How many are watching this?
Are we stuck with too much public service broadcasting of the most indifferent kind?
WIDE COVERAGE: The point is is public broadcasting effective? PHOTO: V. SREENIVASA MURTHY
JUST as we are stuck with too much government in India, we are also stuck with too much public service broadcasting of the most indifferent kind. So there was mild amazement when a reporter recently hyped up what the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology said last month, and reported that it had actually asked Doordarshan and All India Radio (AIR) to cut down the social broadcasting they do. On closer scrutiny, it turned out that nothing very new was being said. Prasar Bharati and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had as usual whined to the committee that they were being asked to do too much without adequate government funding. And the committee had responded by taking the view that "the number of hours allocated to Government and social broadcasting should be limited so that Prasar Bharati can maintain a meaningful balance between social obligation and financial considerations .... "
There is nothing new in this. So reporters tried to "sex up" the issue as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) might have put it, by picking on the Prasar Bharati Chief Executive Officer's periodic suggestion that private broadcasters should pay a universal service obligation fee to help meet Prasar Bharati's costs. The argument is that thanks to Doordarshan's reach, some 90 million Indians have bought TV sets. That is how satellite broadcasters have TV homes to target. So since they do no mandatory public service broadcasting themselves, they should underwrite the virtuous stuff that DD is forced to do.
But should DD be given more money when its accounts show that some of what was allocated last year remained unutilised? And what will it do with the additional money? Produce more virtuous stuff? Before it does that, shouldn't we see whether its public service programming is getting an audience? Roughly 75 to 100 times a day on any 24-hour DD channel you run into HIV-related spots. Can there be audience surveys to see how effective the campaign has been? Ditto for the 15,000 hours of health and family welfare programming that we are told AIR does. When other ministries finance TV software on DD they get them evaluated. A series called "Kalyani", produced by its kendras, does have some enthusiastic takers among rural women. Let the Government peg its allocations to Prasar Bharati to such evaluations and then have the gumption to fully meet its costs if indeed it is serving a purpose. All that is required is another Rs. 800 crores.
There is a simple logic in all this that seems to elude all concerned. If all that socially responsible stuff is actually being watched, advertisers would be advertising on those programmes. (Contrary to facile assumption, it's not always the top socio economic category (SEC) that advertisers target, but the second or third category because they are the ones most likely to buy aspirational products including white goods.) And if it is not being watched even in SEC C and D, why should the Government waste money on these programmes?
Governments and NGOs have one thing in common outmoded notions of what constitutes public service broadcasting or development reporting. But those whom we classify as poor and under-developed don't want to watch dreary, badly produced development stuff. They want to read and watch things which will brighten their lives and give their children a leg up.
The truth is that of the Rs. 5 crores a day that DD's 27 and AIR's 215 channels cost the public exchequer, less than a fourth is accounted for by programme-related costs. The rest goes on paying salaries and maintaining rapidly obsolete hardware. In a young industry, all programming staff in DD are over 40, get zero refresher training, and spend much of their time pushing files. And there are more babus and peons than programmers. Only one out of every 3.5 staffers in AIR are from programming, and one out of every 5.6 in Doordarshan. So you can imagine what sort of programming those 27 plus 215 channels offer.
One of the quickest ways to improve matters would be simply to decree that in the homes of all government servants, including those employed in Prasar Bharati, and all parliamentarians including ministers, no broadcasting services except those of DD and AIR should be permitted. Put our bureaucrats and politicians and their wives and kids on a strictly enforced DD diet and see how fast the broadcaster finds the money and talent to do programming that is watched.
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