Poverty and public broadcasting

BY SEVANTI NNAN| IN Media Practice | 06/07/2015
If it cannot meet the information needs of the most deprived sections of the population, Prasar Bharati should not be in business,
says SEVANTI NINAN Pix: a DTH connection in Jamujhari hamlet, Sambalpur, Odisha
Poverty and public broadcasting




A socio economic and caste census (SECC), the first of its kind, has just confirmed that deprivation remains fairly widespread in rural India. Its findings show that one in three village households  lives in poverty. The highest earners in 75% of rural households earned less than Rs 5000 a month.

The poor are poor because they lack information, resources and opportunity. When is the ruling class going to begin making the connection  between   a failed public broadcaster and the unavailability  of information and opportunity to a deprived rural population? 

Earlier this year the Media Foundation (which runs the Hoot) released the findings of a study conducted among the lowest income strata  of the population in 15 rural districts which showed that even with access to television these families had substantial unmet information needs relating primarily  to livelihood. They wanted more employment, income generation and skill related information, more career guidance programmes for rural youth, educational material on TV for their children to compensate for poor schools, more information on health and nutrition.  They did not get it from the public broadcaster or from private television channels. The livelihood information demand in particular was expressed in focus group discussions with every single village group sampled. It is crucial to enhancing rural incomes.

 Imagine the irony of unmet information needs in a country with 800 TV channels including a Rs 3000 crore a year public broadcaster!  If the government has schemes, people said to us, we dont get enough information on how to access them in our area.  Rural youth said, give us TV programmes that tell us how we can train to become more employable.  Parents want television tutorials to compensate for poor teaching in government schools.

 The SECC which is bringing us the latest household data on the  economic status of rural households seems to have asked about landline phones and refrigerators, excluding those families which possessed these from the category of deprived households. They did not ask about television.  If they had they would have found that TV too is out of reach of many families, particularly tribal households. 

But those who have bought it, even among the  scheduled castes and scheduled tribes have gone in for direct to home television even if they live in homes with kutcha roofs which cannot support a dish antenna. And even if this amounts to pay television with a substantial monthly cost  whereas earlier TV was free to air. Why? Because it is the only window of information and entertainment they have, and they are sold on the better programming quality. 

The states in which we conducted the rural part of our study Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradeshare not among the states on which the SECC has released data.  But the level of poverty we found was the same. And there were powerful ironies in evidence. Public broadcasting exists in theory and is being delivered free to air both through the public broadcasters terrestrial network and its direct to home service.  But even really poor families are rejecting it in favour of private sector TV. Low income families do feel the increased cost of television post digitization. Even so DDs Freedish has few takers among viewing households because it does not offer all the private channels people want to watch.  With the solitary exception of Madhya Pradesh/Chhattisgarh where its  had 41 per cent of the DTH market, in the rest of the states less than 25 per cent of the DTH market belongs to DD Direct. In the Southern states the figure is 5 per cent or less. 

Why? Not just because of the serials, though that is the easy assumption to make.  Because while neither private or public service channels  give them the liveliod information they need, the private channels give them far more regional news, and far better informational programming from channels such as Discovery, National Geographic and Animal  Planet (dubbed in four or five regional languages). For themselves, and for their children. Private broadcasters in a state like Andhra Pradesh also gives farm programmes on satellite tv in the regional language. 

Yes Doordarshan recently got a Kisan channel off the ground, in recognition of farm distress. But will there be an audit a year or two down the line to see how much of a dent it has made in rural distress?  

The second irony is that local transmission of  the public broadcaster is being delivered through terrestrial TV and cannot be accessed by the families which have moved on to satellite TV.  When a village family feels it is able to afford television  it now goes straight to DTH or cable.  Yet Doordarshan has still not made all aspects of  its local transmission uniformly available on satellite  TV. If you live in Chhattisgarh for instance, and access the subscription free DD Direct, you still cannot access the state transmission which is only distributed terrestrially. Yet it is this state which offers the most agriculture programming, and in five local languages or  dialects.  

Juxtapose the poverty level census headlines with another seemingly unrelated headline.  The BBC announced a couple of days ago that it was laying off a 1000 people, in recognition of  changed technological realities.  Fewer people are watching television, the license fees which finance its operations have shrunk, people are switching to tablets and smart phones. So you cut support staff. The British government also plans a review of the BBCs funding in 2016.  

Over here, people are still watching television  in rural India---that is  not smart phone and tablet territory as yet. They are not, however, watching the government funded public broadcaster. And even less are they watching its terrestrial network. They have only limited use for DD news, it is neither offered in their language, nor is it local enough. If the information deprived have no use for its offering the utility of continuing with a public broadcaster which is primarily an employer, must be questioned.

In September 2012 the cabinet approved a Rs 1300 crore debt write off and agreed to meet  100 per cent of its salary and salary-related expenses for the next 5 years, but not its operational costs.  

Imagine governments telling any other public broadcaster in the world, we will pay salaries, you find programming costs. That is akin to telling the officers who run government,  the government will pay your salaries but you have to find the money to run your departments. Commercialise all government operations! 

But here the  approach is just the opposite. Prasar Bharati embraces its huge staff and dilutes its core function to stay viable by commercializing its programming!  That is why  there was another news story  a week or two earlier about the government getting ready to ask actress Kajol and some of her Bollywood compatriots to come help Prasar Bharati become more marketable.  In other words, produce programming with advertising revenue potential to meet the broadcasters costs.  

Broadcast organisations the world over exist to  serve audiences, Doordarshan exists primarily to provide employment. The BBC is the worlds largest public broadcaster, it has a headcount of less than half the employees Doordarshan has.  (Figures relating to employment taken from the 2014 Pitroda Committee report.  )   

One of the facts which emerged when public gaze focused on Sun TV is that it runs roughly the same number of channels as Doordarshan. It has 2300 employees overall  compared to DD whose administrative staff alone number 4500. Yes, geographically, the two networks are not comparable. But any comparison with any other network  shows up the non productive nature of DDs staffing. Overall, Prasar Bharati had (at the time of preparing the PC report) 18.7 per cent of its workforce in programming, 36.9 per cent in  administration  and 44.4 per cent in engineering.  Despite the technological changes which are rendering some of the engineering workforce redundant. 

It is a state of affairs which successive governments seemed to have decided  to live with, and this one is no different. Nobody questions why this state of affairs should continue.  But why should it? Even the politician doesnt need it any more. There is an eager army of private channels perfectly willing to broadcast the PMs Mann ki baat.    

Public broadcasting should be the dharma of a public broadcaster, not its unquestioned preserve. If its DNA is all wrong, time to wind it up.  Giving it autonomy will not change its DNA.  Shut down Doordarshan, barring one channel for the PMO and the I and B ministry to use, and the new farm channel for Mr  Modi to feel good about.  Offer VRS to its  33,000 strong workforce, disinvest some of its  its assets  including its 1400 plus terrestrial transmitters, and create a public broadcasting fund for a genuinely  autonomous board to administer to  other channels, private or public which merit it.

 Even a third of the 1000s of crores  that the government spends on Prasar Bharati will be enough to guarantee more effective returns in terms of giving the most deprived population segments the information they need in the languages in which they need it.


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