How digitisation impacts farm telecasts

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 23/07/2014
Kisan shows are put out on terrestrial transmitters when many villages have switched to cable or DTH.
The technological mismatch needs to be tackled says SEVANTI NINAN. PIX: Bhimavaram relay centre, AP

The kisan channel announced by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is part of a package of measures to revive agriculture. If it is to make a difference to the palpable distress of farm communities in a crucial agricultural belt like coastal Andhra Pradesh, a great deal of wise planning will need to go into its execution. Another measure announced alongside the kisan channel, with five times the investment, also needs to be publicized through the kisan platform that has been envisaged.

The allocation for the kisan channel is Rs 100 crore. The allocation for the price stabilisation fund which will protect farmers’ agricultural produce from price volatility is Rs 500 crore. As a farmer in Krishna district said pithily in the earlier part of this report, “any number of channels, TV programmes, people sitting at tables discussing agriculture, all these are useless if the rate is not tackled. This is the most important.” To inform farmers that such a fund has been created, Prasar Bharati’s channels will need to function as an important conduit.

Farming has become uneconomic in many parts of the country. The Ministry of Agriculture has, since 2005, made a renewed effort to reach out to farmers through the public broadcaster. It meets the costs of a scheme titled “Mass media support to agriculture extension.” Briefly put, it sponsors the programmes put out on Doordarshan’s satellite channels and on All India Radio. But more crucially, it supports the local farm programming telecast over terrestrial transmitters throughout the country.

However, one of the untold stories of TV digitization is its impact on local farm transmission from a network of 35 programme production centres all over the country. This is the Doordarshan service known as “narrowcasting” - the programmes are produced with local cropping patterns in mind and are terrestrial, transmitted via some 200 low power and high power transmitters for farmers in the surrounding region.

The narrowcasting network extends from Dibrugarh in Assam and Imphal in Manipur to Jalandhar in Punjab, Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh, Rajkot in Gujarat, Port Blair in the Andamans, and many towns in between. A variety of agriculture, horticulture and pisciculture programmes are produced for telecast on this network.

The effect of the technological mismatch

Much of farm programming today is localized, as it should be, but it suffers from a technological mismatch. The programmes are on a terrestrial grid of analog transmitters; the audience is on satellite TV receivers. They are also broadcast on the Telugu satellite channel DD Saptagiri at timings like 5 am and 4.15 am with repeats at 6.30 am.

People can receive local transmissions from the nearest high power and low power transmitters which are in the analog mode only if they are re-broadcast through a satellite channel. Those who have moved to cable or DTH cannot receive Doordarshan’s analog direct transmission.

Programme generating facilities in places like Sambalpur and Bhawanipatna in Odisha harbour frustrated staff whose feedback tells them that their programmes are not watched as much as they could be.

DD Chhattisgarh, which offers, quantum wise, the most hours of agricultural programming in the country, has a similar problem. It has a programme production centre in Jagdalpur which puts out farm programming in different tribal languages but since the tribal population has more access to DTH, accessing these local transmissions is a problem. Chhattisgarh has no satellite regional channel; whatever the Raipur and Jagdalpur kendras produce is terrestrially transmitted.

In Vijaywada and East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh, the local transmitter puts out localised farm programmes whose reception is dwindling because people even in villages are switching rapidly to cable TV. (“Year by year, antenna are disappearing from villages, one year you count six or seven in a village, the next year they are gone”, said one official.) So the AP DD Kendra has taken to rebroadcasting the narrowcast programmes from different centres on its satellite channel Saptagiri early in the morning at 6 am.

For the farmers what is crucial is a five minute news bulletin which gives the prices of agricultural commodities at that point, in the mandis in that farm belt.

DD 6, the Oriya channel also does the same. It has figured out separate mid-morning slots to rebroadcast DD’s localised programming generated from Sambalpur and Bhawanipatna on the Odisha satellite channel. The logic is that people in the areas whom these programmes are meant for can only catch the programmes on a satellite channel, since they are more likely to have cable or DTH than the old Jaggi antenna on which people used to receive DD.  

Since there are no earth stations at the centres which do narrowcasting both in AP and in Odisha, the tapes have to be sent to the capital city to be rebroadcast. Because there is a shortage of tapes, they have to be sent back so that more programmes can be sent on them!

The other kind of farm programming that regional language satellite channels carry are regional variants of Krishi Darshan, in an evening slot.

Meanwhile the public broadcaster’s programming output is shaped not by audience needs but by budgetary compulsions. It is forced to find its own revenues for some part of its requirements and does so by making entertainment its primary offering. However, ask the poorest villager which channels she watches for entertainment and Doordarshan is least likely to be mentioned.

Paucity of farm programming

A five channel survey of Doordarshan’s total programming over a one-month period showed that, for a public service broadcaster in a country where the largest number of people are employed in agriculture and allied sectors, the amount of agriculture-related programming is extremely low. 

An exercise in content mapping was carried out in 2012 of the total daily programming, spread over a 30 day period, of DD National and of the regional programming in these four states: Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Odisha.  

While four of these channels are comparable because they are 24-hour channels, Chhattisgarh had a four hour daily transmission with no entertainment, some arts and culture programming and a bias towards development programming.

The content mapping showed that while agriculture-related programming was negligible on all the 24 hour channels (and the lowest on DD National), it formed a much higher component of the Chhattisgarh transmission.

Of the five states, Chhattisgarh had the highest share (19.95 per cent) of farm-based programmes in its total telecast - higher than the combined share of Gujarat (7.67 per cent), Odisha (6.58 per cent) and Andhra Pradesh (5.37 per cent). Despite being the only channel devoted to most of the Hindi-speaking states, DD National offered the least, with only 4.43 per cent of its total telecast devoted to agriculture. ‘Krishi Darshan’ was the only show on DD National while all the other channels had multiple shows with varied formats

One of the points the Sam Pitroda Committee made in its report on Prasar Bharati earlier this year, is that each channel should have a content head to devise and control content in accordance with the complexion and mandate of the channel. The farm channel which has been announced by Arun Jaitley will need appropriate staffing to meet the challenge of programming for myriad agri- zones.

Farmers have very limited spare time in which to watch TV. Scheduling is crucial. A whole channel would still require repeat programmes, unless you junk information on local cropping and do broad spectrum farm programming. The challenge of a farm channel is which agri-zones it will cover and who will do the programming.

Part 1: Is farm broadcasting going waste?

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