The following article is based on my own interpretation of the said events. Any material borrowed from published and unpublished sources has been appropriately referenced. I will bear the sole responsibility for anything that is found to have been copied or misappropriated or misrepresented in the following post.
Anshuman Mahanty, MBA 2015-17, Vinod Gupta School of Management, IIT Kharagpur
Stories, anecdotes and snippets galore about how some businesses continue to stand the test of time and disruption through a sheer transformational will to reinvent themselves and stay ahead of the times. But to say that one of the largest public service broadcasters in the world- the Doordarshan (DD) doesn’t feel too inspired by those stories is something I can bet my house on.
DD hasn’t gone totally out of the window though. It never will. The Prasar Bharti operates DD’s Freedish, a free DTH service offering 59 free-to-air channels. It is the largest DTH operator in the country reaching about 18 million homes. DD continues to be the television network with the maximum outreach within the country. To stay relevant to a small share of it’s audience which is online, DD has even updated the website. The website is in a much better shape than the absolute shamble it was previously in, and it even hosts a live streaming of the National channel. Sarkaari lingo reigns supreme even here though; which is why when you click on a link redirecting you to their Freedish service, instead of the channels list, they provide you with Governmental annexures and satellite information that no one cares about.
To put in bluntly, for people having a choice of channels, Doordarshan is not the preferred channel. The content is so woefully low on quality that people would rather sleep to a ‘No Signal’ sticker on their TV screens. The story of AIR is no different. Private radio channels have been able to attract listeners quite effortlessly. Even across other fields that have witnessed private participation after Government monopoly, services like the BSNL or the Indian Airlines have dismally failed to retain their customer base, due to their lackadaisical attitude.
For DD, the story wasn’t all gloomy though. India’s TV revolution started with a war. In 1990, Saddam Hussein’s army rolled into Kuwait, imperiling, among others, a million and a half working Indian migrants in the Gulf. This created huge demand for the war news in India, which Doordarshan, with its antique news bulletins, dominated my monsoon reports and the daily life of the Prime Minister, could not meet. This gave headway to rollicking cable TV entrepreneurs. Hundreds of small satellite dishes were set up in India to bring live coverage of the war to Indian homes via CNN. 1992 saw the launch of the first Hindi satellite station, Zee TV. Adding to the onslaught, the Doordarshan which previously used to charge the BCCI a fee to telecast cricket matches, a national passion-cum-pastime, had to now lock horns with a private broadcaster- the TWI in a bid to secure the rights of telecast.
Doordarshan emerged out of this initial competition fairly well. It focused on quality. Antique news bulletins gave way to investigate journalism programs such as the ‘Aankhon Dekhi’. A plethora of family shows and children’s entertainment shows gave DD the much-needed colour and vigour to appeal to the masses who now had a choice to switch. Cricket matches, live events and anything worthy of national recognition- DD continued to have them under their ambit well into the early 2000s.
Governmental intervention had to happen though. Every government, irrespective of the party in power, has treated Doordarshan as an in-house mouthpiece meant to be controlled. All the hunky-dory talk of financial and administrative autonomy is nothing more than a joke. For instance, it is said that during A.B. Vajpeyee’s NDA regime, the then I&B minister Pramod Mahajan had transferred a station director for not leading the evening news with the P.M.’s address earlier in the day. From recent memory, also recall the selective editing of one Narendra Modi interview prior to the 2014 elections, or the continuing trend of the live telecast of RSS’s Dussehra gathering following Modi’s rise to power.
Attempts to professionalise the news section have regularly been thwarted by the powers-in-charge. That explains why every experiment to have independent news reporting or better entertainment on India’s official broadcast network has flopped so far. Remember the stalled agreement with HFCL-Nine Broadcasting to privatise three hours of programming on DD Metro, a subsidiary channel, in 2000? Or even the DD Metro experiment itself?
So what can the Prasar Bharti do to get itself out of this mess? More importantly, how much of an initiative should the Government take to refurbish an ailing broadcast network? At a time when paid media rules the roost even in the private sector, a fair and robust media not pressured by favour, fear or finance should work as a gush of fresh wind to an audience sick of biases. An independent body of media professionals, creative directors, scriptwriters, and basically everyone having something or the other to do with television, should be constituted to review whatever goes on to the national channel.
Content is always king. It is through the power of content that old Doordarshan shows still linger on in the minds of those who grew up with DD. If DD has to revive itself even a slight bit, it will have to do so by generating content that is in line with the times. It has to strike a chord with the current generation that has grown up in times of even more choices that the preceding generations didn’t have. DD has to come out of the denial mode and stop playing the PSB (public service broadcaster) card to ignore competition with private players. It has to understand the changing market dynamics and brand itself as an infotainment provider through a rigorous marketing effort. But none of it would suffice without high quality content. It already has a huge advantage in having exclusive access in Government offices and unparalleled rich archives? Why can’t it leverage that? Or how about producing quality documentaries with an aim to strengthen national identity and culture? Say, a remake of Shyam Benegal’s famous Yatra series that covered the length and breadth of India through mesmerizing railway journeys?
Ideas are aplenty. DD can make a huge impact in the education segment. It can team up with institutes to provide educational content on television. Primary or secondary education, preparatory material for the IIT-JEE or the Civil Services, whatever it is.. why not use TV as a medium? I’m sure there are people willing to comply. Even for free (cite Unacademy).
As for that common bureaucratic question (or should I say excuse) of where the money and technology would come from, take a cue from the BBC. The BBC is the one of the most trusted sources of news and information not just in the UK but across the globe. Never has it’s position of eminence been massively challenged by private players. While a part of the reason behind it is that that it keeps the State at an arm’s length from itself, another part is that it is financially a giant. Every TV owner in the UK pays an annual licence fee, and this fee is the main source of income for the BBC. Over 70% of this licence fee is spent on high-quality programmes and on technology infrastructure, thereby giving the audience a ‘value-for-money’. What’s stopping the Prasar Bharti from embracing this BBC model that many other public service broadcasters have implemented to good benefit?
The Doordarshan has so much of content from the years gone by; reels and reels of programmes that a large section of the Indian audience currently in it’s 20s, 30s or beyond craves for. Barring a few small Youtube clips, these programmes are nowhere to be found on the internet. DD can either sell this material to willing private players or can come up with it’s own online platform to sell CDs/DVDs of these shows as well as archives ranging from films to old cricket matches. I’m sure there would be a large number of takers. This could be a source of revenue and a source of recognition alike. Who doesn’t like a win-win?
Lastly, in addition to the suggested appointment of an independent body that oversees content, DD also needs to undergo some basic structural reforms. According to a Sam Pitroda report for reform proposals, the Prasar Bharti is massively overstaffed; so much so that it has four times the number of employees than Zee but only one-fourth of what Zee earns as revenue.
To sum up, what’s that one thing this reform process warrants as an imperative? Will. Will of the babus sitting over at Prasar Bharti to remodel Doordarshan (and even AIR for that matter) and appeal to the lost audience all over again; and will of the political class to distance themselves from the public broadcaster. It is easier said than done but something that must be undertaken to not let the DD keep on being that old cassette that was once played at every family function but now lies dusted in a forlorn corner of the house.
“Sam Pitroda Expert Committee on Prasar Bharati January 2014_-Vol_1” http://mib.nic.in/WriteReadData/documents/Sam_Pitroda_Expert_Committee_on_Prasar_Bharati_January_2014_-Vol_1.pdf
“Don’t Let Doordarshan Die”, G. Krishna Kumar (http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/dont-let-doordarshan-die/article4425191.ece)
James Astill’s “The Great Tamasha”, Wisden Sports Writing- Bloomsbury India