At a roundtable on media regulation in Delhi, earlier this month, the speaker from Doordarshan (DD) was generally upset with private channels and with rating agencies.
What he failed to mention and all of us were too polite to, was that Doordarshan too has let the Indian TV viewer down. You could argue in fact, that it is the single biggest reason for collapsing television news standards in India.
Think about it. BBC News is a public service broadcaster with a reputation for impartial, credible and high-quality news. It is funded by the license fees that TV owning households in the UK pay every year. It doesn’t have to make money from its news operations and therefore can continue to spend the high amounts needed to run a high-quality news operation. It makes up on revenues by selling its entertainment content to other markets around the world through BBC Worldwide.
This puts the BBC in a unique position. It has no revenue pressure and an unlimited source of funding for its news content. It has used this to create such high levels of programming standards that private broadcasters are forced to follow.
It is also a great counter point to the constant whining from DD officials on everything from budgets to ratings. Or to the government’s very private crib that news standards are going down and that news channels need to be regulated. If India had a good public service broadcaster, it would have forced a race to the top instead of the one going on right now to the bottom.
You could argue that DD alone is not to blame for falling news standards. But it is a huge part of the problem and one that we miss out. It is the part, that as citizens and taxpayers, we should be most upset about. Under the Cable Act DD channels have to be available on the prime band on every TV set.
Under another law it gets mandatory rights to any programming or sporting event that the government deems to be of ‘national interest.’ For some reason this is only cricket, so far. So ESPN, Ten Sports or any other broadcaster may bid millions of dollars for cricket rights, but these have to be shared with DD, for a small share of its revenues from these. At over one thousand towers, DD also has the best network for transmission of terrestrial TV and a legal monopoly over it in this country.
And yet DD can neither make money nor capture viewership. Prasar Bharati Corporation, the autonomous body that runs DD and AIR gets anywhere between Rs 1,500 crore to Rs 1,800 crore in subsidies every year.
The fact is that DD is a badly run government company that is autonomous only in name. If all the money and legal privileges bestowed on DD were bestowed on a private broadcaster, it would be hugely profitable. But since DD’s mandate is not to make money, why not at least ensure that it is a world class public service broadcaster a la BBC.
This will happen only when the government stops controlling the purse strings and true autonomy happens. If the government decided that DD should be a good public service broadcaster or PSB, it could change, without any regulation the whole nature of the news broadcasting game. With a strong PSB which doesn’t have the pressure of making money news broadcasters in the game to peddle influence would go away.
The serious broadcasters could then run a race to push standards up. And you and I could have a news broadcaster that we paid for and feel good about.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik
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