Governing the airwaves

Print edition : February 05, 2000
Prasar Bharati and a road map to the future. S. KRISHNASWAMY

SINCE we have lessons to learn from the past, let us briefly dwell on the history of television. Here, I wish to look back, around and ahead.

LOOKING BACK

Broadcasting was a war-gadget during the First World War. After the War, the army stopped buying radio sets in very large numbers. In 1920, manufacturers of radio receivers in the United States wanted a market for these receivers among the civilian popul ation and they began establishing radio stations. In other words, broadcasting started in order to sell radio receivers. Initially, these radio stations were open for anybody to come and broadcast. It was more or less like standing on a bench at Hyde Par k to make a public speech. People walked into radio stations and sang songs or delivered speeches as they liked. They also gave birthday messages. Small stores found it was profitable to popularise their names through the medium. The radio stations began to charge them, and thus the radio commercial was born. By 1925, there were 400 radio stations in the U.S. and the number was growing. Eventually, the U.S. government thought it fit to control the airwaves and appointed the Federal Communications Commis sion (FCC) to allot airwaves in order that the same frequency was not used by competing radio stations.

When radio broadcasting was inaugurated in India by the British Government, the first Director of All India Radio (AIR), Lionel Fielden, wrote that his four years of strenuous efforts were "enough to make a cat laugh. It was the biggest flop of all time. "

Throughout the world as within India, the control of the broadcast waves has been disputed territory. AIR made outstanding contributions to the popularisation as well as archival preservation of Indian classical music. But in the realm of information and views, the strangulated voice of AIR during the first three decades after Independence was reflected in the insipid vision of Doordarshan which came into being as a nascent broadcasting organisation. Indeed, some outstanding programmes were produced by the staff of AIR and Doordarshan as well as by outsiders; but these were exceptions rather than the rule.

The international experience has shown that "great, good, bad and indifferent" programmes are produced by private profit-oriented organisations, autonomous non-profit bodies and public sector bodies. The secret of good production lies in the motivation a nd talent of the individuals involved, a general culture of creative freedom and an ethos of aesthetic and technical finesse. None of this, of course, can exist in an administrative and financial vacuum.

Television, the little giant, is tossed between three players - the producer, the sponsor and the audience. The American experience over the past five decades has shown that in a milieu that believes in free trade in all aspects of society, the sponsor d ominates the medium either directly or indirectly. This is true of a predominant percentage of American entertainment television programmes. The major advertisers, for example, would not like their products to be advertised on the screen when the main p rogramme is anything less than extravagantly glossy. It cannot even remotely portray poverty of any kind or the darker side of life in the U.S. It is believed that the audience for such a programme is subconsciously not in a mood to buy in a lavish mann er. Hence, the commercial interests in general exclusively support glossy, escapist entertainment with an atmosphere of unreal affluence, in order to influence subliminally the spectator often to buy what he or she does not need, at prices he or she cann ot afford. No wonder, even non-fiction is about the "rich and the famous".

In the words of Aldous Huxley, television in such a society is "concerned in the main with neither truth nor falsehood; neither beauty nor ugliness; neither phenomenon nor the reality behind them", but with "the ephemeral, the more or less totally irrele vant". Huxley further noted that as a consequence of this, Jeffersonian concepts of democracy are no longer valid since Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues could not have imagined the distortions, if not perversions, of the mass media of the future.

Two decades ago, even as some sections of society in India were trying to promote and press for allowing private ownership of broadcasting, ironically the intelligentsia in the U.S. were trying to bring some kind of state control over broadcasting - in o rder to ensure that the power of the media was not "wasted". Intellectual opinion was that a precious instrument of knowledge was being frittered away on frivolous commercial considerations. This resulted in the birth of the Public Broadcasting Service ( PBS) in the U.S. PBS is primarily funded by the state. If at all corporate bodies offer sponsorship in PBS, the intention was that they should merely get a credit line for sponsorship without any commercials promoting products and services.

LOOKING AROUND

"Papa, what is the moon supposed to advertise?"

- Carl Sandburg in "The People, Yes".

Television is a challenge to the very philosophy on which the Indian Constitution is based. As Huxley pointed out, some aspects of the functioning of democracy have to be changed after making due adjustments and taking into account the impact of TV on hu man minds. India has been a crucible for studying the influence of cinema on society. In many pockets of India, cinema has performed the role of negating the benefits of democracy. As a non-literate medium, cinema has held a hypnotic spell on a mass of p eople which, by and large, has been detrimental to voters' awareness and maturity, distorting their perception of political processes and ideologies.

The reason for mentioning cinema here is that private TV channels in India are satellite channels in another sense of the term - most of them are satellites of the film industry. Given these circumstances, ideally Prasar Bharati should be geared to liber ate TV from mass cinema and build up an independent identity - an identity that can be more mature, leading people to better awareness in every sense of the term.

The problem with Doordarshan has been that it started with a public broadcasting philosophy, unceremoniously diluted this purpose with a commercial broadcast protocol (but adopting managerially inefficient procedures inconsistent with market objectives), and has since then been fluctuating between the goals of commercial self-sufficiency, oneupmanship against private tinsel channels in capturing a mass audience with populist programmes, competing with the best non-commercial public service broadcast cha nnels of the world, and so on. With the political establishment in a state of flux owing to too many changes in the last decade, Doordarshan has unfortunately become rudderless, but with enormous investments and a mammoth staff strength. The weakness has been compounded by financial improprieties and many complaints of graft. The constantly fluctuating priorities, the absence of a transparent policy, and the lack of commitment to any goal have cumulatively made Doordarshan a blindfolded elephant of trem endous strength, moving without a sense of direction. There are several good professionals within and outside Doordarshan. But they are riding the blindfolded elephant without a map, without a charter, without a compass, and indeed without a road. Even a s the rajahs and nawabs of India were at their weakest when colonisers entered this subcontinent, this TV giant was at its weakest when private satellite channels set up shop.

These private channels inspired by the American television model have become such a prominent component of Indian living rooms that we need to consider what their impact has been in the soil they belong to.

LOOKING AHEAD

"I believe that television is going to be the test of the modern world. We shall stand or fall by television - of that I'm quite sure."

- E.B. White, author.

The content of media being a product of culture and several millennia of our civilisational values, some of which are unique to India and some of which are common to humankind as a whole, the medium cannot be treated on a par with other commodities of th e market, whether they are material commodities or services. Hence, not all the rules that are applied to economic liberalisation and market liberalisation can be applied to the media - particularly television.

Discussing which other areas are to be protected from the onslaught of such liberalisation would be a larger debate. The scope of this article being limited to television, I speak here only of the need to protect it as "cultural entity".

Humanity's search for the perfect model for political and social institutions continues. No system has found the ultimate answer, if there is any. Technological changes bring about big changes to the very contexts in which models are evolved, even before their implementation. The Prasar Bharati Act is a case in point: a model conceived in the context of a monopolistic government-controlled medium, proposing that it may better come under an autonomous body for governance. But even before its implementati on, the monopoly was lost. This has changed the very foundation of assumptions on which the original model was proposed. I still strongly advocate "autonomy" as a basis. But many details need to be looked into entirely afresh.

LET us try to find answers to three questions: 1. How do you finance the operation? 2. Who should govern the broadcasting organisation? 3. How are programme content and the producers to be chosen?

First, on financing an egalitarian public broadcasting system to serve the primary purpose of Prasar Bharati. The cultural and philosophical basis of government funding is akin to funding for HRD (Human Resource Development). You do not expect immediate financial returns on education. It is an investment in human development. It is the same with a public broadcasting system.

The problem of funds, often cited as a stumbling block, is not as overwhelming as it is made to appear. Various methods of financing have been suggested. The publicly owned airways are being used rent-free by commercial users to create vast fortunes; the re is no reason, as Walter Lippmann suggested long ago, why commercial users should not pay a rental or royalty for such use of public property, to be earmarked for the needs of public broadcasting. The device suggested by the Ford Foundation - a royalty from domestic communication-satellite revenue - holds equal merit. The Carnegie Commission's proposal of a special tax on the receiver is also logical, perhaps as a supplementary device. Let us look at these first as recommendations in the American con text. In the words of Erik Barnouw:

The Carnegie document, surveying American television, concluded that society has communication needs which could not be met by an advertising-based system. These needs were felt to call for a "public" television service channelling a different set of mot ives, a system through which Americans would "know themselves, their communities, and their world in richer ways". The commission termed it "a civilised voice in a civilised community". In its first decade this "public" system, linked by a Public Broadcasting Service and receiving Federal funds through a Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has made important strides in the hoped-for direction. A key element in the Carnegie manifesto was its financial recommendation. To assure the independence of the system, it was to have an automatic source of revenue such as a dedicated tax on electronic equipment. Several alternative tax bases were suggeste d. The dedicated tax was meant to parallel, to some extent, arrangements in effect in Britain and Japan, both of which have effective, well-financed non-commercial systems based on licence-fees - systems existing side by side with their commercial system s, and holding large audiences. The reasons for the Carnegie stipulation were clear. To fulfil its purpose, the system had to be independent not only of sponsor domination but also of pressures involved in constant confrontations with congressional committees over appropriations and po licies.

In the Indian context, the government should be able to underwrite and subsidise 90 per cent of the recurring expenses in running the various channels. Sponsorship may be accepted on a limited basis for getting sponsorship credit lines - but with no product advertising, in the main channels of Doordarshan. The required resources can be raised in the following manner.

A system of taxation should be evolved by which the privately owned satellite channels will pay a differential tax to a separate fund in order to finance Doordarshan's operations. A higher tax slab for foreign-owned media and a lower slab for Indian-owne d channels will be perfectly justified. This can be modelled after the Carnegie Commission recommendations with suitable modifications to suit our ethos. There should also be a differential tax slab, based on the broad content of the material broadcast b y these channels - with much lower slabs for news, current affairs, educational and such other channels, and a steeply higher slab for the entertainment channels. This should generate substantial revenues to take care of the entire cost of programme prod uction for Doordarshan. The government should consider it a societal obligation to pay for hardware, renewals, salaries and all such other overheads in order to run the autonomous broadcasting channels under Prasar Bharati efficiently.

Barnouw, whose three-volume history of broadcasting is considered the most authentic, while discussing the Carnegie Commission recommendations in the U.S. context expands on how and why politicians were unwilling to accept the entire proposal and how Con gress voted only part of the proposals. He writes:

Congress did not follow the recommendation. Congressmen ensured their hold over the system by making it dependent on periodic appropriations... This has virtually pushed the system into the arms of the corporate sponsor and also into endless subscription drives - which may meet increasing resistance as the sponsor's role expands. Whatever attitudes and fears were involved, the financial status inflicted on public television has done much to sabotage the original plan. At most stations major programme proposals are drawn up, then held in abeyance while fund raisers seek under-writ ing. The sponsor's nod is awaited.

Recognising that the problem in India is far more complex than in the U.S., the Indian Parliament should rise to the occasion beyond the party divide, and create a public broadcasting system that can stand out as a model for the world. With India's resil ience born out of several millennia of civilisational values, we need not wait for role models to appear elsewhere in the world. The challenge of neo-colonialism through control of television by multinational corporations is a real challenge; and India's public broadcasting system should be considered as important as security and defence. As much as we need to protect our geographic borders and territory, it is imperative to protect our psychic identity as a nation of thoughtful people with perennial hu man values enshrined in our consciousness. It is indeed worth allotting the regular financial resources required on a massive scale to protect this. Tinkering with the Prasar Bharati framework will not do. We need a comprehensive revision, a comprehensive cultural defence force in place, with adequate funding. WE now come to the question of how and who should govern the airwaves under Prasar Bharati. There are no satisfactory models to copy. Hence we have to evolve a model of our own. I propose that the Prasar Bharati Board be directly elected by the people of India - not by every citizen, but by a discretely chosen electoral college, which may consist of the following people, with provision for one-third of the board to retire every alternate year. I propose that the electoral college to elect the board members of Prasar Bharati consist of Indian citizens with the following minimum qualifications: 1. Doctoral degree holders of recognised (accredited) Indian and international universities, in any su bject. 2. Professionals with bachelor's degrees (from recognised universities) limited to engineering, medicine, law and education. 3. Musicians, dancers, stage/screen actors and actresses, with at least five years of public performance experience, and a minimum of bachelor's degree from a recognised university. 4. Painters, sculptors, visual artists, photographers, with a minimum of five years of work experience and a minimum of a bachelor's degree from a recognised university or an equivalent diploma from any school of arts or a film/television institute. 5. Working journalists employed in a registered newspaper for more than five years, with a minimum of a bachelor's degree. 6. Authors with published books in any Indian language or English (fiction or non-fiction), and directors of released feature films, documentary films and television serials, with a minimum of a bachelor's degree in any subject from a recognised university. 7. Authors, performing artists and visual artists who have received awa rds at the national level from the Sahitya Akademi, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Lalit Kala Akademi, and directors of feature films and non-fiction-films who have received national awards for their films, even if they have not received any formal un iversity education. The third question is, how will the programme content and programme producers be chosen by this hopefully eminent board. It is easy to get caught in a trap of evolving very strict rules and regulations. Suffice it to say that the board will be wise enoug h to avoid scrupulously tinsel names of commercial cinema and build up a healthy, meaningful alternative channel for people to enjoy. Suffice it to say also that producers will not be given serial numbers to line up in a queue (there were these incredibl e physically lined-up queues, standing day and night in front of Doordarshan to get a time-slot allotment during the days of its monopoly), but that the board will have the stature, wisdom and sensitivity to identify creative brains and invite them for w hat will be collaborative efforts between the channels and the producers. Objective criteria can be evolved for such selection. With all its promise, the information superhighway will be marked by the pot-holes and pitfalls of history. And, therefore, we are likely to need more of the resources of humanism, humility, constraint and virtue. These are not qualities to be found on o r along the information superhighway. No one may figure out a way of digitising them, for they depend on a different order of living and interaction. Dr. S. Krishnaswamy is a writer, producer and director of television serials and documentary films, who has won national and international awards. He is a media analyst and co-author of the book Indian Film with Erik Barnouw.

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