-to-home, or DTH, households.

Here’s how the situation looks on the ground. There is a somewhat forlorn looking relay centre at Bhimavaram in Krishna district, which exemplifies DD’s terrestrial redundancy. It is a throwback to the days where all transmission was terrestrial and you had to switch manually between local, regional and national transmission. Today, this function has disappeared. “For the last 12 years, nobody is watching terrestrial TV here," says the engineer in charge. But there is a staff of five, the monthly power bill is 50,000, and 15,000 rent is paid to the local municipality. The only thing missing is current relevance.

There are 1,400 transmitters with similar facilities—land, uplink dishes, transmission towers, maintenance budgets. Meanwhile, the real service people need from the public broadcaster is a DTH or cable platform that charges little; digitization in urban and rural India has increased the cost of television viewing for low-income groups.

Though cable digitization has not become mandatory in the rural areas yet, set-top boxes have entered even impoverished village homes making a minimum monthly subscription of 200-plus mandatory. In urban areas of Delhi and Ahmedabad, a small segment of what constitutes the socio-economic category E viewers (the category comprises very low-income households) have actually gone off cable TV because of the unaffordability of the monthly subscription, in addition to the cost of the set- top box. The majority incurs the extra cost of digitized television, but has cut back on food and clothing expenditure. A household survey of six Delhi slums conducted in May actually shows this.

So Doordarshan’s free dish is what is really relevant today provided it gives people the channels they want. In the seven to eight years that it has been around DD Direct established itself as a free DTH service, but was neither marketed widely nor subscribed to much because of the limitations of the bouquet it offered—some free-to-air private channels and a whole lot of Doordarshan channels. It had no encryption and no proprietary set-top box, you could buy any hardware, point your dish to the relevant satellite and get going. That also meant that the broadcaster had no way of knowing for sure how many subscribers it had.

Now that is about to change. The realization has dawned that Prasar Bharati must respond to current reality and DTH is the main way forward. A conditional access system for DD Direct is being put in place. It will not cost the consumer anything more but will give DD an idea of the numbers once the connections require enabling through a call centre.

Second, expansion of the DTH bouquet from the current 59 channels to 97 has been cleared and the augmentation of capacity is under way. DD charges a hefty carriage fee, and it remains to be seen how many takers there will be among private broadcasters for the augmented channel slots. Will the decision makers in this behemoth understand that unless it gets its bouquet right it will not crack the DTH market? Children control the remote in TV homes for some part of the day and want cartoons and channels such as Nat Geo and Discovery to be on the platform their parents subscribe to. DD Direct does not have those now.

Meanwhile, there are other audience segments which cannot be catered to via DTH, which is pan Indian. One of the significant current shortfalls of public broadcasting is providing a service in languages which serve small communities. There is no incentive for private broadcasters to offer programming in very local languages followed by a limited population. But it is a keenly felt need. A large district like Kutch, located on the border, is not catered to at all by Doordarshan in Kutchi—no programme in Kutchi from Ahmedabad Doordarshan, none on the local transmission from Bhuj either. Nor is this need met by any private broadcaster, only by DVDs which the local folk buy or rent.

Then there is Kui in Odisha, Halbi and Gondi in Chhattisgarh, and so on. But then how would you offer these without a local platform? True programme localization requires terrestrial transmission. And more pertinently, how would you even begin to cater to sub- regional aspirations with no programming budgets to speak of ?

Even as the bulk of Indians receive TV through cable and DTH, the terrestrial issue remains. There are few countries in the world that do not have a strong digital terrestrial backbone. But when you have neither funds nor audience what should your digital terrestrial future be? It could be a remotely monitored network but the engineering tribe is a hardy one in Prasar Bharati, not inclined to brook a diminishing of its considerable ranks.

The initial plan was that by 2017 India would replace its analog terrestrial network with a digital one. Now the plan is to go DTH in a big way and pare down the digital terrestrial network to an urban one covering only rural areas bordering cities and towns. The 1,400 transmitters are to be replaced with 630 but there is a small catch. The Planning Commission only sanctions funds for 60 transmitters per Five-Year Plan. What technological era will TV be in by the time 630 are reached at this rate is something the government of India has chosen not to address.

If the public broadcaster was not focused on delivery, and chose to leave that to the market, it could focus on programming which is the raison d’etre of broadcasting. But there is a 15,000-strong engineering force that cannot be put out to pasture. So their current preoccupation is to plan a future in terrestrial transmission for handheld devices.

The technology for this is DVB2 lite, using a small dongle. This strategy assumes private channels will come on board, and is targeting companies that will offer 4G services as competition. 4G will cost in data service bills; Prasar Bharati’s own will offer TV transmission on the mobile for free through a digitized TV signal. The positive spin being put on this is that broadcast has no buffering. In other words, the transmission mode abandoned by the consumer, has become the basis for the technological leap the broadcaster hopes to make, leaving 4G barons behind.

So much for carriage. What will it carry?

While engineers seek a future relevance for themselves, the depleted forces in programming are an amply documented reality. Lack of recruitment has reduced the numbers of people at operational levels. And there is scarcely any money to make programmes with.

A broadcaster kept in business primarily to retain thousands of jobs, with the bulk of its budget invested in paying salaries, is not being terribly relevant. But programming allocations are a small part of the money provided for Doordarshan, when you look at its overall annual budget provision.

For 2014-15 the allocated budget estimate for Doordarshan under the Revenue Non Plan is 1,823 crore. More than 1,000 crore out of that is for salary and staff related expenditure, another 346 crore for administration. Software programme expenses get the least: 275 crore. For 33 channels! This, while competing channels sometimes spend 1-3 crore on a single episode of entertainment programming.

This year the finance minister announced an allocation of 100 crore for a kisan (farmer) channel, designed to play a role in the new government’s bid to revive agriculture. What was not reported was what the total allocation was for programming in 2014-15. A grand total of 120 crore— 100 crore for the kisan channel, 5 crore for Doordarshan’s 33 channels, and 15 crore for All India Radio’s programming. 5 crore? It is expected to earn the rest.

In the public mind functional autonomy would seem to be the most pressing issue governing the future of Doordarshan, but the more fundamental problem is that today it is a broadcaster without broadcasting resources. You cannot make it relevant without fixing that.

This is the last of a three-part series on India’s public broadcaster, based on data and interviews from a five-state study conducted by the Media Foundation in Delhi over two years, from the Pitroda Commission report presented in January 2014, on budget documents and on interviews with senior officials in Prasar Bharati and Doordarshan.

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