New Hindi channels for whom?

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 29/07/2013
Behind the launch is a tale of sorry programming, disappearing salience in the transmission landscape, and total invisibility in the country's most populous states.
SEVANTI NINAN on Doordarshan’s desperate election time move. Pix: I and B Minister Manish Tewari

Last week Information and Broadcasting minister Manish Tewari told reporters  that Doordarshan was starting four Hindi channels.  Some reported it  as  four news channels. Everybody gave it an election time spin, some got quotes from the odd media expert  and opposition spokespeople,  and the story was put out.  And forgotten thereafter.

Behind this partially correct story (two of these channels went on stream in May and June respectively  and none of them will be news channels ) is a much bigger story which the media is never likely to chase, because beyond a point  what the state broadcaster does, particularly in the kendras, is simply not news. It  is a tale of sorry programming,  disappearing salience in the transmission landscape, and total invisibility in the country’s most populous states. 

 Doordarshan  has local programming Kendras in all the Hindi states including Delhi, eight of them.  Increasingly, with each passing year, each of them is becoming  invisible.  Almost 100 per cent  invisible. Nobody watches them, because nobody in these states depends on Doordarshan’s  old stick antenna any more to get their daily TV fix.  And none of these kendras except DD Delhi is on satellite transmission. In rural India particularly, in the Hindi speaking states, terrestrial transmission is rapidly disappearing.   You cannot even buy the the DD antenna in the market.  If you have a cable or DTH connection in your home, how would you access a DD channel which is not on satellite?   And why would you care whether you access it or not, it is not programming that is setting anything on fire.

It is a chicken and egg thing.  Cable operators in the states have not been taking the trouble to pick up the Kendra transmission of DD,  first because the regional transmission is never more than four or five hours, and second, because the programming is so dismal. There is hardly any  demand for it.

As the elections approach it is slowly penetrating  with public service broadcaster Prasar Bharati  and its masters in the ministry of information and broadcasting  that  nobody in the most populous regions is watching their regional programming. Through what medium will they push their central government schemes in opposition-ruled states  which they all are except Rajasthan and Uttarakhand?  So many years after other states got regional language channels  there is a scramble to get these states onto the satellite, so that they can be accessible at least on Doordarshan’s own free DTH platform, DD Direct.

On the first of May DD Bihar became a satellite channel, and DD Madhya Pradesh followed in June. On August 15 two more, DD Rajasthan and DD Lucknow will become available on satellite. Will they be news channels?  Very unlikely. DD Bihar  currently offers 90 minutes of news in the entire 24-hour cycle, DD MP 45 minutes—three 15 minute bulletins in the whole day. What the new channels do have through their other programming, is a continuous news scroll. This is a huge thing for a broadcaster  as basic as DD and as saturated with intra cadre politicking.  In the Chhattisgarh Kendra the Indian Information service officers  handling the regional news unit tell you mournfully that the programming people who run the state Kendra do not permit a news scroll throughout the four hours of regional programming. Only when the 15-minute news  bulletin is on.

The scroll on the new DD Bihar channel was first resisted by engineers who were suddenly being told to switch from handling a four- hour transmission to a 24-hour operation. Work so much harder for the same pay?  Now it is there, but it isn’t the most exciting news going. If all these new channels are going to do anything for the ruling party in the run up to the elections then the regional news units in these states will have to be revamped. Now they are being equipped with digital satellite news gathering  equipment.  Not every state had these.  And even when everything is in place, competing with ETV and Zee news channels will be a tall order.  If people watch DD news, they are likely to do so on DD National.

But a state-owned regional  channel has some advantages. When the vote of confidence in the Nitish Kumar government took place recently  the only state channel to have the live transmission from the state legislature was DD Bihar.

If you want to know just how unexciting  both new channels are right now you can catch them on DD Direct. The sets, the music programmes,  the general ambience of these channels is enough to make any well wisher of public service broadcasting weep.  But putting a satellite channel on air is easier  that doing a rapid software  upgrade. The upside is that in all these states at least some pressure will now be there on the local kendras. Being invisible all these years also meant being out of sight and out of mind for the powers that be. Nobody in Delhi or Patna or Bhopal watched what the kendras put out. Not chief ministers or any other ministers, no the I and B ministry or the Prasar Bharati Board, or its CEO or the Director General of Doordarshan.

 Now they can discover for themselves how far they have to go to make a dent in the regional  broadcasting scenario.  It is not enough to have a vehicle, propaganda or otherwise,   it has to be one the viewer is incentivised to tune in to. Forget the news, what may draw them is the Bhojpuri films the programming people are procuring to put on the Bihar channel. And a dubbed Mahabharat in Bhojpuri.

For reasons best known to Mr Tewari’s ministry  Doordarshan transmissions in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand  are not slated to go on satellite just yet, may be not in time for  the 2014 elections either. Perhaps the states are not populous enough to matter.






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