We suddenly have a new part-time information and broadcasting (I&B) minister, a new minister of state, a new chairperson for Prasar Bharati, and a new joint secretary for broadcasting at the ministry as well. But new beginnings are helpful only if the right issues are on the table.

Arun Jaitley kicked off his second stint in I&B by chairing a meeting with members of the parliamentary consultative committee attached to the ministry. It was meant to review cable digitization and terrestrial digitization of Doordarshan. But the reporting does not suggest that certain crucial issues came up.

The general impression created by the media is that the ministry in the last few years has tirelessly pushed digitization. Tirelessly maybe, but not selflessly. It is a job half done that has so far benefited the government the most, by way of taxes, and the consumer the least. The broadcasters, multi-system operators (MSOs) and the local cable operators (LCOs) come somewhere in between.

Deadlines have been pushed back for Phase III digitization covering all urban areas by more than a year partly because the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has been flooded with litigation involving broadcasters, MSOs, LCOs and direct-to-home(DTH) operators. Lots of messes to be sorted out, but the voices least heard are of those of subscribers. The poorer they are, a greater proportion of their household income they have to shell out now.

An analysis done by Kotak Institutional Equities in January this year looked at the impact of taxation on consumer pricing of cable and documented that the combined impact of entertainment tax and service tax in three cities—Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata—is the highest on the starter pack, which is the cheapest pack on offer, for the lowest socioeconomic segments of the audience. (Tax as a percentage of consumer pricing is 32% on the starter pack in Mumbai as compared to 25% on the premium pack.) Yet the price of the starter packs before tax are the lowest in Mumbai, at 160. So the government does need to look at this issue.

Has anyone in government or the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) worked with broadcasters on the possibility of offering the consumer at the bottom of the ladder a basic package of 10-15 channels that they really want and pricing it accordingly? Cable starter packs today are priced well over 200 a month, per TV set, in addition to the cost of the set-top box. People are clear they don’t need a 100-plus channels to choose from when it hurts their budgets, but they are equally clear about which 10 or 15 they really want.

Media reports say of Tuesday’s meeting that in the ministry’s presentation, specific reference was made to the initiatives undertaken by the ministry including discussions with stakeholders and the campaign to “sensitise the masses". I love that term. How about sensitization of those implementing digitization on the financial impact it is having on the “masses"?

Then there is the question of terrestrial digitization for Doordarshan. The ministry and Prasar Bharati have to stop kidding themselves that rural viewers are still accessing TV largely through its terrestrial network and that Doordarshan is therefore the most watched broadcaster in rural India. It is not. Between 2006 and 2013, the percentages for rural TV access got reversed. Cable’s share of access went from 30% to 43%. DTH went from 6% to 29% of the rural market, and terrestrial TV, a government monopoly, went down from 64% market share to 27% (Urban-rural trends, Francis Kanoi Marketing Research). Rest assured that it has declined further. A television household opting for its first TV set in rural India today goes straight to DTH.

So the short point is that Doordarshan’s terrestrial network is a needless drain on the exchequer. The Pitroda Committee report estimated that terrestrial distribution of Doordarshan channels eats up 88% of the broadcaster’s operational expenses and reaches 8% of its households. Terrestrial digitization of Doordarshan meanwhile is proceeding apace, and the sanguine assumption is that whenever it is digitized all over the country, audiences will buy another set-top box to access just Doordarshan. That is high optimism.

Prasar Bharati today spends the bulk of its 4,000 crore annual expenditure on salaries and infrastructure, not on programming. The budgets for the latter are abysmal. Here is a sampling: the Delhi production centres put together have an annual allocation of 150 crore for software production expenses for 2014-15, Andhra Pradesh of 9 crore and Odisha of 2.5 crore (Doordarshan figures). A private channel spends up to 1 crore an episode these days on programming. Viewers, including those in the most backward districts of the country, can tell the difference and are watching Doordarshan less and less.

Finally, there is the issue of news on radio. Jaitley opened up FM broadcasting in 2000, now it is time for him to open up radio to news. Even with the growth of FM, the number of radio sets in India came down by 18 million between the last two censuses. Can reliance on just a monthly prime ministerial radio chat reverse that decline?

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.

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