So what was this government able to do with Doordarshan and All India Radio?
Three years on, it is worth asking the question. Because the public broadcaster, has a long history of being incorrigibly irredeemable, neither meeting the information needs of the public, nor providing great programming, nor earning its keep through the commercial success of its programming, as successive governments have expected it to do.
This government was different. It came in on a promise of performance and delivery of development goals. Not long after it came in the Prime Minister decided he would use the public service broadcaster to serve his purpose, privileging access to Prasar Bharati over private sector media. The first part of that purpose is the promotion of his image and government. The second part comprises the ideology-led objectives of the party which runs this government.
Together these have led to dispensing with fanciful notions of autonomy that have been resurrected from time to time since 1997 when the Prasar Bharati Act was notified. The PB board is no longer headed by a part-time chairperson but a full time one, journalist Surya Prakash who came there from the Vivekananda Foundation. The Prasar Bharati Act says the chairperson is part-time, but the NDA government has amended the rules of the Act to make it a full time position. The CEO of the statutory autonomous corporation now has a full time boss who is a political appointee.
And as happens with every government, not just this one, appointees to the Prasar Bharati board include four who are clearly associated with the BJP.
At the service of government and party
In May 2015 when the first anniversary of the NDA government came around the Prasar Bharati corporation sent a written order to its media unit All India Radio, asking it to promote the ruling dispensation’s success stories in all languages starting May 15. It said: “The present Union Government is about to complete its one year in office. RNUs [Regional News Units], in this regard, have been directed to send stories to GNR [General News Room] in audio capsule form on the policy programmes and various initiatives of the Government.”
By the end of the month there was another communication, this time from the ministry of information and broadcasting which caused a minor dust-up. The Ministry issued an order appointing an information service official of additional secretary rank official as the Director General News in Doordarshan. It also gave her additional charge in the ministry as an officer on special duty and said she would report “to the ministry for all purposes”. This was gleefully reported in the press. Subsequently the ministry backed down after the CEO of Prasar Bharati took to tweeting about it and the chairman had a meeting with the ministry. It then asked her to report to Prasar Bharati for “all operational purposes” and to the MIB as the OSD.
But as the first anniversary was followed by the second and now the third, nobody has been left in any doubt about whose wishes prevail at the public broadcasters Doordarshan and All India Radio. DD News now also has an YouTube channel which can be deployed for its purpose. Currently it tells you everything you want to know about the NDA’s achievements over three years, and also offers “positive stories from the beautiful Kashmir valley.”
Doordarshan’s fulfilling of its development mandate is mainly through promotion of the NDA government’s programmes. In November 2016 it began a daily Swachh Bharat news capsule on DD News.
As mentioned above, the second part of the prime minister’s purpose comprises the objectives of the party which runs this government. An ideology-driven government recognizes that a state-run broadcaster has its uses. It can serve your agenda. It can promote your icons, and offer a platform to the ruling party’s affiliate organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. According serials were commissioned on Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Veer Savarkar, and the platform of DD News offered to the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to deliver his Dussehra address in October 2014.
The only problem is that your chosen vehicle has to have an audience. But with a popular leader who is a natural newsmaker that problem can be overcome. The private broadcasters will amplify what the public one puts out. So the PM’s Mann ki Baat, assiduously hyped up every month by the BJP and PMO’s outreach, has been picked up by all. The only programme on the public broadcaster that has instant recall.
Addressing public broadcasting objectives
India’s low income audiences have a wide spectrum of information needs which Doordarshan and All India Radio were originally set up to address. PM Modi decided early in his tenure that the public broadcaster should run a farm news channel, which was duly launched on the government’s first anniversary May 26, 2015, and named DD Kisan. It was a satellite channel in Hindi, in a country where farmers have localized information needs relating to region and climate. But it was launched with much enthusiasm and got an enthusiastic press for some time.
Such as this: “A month on, it is proving to be a sort of game changer in attracting rural audience. It’s very likely to earn many times more than the government investment into it, and it’s only a matter of time before the private channels follow suit, say top executives at the channel.”
But the reality check began soon after. Exactly two months later this report was saying that according to the new rural viewership data being put out by BARC the newly launched DD Kisan, was ninth on the list of 11 channels in the same category. “The study was conducted in the period between May 18 and June 8.” DD officials said the data was skewed and did not cover 40 per cent of the country.
Then came the controversies. Such as roping in Amitabh Bachchan to promote the channel for a Rs 6 crore fee. Between January 2016 and February 2017 the average viewership for the channel according to BARC Data was 7.2 million. Its budget for the financial year 2016-17 rose to Rs 700 million from 262.5 million in 2015.
Its revenue over this 2 year period was Rs 33 million. So since revenue is always of primary importance for the public broadcaster, by April 2017 there was talk of revamping this Modi pet project, and a committee was appointed to look at its programming. Committees are an old Doordarshan panacea for problem fixing.
The failure of commercialisation…
Prasar Bharati is possibly the only public broadcaster in the world which is expected to earn its keep, as far as possible. Back in the early nineties a government took the decision that the Centre would not underwrite a broadcaster intended to serve the development needs of a vast and poor nation.
Therefore since then the quest for revenue has been a constant push. Neither the news coverage, nor the board meetings of Prasar Bharati nor the discussions about it in the parliamentary standing committee of the ministry of information and broadcasting focus on anything other than revenues. No audience surveys are done to see what those segments of the population which have information needs relating to farming, or health, or employment, or enrichment in terms of education, are getting out of Doordarshan’s programming. The focus is always on serials. The facts and figures available are on how serials are doing.
And for decades now the debate has been what mode of payment for serials produced by outsiders suits Doordarshan’s interests best, meaning its revenue earning objectives. But the point to note is this. Given the fact that its own salaried programme producers are supposed to promote primarily the public service programmes in non prime-time hours for which no viewership targets are ever set, essentially the public broadcaster at prime time is a platform for outsiders to produce for, and earn from.
And how has this platform been doing under this regime? Did the programmes given out by a committee set up by the new chairperson and the Director General bring in revenue? They did not. Take 15 prime time serials procured and slotted by Doordarshan in the prime time period under what it calls the self financing scheme, between April 1 2015 and March end 2016. Eleven of these for which money was paid out by the broadcaster lost money for it, a total sum of Rs 33.99 crore. Four broke even. No revenues were earned, and presumably the viewership hit no highs either.
Arun Govil, Ram of yore, is a favourite producer of this government. Two of the loss making 11 above were given to him, one of them for DD Kisan. In addition he was sanctioned a 102 episode mega serial on Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. By Septmber 2016 with programming losses notching up DD told him to reduce the length to 42 episodes and slashed his sanctioned budget by 30 per cent. Govil withdrew from the project.
Meanwhile former CEO Jawhar Sircar began pushing for a different kind of arrangement with programme providers whereby they would buy the slot from Doordarshan, produce the serial and earn through advertising booked on it. DD would not then have to bear direct financial losses. But the slot sales policy did not get enough takers, partly because several applicants were disqualified.
This year the government is talking of the corporatisation of Doordarshan. And the director general of DD is talking about building up a niche audience of English programme viewers with imported programmes. This paper reported that talks were on with at least 22 production houses to secure foreign content for the state broadcaster.
What the public broadcaster and its programming stands for is being redefined.
Broadcaster to platform, the paradigm shift
The public broadcaster has made a significant shift during these three years.
The chief public purpose it now serves is as a free-to-air platform, not so much as a broadcaster serving the information needs of low income audiences. The platform has begun to earn revenue by auctioning channel slots to private broadcasters on the Freedish, also called DD Direct, Doordarshan’s free to air DTH platform. The periodic auctions have been able to double Prasar Bharati’s revenues from this source. Freedish slots climbed from Rs 4.3 crore in end 2015 to 8 crore in May 2017.
Thanks to DD Freedish rapidly growing its subscriber base as more private broadcasters put free to air channels on its platform, it is projected to have a 30 million subscriber base by 2021. (Until 2014 low income rural audiences were telling this researcher that they would not move to DD Direct even though they could save DTH subscription costs because it had too many Doordarshan channels). The platform has been gaining importance since the current television measurement system BARC India began to measure rural audiences in 2015. Private broadcasters are now able to grow their advertising revenues from free to air channels by being on the DD Freedish.
The country’s poor are winners where access to free entertainment on their favourite private channels is concerned, and losers where access to information, and educative television is concerned. A channel such as Discovery, widely valued by low income Indians in the rural areas, is not available on Freedish.
Doordarshan which might have been watched more in opportunity deprived segments of the population had it focused on education and employment related information is not a winner where its broadcasting service is concerned. Only as a platform. Late last year the ministry of information and broadcaster was yet again in search of consultants to help it revamp its channels. This has been a periodic quest for the public broadcaster, regardless of which government is in power.
The debit side of the balance sheet
Some thorny problems the public broadcaster has have not been tackled yet.
It has not begun to disinvest a terrestrial network which is no longer needed because even the poorest audiences in the country’s most backward districts have migrated to satellite television.
And neither has it chosen to reduce its armies of engineering employees rendered redundant by a wholesale shift to satellite broadcasting.
As a broadcaster Doordarshan’s record under this government has been no different from that of earlier governments. Its programming has not been a success. Its revenue generation from broadcasting has been pretty dismal. It has demonstrated little sustained commitment to its development role, constantly obsessing over revenues from serials.
But it has done other things to make the less privileged who are on its DTH platform happy. Late last year a number of cricket and other sporting events were added to the list of sports telecasts whose signals the rights holder would have to share with Prasar Bharati. For that the poor man in this country will thank the Modi Sarkar.
Sevanti Ninan is the author of ‘Through the Magic Window’ published in 1995 and more recently “When the Dish knocked down the Antenna”, a five-state study completed in 2015 on the public broadcasting needs of low income groups in India.