Challenges before a public broadcaster

Print edition : June 30, 2006

K.S. SARMA, CEO, Prasar Bharati. -

Interview with K.S. Sarma, Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati.

How would you assess Prasar Bharati's performance in 2005?

An eventful year, as revenues crossed the Rs.1,000-crore mark for the first time in its history to close the year at Rs.1,238 crores. This is approximately a 50 per cent increase over the previous year. It is true that revenue alone is not the right yardstick to measure the performance of a public broadcasting network but the point that more internal revenue would result in more funds for programming cannot be missed.

Both Doordarshan and All India Radio are trying to make themselves seen and heard more among people and that, I feel, is a good sign of some aggressiveness. We also have TAM [Television Audience Measurement] data that indicates Doordarshan's (DD) viewership in cable and satellite homes has grown by 18 per cent in one year. What's satisfying is that such growth has not come for any other single channel in the same period.

However, the progress also signals that we'd have to work harder to keep the momentum going, which is the tougher part of the game. Especially when an organisation such as Prasar Bharati is put under the scanner for even the smallest of things. We are criticised continuously for not living up to the image of a public broadcaster, on the other hand, the organisation is also expected to be self-sufficient. But that, I presume, is part of Prasar Bharti's life, which always has so much potential and still continues to do so.

What are the challenges before Prasar Bharati in the context of satellite TV being the pre-dominant medium of entertainment?

We are looking at the issue of improving our content, especially on DD channels. This, we have to do keeping in mind Prasar Bharati's role as a public broadcaster that has to provide wholesome entertainment to the masses of India. The task is not as easy as many will think it to be. For example, DD has strict programming codes, which forbid it from airing many types of shows that are staple for satellite entertainment channels.

Another challenge is to do efficient marketing of our programmes, which used to be outsourced. From this year we have decided to do our own marketing whether it's cricket, serials or movies.

We are also trying to fine-tune the self-financing scheme relating to serials, which was introduced earlier this year. This scheme helps DD not only to sell airtime more effectively but also gives it the ownership of programmes produced by outsiders with a chance to control content. In the past, the rights of some of DD's best programmes, especially serials and popular shows, used to remain with producers as they bought time on DD channels. We have done away with the sponsored slots now.

However, the biggest challenge, which can also be called an achievement, is to change the mindset of people working in Prasar Bharati. The outlook has become more commercial. We cannot change set notions and perceptions at one go, but a more concerted effort is being made to revitalise manpower, which will bear fruits in times to come.

What are your plans for Doordarshan and AIR for the next three years?

Digitisation, automation and expansion continue to be our thrust areas in terms of broadcast development. At present FM transmission in radio covers 30 per cent of the population. We have a target to extend the reach to 50 per cent by the end of the Tenth Five Year Plan. AIR's News On Phone service has become popular in the seven cities where it is operational now. Plans are afoot to extend the facility to more cities. There is a renewed focus on encouraging in-house production in Doordarshan. We also have in hand, an ambitious project of televising Indian classics in different languages. The service is now available in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram and Patna.

What is the response to the direct-to-home (DTH) services? With more players coming in, how do you see the scenario in the next two years?

Excellent! In less than four months of its launch by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Doordarshan's DTH platform has managed to attract a subscriber base in excess of 2 million. It is popular in South India, particularly Tamil Nadu. We are increasing the number of TV channels of DD Direct Plus from the present 33 to 50. There is a long queue of private free-to-air channels for coming on the DD platform, as it offers the maximum exposure. A couple of other DTH operators are waiting in the wings to launch their platform. But, all these will be pay platforms.

Even though they propose to offer free service during the first year, ultimately subscribers will have to start paying for the service. On the other hand, DD's DTH is the only Free DTH service in the country and that will remain so in the years to come.

A recent TAM report has said that DD Direct has a two-thirds share of DTH market in India, which is predominantly rural.

We have also decided to charge a carriage fee for the channels on our platform. It is true that some channels are unhappy, but the carriage fee is just to cover our expenditure on maintaining and running the service.

What other major initiatives are you planning to undertake in 2006-07?

Prasar Bharati has won kudos for its efforts to release the archival recordings of Doordarshan and AIR in the form of CDs and cassettes. More CDs promoting classical music and dance are to be released during the year.Earlier this month, we released 11 DVDs covering performances by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Rabindra Sangeet, Kathak exponents and so on.

What is this self-financing scheme all about?

The self-financing scheme (SFS) puts a stop to sponsored programmes where outside producers used to buy time slots on DD after paying an amount. In return they got a fixed amount of commercial time, depending on the amount of time bought. This free commercial time used to be hawked in the market by producers who also retained the rights over the programmes. Most of the time intense competition compelled these producers to undercut prices (advertising rates) to fill up inventory, which spoiled the market for DD programmes.

Under SFS, in short, Doordarshan appraises programmes and pays outside producers a certain amount factoring in a profit margin for them. Not only the rights lie with DD now but the on-air life of such programming is linked to ratings. If a certain programme is not delivering the desired ratings, we take it off the air after giving it a notice.

What are the other sources of revenue that Prasar Bharati is tapping that had not been explored so far?

Our marketing on the government front has got more aggressive. I made a presentation to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry where the underlying theme was that if a government diktat says all government employees should fly by (state-controlled) Indian in an effort to boost its revenues, all advertising related to the government and its agencies should come to Prasar Bharati.

Gaining from our experience last year where we undertook big projects for some ministries such as Agriculture and Family Welfare and Health, this year too we are doing so. For example, we do a project of narrowcasting for the Agriculture Ministry where important information related to agriculture is disseminated to farmers through our terrestrial low-powered transmitters.

Revenue generation seems to be the latest mantra in Prasar Bharati. Is that why the organisation lobbied hard with the government to have laws favouring it where sports content, especially cricket, is concerned?

Why not? Prasar Bharati's reach among the masses, which is the target for the government, is maximum amongst all broadcasters present in India. And, what's the big issue with cricket?

That cricket is a big revenue earner for us is a big misconception. Moreover, the laws that you are referring to have been enacted by the government so that a huge chunk of the population that does not have access to cable and satellite TV gets to see quality sports, which may include cricket.

Do you think the employees' unions of Prasar Bharati will allow a proposed financial restructuring of the organisation?

The restructuring will be good for the organisation and the employees' unions [that had petitioned the Prime Minister earlier this year to dismantle Prasar Bharati's existing autonomous structure] too are supporting the move now.

They were afraid for their salaries and perks, but have realised that a restructuring will make Prasar Bharati fighting fit, allowing it also to tap the capital market and other institutions for funds.

What are the other benefits of the financial restructuring of Prasar Bharati being proposed by the government?

First and foremost, such a restructuring enables an organisation to tap the various sources of funds as government backing would lessen over a period of time as part of recommendations made in the Tenth Five Year Plan, which is likely to be included in the next Plan period also.

The restructuring will also help Prasar Bharati go public if need be. But don't ask me how and when because such issues can only be addressed when the time comes.

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