Prasar Bharati crosses another milestone as its two media units, All India Radio and Doordarshan, enter the digital era.
THE inauguration of a new Broadcasting House and Tower B of Doordarshan in New Delhi recently is an important milestone in the history of public broadcasting in India as it marks its entry into the digital era. The 75-year-old All India Radio (AIR) and its 40-year-old sister organisation, Doordarshan, are now equipped with state-of-the-art technology to compete effectively with private networks in meeting the wide-ranging requirements of the increasing number of listeners and viewers.
The occasion was also significant for another reason: as it seemed to reinforce the fact that public broadcasters continued to be relevant in a developing country like India. As Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting S. Jaipal Reddy said while inaugurating the new buildings, Prasar Bharati, the umbrella organisation under which AIR and Doordarshan function, has not lost its relevance with the advent of satellite television. He rightly pointed out that every developed country with a multi-channel television system had a vibrant public broadcasting service. India was no different, he said.
In fact, a few years ago, a Review Committee headed by N.R. Narayana Murthy underlined the importance of Prasar Bharati in providing high quality media content in order to empower and enlighten citizens. In the opinion of the committee, the programmes should inform, educate and entertain even while ensuring a sizeable audience and reach. In the light of the committee's report, Prasar Bharati sought to reorient its growth strategies and succeeded in making its presence felt as a vibrant and socially relevant public broadcasting organisation. Going digital is the latest manifestation of this trend.
With a network of 215 radio stations, AIR today covers 92 per cent of the country's geographical area and almost the entire population. With a network of over 1,400 terrestrial transmitters, Doordarshan covers 90 per cent of the population and is way ahead of the reach of all the satellite channels put together. Moreover, as the Review Committee envisioned, Doordarshan's channels telecast a healthy mix of entertainment and socially relevant programmes reflecting the varied cultures and languages of the nation.
AIR's studio in New Delhi is the biggest in Asia. It has 26 fully-automated transmission studios and all recording, editing and playback equipment, including mixing consoles and master routers, are in digital mode. Each transmission studio has a digital audio workstation, two compact disc players and a digital mixer. As many as 10 transmission studios have digital phone-in units with the facility to have conference with up to 12 callers on ISDN and PSTN lines. The newsroom has been equipped with state-of-the-art facilities. For the first time in the long history of the radio newsroom the editor will be able to edit news agency copies and compile a bulletin entirely by using the computer network.
The new software system would enable a central server to receive the news from different sources, besides sound bites from television, and make them available to editors on individual workstations. In the studios, instead of reading from paper sheets, newsreaders will now read off computer monitors, where the story will keep getting updated electronically. Sound bites, which used to be manually inserted into bulletins, will now be livening up all the AIR bulletins. The audio quality would also improve since it will be recorded on hard disc, instead of the decades-old tape spools, and transmitted digitally. The digital newsroom will eventually network all the 45 regional news units, making it possible to transfer text and voice across the country at the flick of a button. This will, in turn, improve the response time of AIR to breaking news, and the quality of news bulletins aired from regional bureaus.
Doordarshan has acquired state-of-the-art facilities for production and transmission of programmes. The new Tower B with 11 storeys has four studios besides a large technical area, rehearsal rooms and a film preview theatre. The post-production facility comprises 25 non-linear edit suites, 25 A/B roll edit suites and extensive computer graphics facility. The newsroom has workstations for 75 journalists backed by an integrated automation system.
THE entry of AIR and Doordarshan into the digital era is not a sudden development, but the culmination of a series of technological advancements over the past few years. In line with its mandate as a public broadcaster, AIR has been expanding the radio coverage to reach people who were hitherto outside its network, especially those in the border areas of Jammu and Kashmir, northeastern India and the islands of Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar. In Srinagar, a 300 kW MW transmitter has been installed in place of the existing one with a capacity of 200 kW. Relay stations have been set up at Naushera, Kupwara, Rajouri, Diskit, Khalsi, Nyoma, Drass, Tiesuru and Padum. At Kargil, a 200 kW MW transmitter has been installed to strengthen radio coverage in the border areas. In the northeastern region, FM channels with stereo playback facilities have been set up at Kohima and Itanagar. Port Blair now has an FM channel. AIR has upgraded the captive earth stations at Guwahati, Itanagar and Shillong with digital systems. New digital uplink stations have been added to the AIR network at Jalandhar, Raipur and Ranchi, while nine existing analogue stations at Guwahati, Itanagar, Shillong, Lucknow, Srinagar, Jaipur, Shimla, Patna and Cuttack too have been upgraded with digital systems. The project to expand FM transmission to cover 50 per cent of the country's people is in progress.
A new stereo studio for Leh has been planned. Computer-based recording, editing and playback systems that ensure high quality digital recording and facility for linear as well as non-linear editing have already been installed in 76 stations and more are being brought under the system in a phased manner. Captive earth stations with digital uplink capabilities are being set up in Kolkata, Tiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Bhopal. The downlink facilities are being digitised in phases. Until March, 53 stations had been provided with digital downlinks. Digitisation of the Akashvani Sound Archives is at an advanced stage and out of the 43,000 compact discs to be prepared 35,000 are ready.
Another significant development is that a dozen AIR channels in different regional languages broadcast from various State capitals are now available all over the country through the Ku-band Direct to Home (DTH) platform of Prasar Bharati. Software has been developed for information exchange and improvement of efficiency in the working of various AIR units. They include online processing software such as AIRNET, archive management information system, document management system, and stand alone software such as library management information system, and proforma accounts system. The AIR news-on-phone service is now operational in five cities - Delhi, Mumbai, Patna, Chennai and Hyderabad. The plan is to introduce it at 11 more stations soon. This facility enables callers to listen to news highlights of the hour by dialling a designated number.
The Tenth Five-Year Plan's proposals for Doordarshan focus on digitisation. Currently, 20 out of Doordarshan's 25 channels are digital. Digital earth stations have already been set up in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Patna, Jallandhar, Chennai, Thiruvananthpuram, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Bhubaneshwar, Shillong and Aizawl. Engineers of Doordarshan put up, in record time, the Ku-band transmission facility at Todapur, near New Delhi, for broadcasting DD Direct Plus, the Direct-To-Home (DTH) broadcast service. Ku-band transmission, which ensures near total coverage, is a cost-effective alternative to terrestrial transmission. Doordarshan has distributed 10,000 DTH receiver systems and 200 cable head-ends in select States of north, central and northeastern India, where television coverage is below the national average. One of the compelling reasons for introducing DTH is to ensure that programmes of AIR and Doordarshan reach every household in the country. The DTH service would help Doordarshan and AIR expand their reach with investment much lower than that required for increasing the number of transmitters.
Mere expansion of facilities without improvement in the content of the programmes can hardly help public broadcasters survive in a competitive environment. From all accounts, both AIR and Doordarshan are conscious of this and have taken fruitful initiatives to make the programmes attractive, educative and purposeful. The public broadcasters have an added responsibility to avoid the pitfalls associated with commercialisation of programmes. Their mandate includes upholding the values enshrined in the Constitution, promoting national integration and social justice, facilitating socio-economic development, empowering women, children and other vulnerable groups. To fulfil this mandate, with all the financial and administrative constraints associated with public sector enterprises, is no easy task. But both AIR and Doordarshan have been able to strike a balance between their responsibilities as agents of social change and their need to become financially viable without depending too much on budgetary support.
AIR, for instance, has launched agricultural programmes called Kisan Vani, broadcast from 96 stations. It has been regularly broadcasting programmes on land and water conservation, sustainable agriculture, biotechnology, environment protection, disaster management and so on. More than 15,000 programmes on various aspects of health and family welfare are broadcast every month. These are in addition to extensive and in-depth coverage of political developments and international affairs. Similarly, Doordarshan has been focussing on development communication. In fact, it has a Development Communication Division (DCD) exclusively devoted to the production of special programmes on development-oriented topics. The DCD has produced over 900 special programmes for six Ministries. One of these, Kalyani I & II, won the prestigious Gates Malaria Award of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association.
Doordarshan has been quite successful in promoting coverage of important sports events. Recently, it unveiled a new scheme for live coverage of sports events under which a sports federation staging an event has to pay only the actual expenditure incurred by Doordarshan in broadcasting the event live or deferred live. The first memorandum of understanding under this scheme was signed in June between Doordarshan and the Squash Rackets Federation of India. Several sports federations have evinced interest in this facility. Doordarshan has done away with the earlier practice of payment of rights fees. The new system provides for arranging sponsors for the tournaments by the sports federation concerned or through the Prasar Bharati's marketing divisions.
There is a view that AIR and Doordarshan would be able to compete effectively with the private networks only if they are freed from the clutches of the government and allowed greater autonomy to function as commercial organisations. On the face of it, this view appears reasonable, but a deeper analysis shows that autonomy may make AIR and Doordarshan vulnerable to market forces, which would lead to the neglect of their mandate. The need to compete for advertisement revenue should not make them deviate from the mandate. They cannot follow the example of unregulated satellite sectors dominated by big media players. In this context, it is encouraging to note that the revenues of both AIR and Doordarshan have been rising over the past three years.
Meanwhile, Prasar Bharati employees are concerned that their status and service conditions would be affected in the event of autonomy. Jaipal Reddy has assured the employees that their interests would not be compromised in any way when Prasar Bharati is granted more autonomy. He urged them to work with commitment and a sense of mission to produce quality programmes. The present job structure shows that in Doordarshan engineering and administration personnel outnumber the programme staff, who account for just 17 per cent. There is thus scope for increasing the staff strength in the programme section.
In fact, the Standing Committee of Parliament on Information and Broadcasting in a recent report expressed concern over the acute shortage of staff faced by AIR and Doordarshan. It pointed out that Prasar Bharati could not focus on the quality and content of programmes owing to the many vacancies at various levels. It noted that trained persons had migrated to private networks.