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The Modi government is going to examine the continuing relevance of Prasar Bharati, the country’s public service broadcaster, according to people in the new administration.

Perhaps the question to ask is whether public broadcasting is still relevant in India. The country is saturated with television but has a poor human development index ranking. It spends 3,600 crore a year on the public broadcaster, but the poorest segments of its population list several unmet information needs.

Agriculture, health and education-based programming, for instance, are quantitatively low in Doordarshan’s priorities, but ranked high among expressed viewership needs. Employment enabling programming, which is mentioned frequently as a felt need, does not figure in the content break-up.

Can the right kind of programming on the right delivery platforms make a difference to India’s human development index ranking? Could the decades of investment in public television be made to deliver more effectively? What is the research showing?

There is a technological as well as a programming mismatch today between viewer needs and Doordarshan’s output. The fact is that digitization is serving to push people further off the public broadcaster. Terrestrial television still accounts for heavy annual investment in terms of ground engineering personnel and equipment replacement. But Doordarshan’s terrestrial transmission has lost audiences quite sharply to cable and direct-to-home (DTH) television. Doordarshan’s own DTH presence is growing but is hampered by the fact that the private channels people want to watch are not on this platform.

In the country’s rural areas, DTH broadcasting grew from 6% of TV homes in 2006-2007 to 29% in 2012-13. Rural cable homes grew from 30% to 43% over this period.

Over the same period terrestrial TV homes dropped from 64% to 24%. (As for urban areas, the only categories of cities in which terrestrial TV retained any audience share by 2012-13 were the 1-10 lakh population cities (2%) and towns (6%), according to Francis Kanoi Marketing Research.

A regional rural audience on satellite would still have access to the regional satellite channel of Doordarshan if it wanted public service programming of the kind the state-run broadcaster is mandated to do. But does it get the programming it wants on these channels? Is it compelling enough to draw an audience? The evidence from the ground suggests that content drives technological choice. (more of this later in this series.)

What Doordarshan offers today is shaped by the Planning Commission’s allocation decisions. Prasar Bharati’s television arm receives hardly any Plan support for its programming costs and is expected to raise funds from its own sources.

That boils down to doing entertainment programming which gets advertising. In 2014-15, of the 3,600 crore budgeted for Prasar Bharati the government will give 1,890 crore as a grant, but the broadcaster has been set a commercial revenue target of 1,710 crore. What that means for how Doordarshan allocates its programming hours becomes evident from the charts accompanying this story.

There is little systematic research these days by Prasar Bharati itself beyond a diary-based system of ascertaining viewership in rural areas. A 2012 mapping of content put out by four regional channels of Doordarshan and DD National provides one set of indicators. And focus group-based audience research among low income groups including scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in five states between 2012 and 2014 offers other indicators. This was conducted by the Media Foundation in Delhi with partner organizations and individuals in the states of Gujarat, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh , Chhattisgarh and Delhi. The content mapping was based on measurement of 18 hours of daily programming over 31 days, except in the case of DD Chhattisgarh, which had a weekday transmission of just four hours a day. On Sundays it is less.

The five content categories with maximum time share across channels were entertainment, art and culture, devotional/spiritual, news and agriculture.

Based on this mapping what do the public broadcaster’s programming priorities look like? Here are some pointers:

The programme time provided for entertainment on DD National was nearly four times the combined share of agriculture, education, health, information and science and technology.

The share of entertainment programmes on DD Saptagiri (Andhra Pradesh) was larger than the combined share of information, education, health, agriculture, sports, news and current affairs.

The volume of teleshopping on DD Oriya was four times that of information programmes (classified as programming related to human development, legal, environment, tourism). The time allotted to teleshopping was also more than the combined share of health, agriculture, education, sports and current affairs.

The volume of non-fiction, non-entertainment shows targeted at women did not exceed 2.68% of the total telecast on any channel.

DD Girnar (Gujarat) had the maximum volume of youth-specific programmes but it was just 1.64% of the total telecast. DD Saptagiri had the least volume in this segment at 0.08%.

The volume of programmes on science and technology did not go beyond 1% of the total telecast on any channel. Ditto for programming that could be classified as environment-related.

The share of devotional/spiritual programmes on DD Saptagiri (10.88%) was much more than the combined share of information and current affairs programmes (8.1%).

DD’s focus on entertainment is because it is forced to raise resources for its programming costs. But as far as viewers are concerned, the segment of DD programming least in demand are its current entertainment shows. If they access TV through DTH or cable the serials and other entertainment they watch most are on Star, Colours, Zee, Sony. The per episode cost of DD serials-wise is a barely recognisable fraction of what the competition spends on its programming. From the viewer’s point of view, it shows.

If a public broadcaster offers entertainment it should by definition be different. And have quality. Quality does not come cheap.

Even economically deprived viewers have standards for the TV they want to watch. As soon as satellite TV came into this country it raised the bar for transmission and production quality, and Doordarshan has still has not caught up.

This is the first of a series on India’s public broadcaster, based on data 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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