Fifty years after it switched on, Doordarshan (DD), India’s public television broadcaster, continues to face the trinity of the three R’s that haunt such broadcasters worldwide: revenue, relevance and reach.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

If maximization of revenue and market success were to be the stuff of existence, life would have been snuffed out of DD a long time ago. The only reason that has not happened is because the Union government continues to funnel money to DD via Prasar Bharti, the public broadcaster.

In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Noam Chomsky argued how excessive reliance on advertising revenue skewed the coverage and news choices made by the US media. This ensured that viewers would not get to see or hear news or programmes that were not in consonance with the views of the US media’s revenue providers. DD is a neat mirror image of that situation. Because a large part of its “revenue" comes from the state, its views are coloured in favour of the government. The one step that could have liberated DD, that of levying a TV licence fee, was never taken.

The question of relevance is more complicated, but only slightly so. True, commercial broadcasting tends to be biased in revenue generating directions. Issues of public interest, however hard it may be to define, are left out. In that sense, in its mid-life, DD did perform a useful service. But overall, it is not public interest as defined to be the interest of Indians at large that is being aired: it is the interest of the government of the day that is let out, however diffuse it may be. Today, the average viewer wants a mix of critical news coverage and entertainment that DD simply does not provide.

Can DD overcome these dilemmas? The first change required to overcome this problem is for DD to escape the clutches of the government. If it broadens its source of revenue then, perhaps, it may be able to do so. This, however, does not mean mere additional revenue from other sources: What is required is that DD take not a single rupee from the government. It is only after that milestone has been crossed that challenges such as good and relevant programming can begin to be addressed.

One could argue that even with the government around, DD can improve things. It can, but they will, at best, be incremental changes. Given present- day realities when every government in New Delhi uses DD as a state medium and its viewers as a captive audience, one can safely say that things won’t change. But this is a birthday celebration and before matters cross the line of decency, here is wishing DD the best of future.

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