If Doordarshan is to reinvent itself as a public broadcaster, it needs to pay more attention to its arts programming and audience's needs rather than regulation and precedent.
THE new Information and Broadcasting Minister S. Jaipal Reddy started his term with big intentions - to make Prasar Bharati function autonomously, in a manner comparable to the BBC.
The comparison throws up a crucial question about the cultural wasteland that public broadcasting in India has been in the last decade. Arts broadcasting is a big debate that has drawn blood at the BBC. In India, despite its immense potential, the issue remains something of a non-starter. After the entry of private television, Doordarshan's approach to the arts has been dazed and confused.
In the mid-1990s, DD3 was launched and pitched as a thinking person's channel, paying serious attention to theatre and art, along with discussions and analyses of books and ideas. "DD3 was created in response to the proliferation of private channels and reductive entertainment," says Jai Chandiram, who headed the project. He says: "We had a literature series with Tarun Tejpal; we planned shows with Sunil Sethi and Vir Sanghvi; we considered launching Simi Garewal's `Rendezvous' to talk to popular figures with the kind of intimacy and attention that had not been done before."
While DD3 was abruptly wound up for being a financial deadweight, the lesson survives, says Siddharth Kak, the mind behind `Surabhi', which was one of the most widely watched cultural programmes on Indian television. With its "mix of fun and sobriety", `Surabhi' was a stab at "popularising and demystifying culture", says Kak. "Instead of the usual art performances being appreciated by a select few, instead of the proscenium and the stiff upper lip, we succeeded because we relied on short, snappy pieces, a relaxed narrative format and, most important, experimented with material," he says.
After DD3's untimely demise, DD Bharati was launched in January 2002, and bore little resemblance to the clubby DD3. Instead, it sought to create niche programmes in areas as diverse as health, children and art and culture, of eight hours each.
Being the brainwave of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, it brought its own set of priorities to culture. For example, a prime-time experiment was Sanskrit Bharati, a half-hour exercise in spoken Sanskrit. Today, with the BJP out of power, "DD Bharati is like an orphaned baby now," says an official. Its survival, and indeed, the survival of arts broadcasting in India, depends largely on its own wit and ingenuity.
Unfortunately, DD Bharati's idea of a playful format is filming a Socrates-style conversation between dancer Swapnasundari and her young disciples. Similarly, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) runs two hours of research-oriented programming, exploring ritual and context, oral traditions and so on, in a magazine show called `Kala Tarang'. While both are good ideas, they are far from being compelling watching material.
"We have a large amount of in-house programming and what we receive from the Doordarshan Kendras all over the country. We also commission programmes and get them from government agencies like the IGNCA, the ICCR [Indian Council of Cultural Relations] and the NFDC [National Film Development Corporation] and acquire them from embassies and Ministries," says T.P. Kitaulia, who is in charge of DD Bharati. While it does show important events like the Tansen festival and the Khajuraho festival live, these are often flat recordings.
The only way to draw in audiences is to hit upon artful, inventive ways of presenting instead of mere talking heads. As media analyst Sevanti Ninan points out, it has to acquire some of MTV's energy and imagination without retreating from seriousness because it is, after all, public service broadcasting and can dare to tread where no private channel will go.
Obviously, a channel that relies on a meaningfully connected audience must do them the basic courtesy of proper scheduling. "I actually look out for shows on DD Bharati like Gyan Seth's series on classical music. But these are so erratic and badly publicised that you just have to watch and hope you bump into some quality programmes," says Asha Rani Mathur, who was also involved with DD3.
One of the ways to "grow" an audience and make meaningful arts content is to invest in experimentation. In order to make a difference, it must devote at least 10 per cent of its budget to lunatic fringe material, says Kak. However, that seems like a distant possibility with existing levels of financial commitment to the arts. Out of Prasar Bharati's annual budget of Rs.2,000 crores, DD Bharati got a measly Rs.14 crores in 2003.
IN the glory days of public arts broadcasting in England, for example, several shows explored the sheer potential of the medium without being driven by the great ratings rat race. For example, John Berger's `Ways of Seeing' was not only radical programming, but it also broke into new territory in thinking about women in art. Whether it was Susan Sontag holding forth on Pina Bausch, or Bryan Magee's series on philosophy, such shows were seen as important because they attracted a different quality of attention and involvement, which is more vital than the counting-eyeballs approach, in the long run.
Indeed, the idea that cultural programming cannot make market sense has proved a no-brainer, across the world. Today, much of the energy of arts television is devoted to finding novel formats that can compete with the accelerated ethos of global market-driven networks. Channel 4's `Operatunity' found a way of appealing to both aficionados and beginners by modelling itself on a reality TV form, bringing over 1,600 first-timers to attend the final opera.
"DD has access to fabulous wealth, we have early recordings of Indrani Rahman and Ravi Shankar. But who has seen this stuff? If placed in context, it has the potential to intrigue and stimulate new audiences," says Chandiram.
In fact, there was a wide, rich audience for the regional films on Sunday afternoons on Doordarshan, says Chandiram, which testifies to the public's hunger for some riveting fare. "Instead of mere sound bites and fleeting appearances, if there was some space for Arundhati Roy or Jhumpha Lahiri to discuss books seriously, I am certain it would be very well-received," she adds. "Like DD's new science channel is trying to pull its own weight financially, DD Bharati also has to create vibrant programming that can vie for attention with the other 70-odd channels on air," says Kak.
It boils down to the all-important difference - the BBC, being run by licence fees and a broad public service remit, is bound to be audience-driven. DD is still driven by regulation and precedent and chooses the path of least resistance, as it is still to some extent tied to the apron strings of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.
While Jaipal Reddy's remarks leave room for hope that the network will come into its own, the future of arts programming hinges on the way that public broadcasting itself shapes up in the coming years.