Home / Industry / How public broadcasting is missing its audience

The demand from both the poor and those who are now called the neo middle class for information that can help improve their lives is huge. Information on Doordarshan on existing government schemes is in demand, but in the local context they need that to go a step further: where to go in one’s own district to access these?

A study that took in districts that included Kalahandi and Kandhamal in Odisha, Dantewada and Bastar in Chhattisgarh, Tapi in the Dangs in Gujarat, Adilabad in Telangana and Krishna in Andhra Pradesh found that the unmet, felt need for public service programming are several. Agriculture, health, vocational training, tutorials for youth and children, employment information, and serials with positive values are among them. These are not on offer on most private channels.

Expressed health information needs include: knowing how much incentive money the government gives when a delivery takes place in a hospital, knowing how to handle a child’s wound, when a tetanus shot is required. What a pregnant woman should eat, when she should go for health check-ups, how many iron tablets to take. An award-winning health programme called Kalyani, which tackled all of these, ran for several years and still has high recall, but DD discontinued it.

Today the quantum of health information on the broadcaster falls short of the needs. Except in Chhattisgarh, where for reasons explained later, it cannot be accessed.

The scheduling challenge of public service telecasts is that both men and women who work in the fields for a living only have time for TV after 7 pm. That is when they want all their informative programmes—their news, their agriculture shows, the information on job cards, and on other government schemes. Or at least repeats of these. And the delivery challenge also is that if you are giving much of this on a terrestrial transmission, they will not reach the majority population.

The hunger is for all kinds of information, women watch food shows on whichever channel they can access them, whether the ingredients are locally available or not. “Without TV", an old woman in Sambalpur in Odisha said, “We would be backward."

But the segment of viewers most anxious about their unmet information needs is youth in search of vocational guidance and jobs if they are older, and tutorials on TV if they are younger. You have to comprehend this to understand why it was such a blow to many students to have the curriculum-based Gyan Darshan channels go off Doordarshan’s direct-to-home (DTH) platform in June this year because of problems between DD, the human resource development ministry and the Indian Space Research Organisation. They are still off the air, slated to resume in early September.

These are the sort of things parents and youth say. In Phulbani in Kandhamal district: “The youth become unemployed even after getting education…Some have passed +2 and some passed +3…There is no resource…Out of 300 and 350 households 5 or 6 persons may be doing a job…and rest around 500 people are getting livelihood by doing daily labour…Many of the households have no agricultural land…"

In Ahmedabad: “We have to spend so much on tuition fees, in Juhapura a lot of people cannot afford tuition fees. It would be great if there are programmes on TV that will help us to avoid spending so much money on tuitions and simultaneously help the children to learn and score better in exams."

“We learn only basic English, we don’t have confidence in speaking English when we go out. There should be a channel which will gradually teach us English over a period of time. If we watch it daily for a small amount of time it will gradually teach us proper English." Or, “There should be a programme which teaches us how to ‘chat’."

In West Godavari in Andhra Pradesh, youth in a village say they scour for job information either at Internet centres or on mobiles.

Youth: “For bank jobs, government jobs and IT jobs, we refer to Also the newspapers Sakshi and Deccan Chronicle."

Do they watch TV for employment, education, career guidance programmes? “No career guidance programmes, very rarely we get some programmes on these topics."

This demographic segment has little use for Doordarshan. The channels to watch, they say, are Star Movies, HBO, NatGeo and Animal Planet. “We watch English movies for improving our communication skills." And the other channels mentioned above to improve their general knowledge.

A government alive to the change potential of broadcasting has to recognize that it must privilege broadcasting over broadcaster.

Today, to access the kind of programming they feel a need for, some Indians at the bottom of the income ladder are bypassing the state-owned broadcaster. They are sometimes opting for DTH platforms other than Doordarshan’s DD Direct, and rejecting terrestrial transmission which gives them only a single channel.

In heavily cabled states like Andhra Pradesh, rural viewers opt for cable. Some needs are met by channels like Discovery and National Geographic that are mentioned so often in focus groups, both urban and rural, that along with general entertainment channels like Star Plus, Zee or Colors they can be seen as drivers of platform choice. The cost of subscribing to a DTH platform or digitized cable pinches low-income families, but DD Direct, which might otherwise have been the most affordable platform (because there is no monthly subscription), loses out because cartoons and Animal Planet for the children is a must. DD National in the month monitored for programming break up (August 2012), had less than 1% of its programming hours devoted to programmes for children.

Agriculture broadcasting

Agricultural programming is a felt need in every state but does not reach its target because the scheduling is wrong, there are power cuts, and the audience’s own platform shift deprives them of local farm programmes on terrestrial transmission.

It is supremely ironical that the state which offers the most agriculture programming faces a major challenge in reaching its audience.

Chhattisgarh Doordarshan puts out a four-hour public service transmission every day with conscientious dollops of agriculture, health education, news, folk music, and current affairs in its programming mix. Almost 20% of its programming time is devoted to agricultural telecasts. It is an entirely terrestrial transmission.

The states which suffer most from the disappearance of terrestrial TV reception are the Hindi-speaking ones that did not have satellite channels. In the run-up to the elections, a few were started—Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. But Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand have only terrestrial transmission. At the Raipur Kendra they believe what they telecast is scarcely watched. Urban Chhattisgarh is on cable, but no cable operator is willing to devote a channel slot to what is only a four-hour daily transmission. Rural Chhattisgarh is pretty much entirely on DTH. Some better-off farmers in Raipur district maintain two TV sets, others configure their TV sets to receive both DTH and terrestrial TV signals. But not every poor farmer knows how to do this.

In Andhra Pradesh’s rice bowl where the agricultural distress is palpable, they say farm TV outreach is aimed primarily at production increase whereas their problem is uptake of what they produce at remunerative prices. Here’s the rub: Doordarshan’s local network does produce farm news bulletins telecast early morning, giving neighbouring mandi prices for produce. But again there is a scheduling mismatch. Coastal area farmers tell DD’s Vijayawada Kendra that at 7 in the morning they are in their fields, not in front of their TV sets.

The demand for a 24-hour agriculture channel was voiced by focus groups in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh last year before this Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power and announced a Kisan channel in the 2014-15 budget.. What is now envisaged by DD is a Hindi channel with three tiers of programming. Macro advice on 22 subjects at the national level, then both regional and agri zone-wise programming. The technological and organization challenge will be to cater to other languages and local zones when the delivery mode is satellite.

In AP’s Krishna district there is a programme generating facility at Vijayawada to produce software for the terrestrial transmitter. The resigned staff here tell you that they tried to find out at Delhi’s behest if there were still terrestrial viewers left in this region but not had much luck.

So the programmes they produce (a grand total of two-and-a-half hours of programming a week) are sent to Hyderabad to use on the regional satellite channel, they also put what they produce on YouTube!

Ask farmers in this region if they know of a local Vijayawada transmission and they look blank. In Delhi, DD officials mention another problem: this kind of arrangement cannot respond to a farm emergency. If there is sudden pest attack you have to wait for the next satellite telecast two or three days later to get the solution.

Between programming and platform delivery limitations, public broadcasting is missing its audience.

This is the second of a 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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