A costly white elephant

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 06/02/2014
When a new government comes in this summer it will have to sooner or later decide how much good money it wants to continue wasting on Prasar Bharati,

Sevanti Ninan

The Pitroda Committee report on Prasar Bharati (PB), which came out last fortnight, is unequivocal on one point. If you continue with business as usual at India’s public service broadcaster it will only lumber further down the path to expensive irrelevance. When a new government comes in this summer it will have to sooner or later decide how much good money it wants to continue wasting on this behemoth.   

Here’s why. We are told that it is no secret that PB isn’t even faintly autonomous. The act that governs it needs to be overhauled. Change the law, take it out from under the government and put it under a parliamentary committee, if it is worth continuing with this public service broadcaster, that is. Make funding flow to it directly from Parliament. Will a new government summon the commitment to do all of this?

Because far fewer people are watching it than ever before, yet it costs a bomb to maintain. “Doordarshan and AIR have not been profitable since the inception of Prasar Bharati. In today’s competitive scenario they have got increasingly marginalised. Their programming has become less and less attractive to the audience leading to a downward spiral in viewership, advertiser confidence and revenue share. The once healthy TRPs now struggle to be greater than 1.”

A public broadcaster is supposed to be viable, not profitable. It is not supposed to worry about TRPs. But then it has to have some other purpose, no? This one does. It provides employment. DD has 33,800 employees, the highest in the world. BBC has 16,858, Japan and China 10,000 each for public broadcasters. The rest much less.

As many as 44.4% of its employees are in engineering, 36.9% in administrative support services and only 18.7% in the core function of programming. “Or, about 11,000 staff are engaged in supporting the functioning of the remaining 20000 - roughly 1 support staff for every 2 staff members engaged on the programming or transmission work a ratio not likely to be found in any broadcasting organisation.” So the report says.

And then, because there are not enough programme people, it outsources content development to the extent of 80% in the case of Doordarshan, 20 per cent in case of All India Radio. And how much of its budget does it spend on content? A princely 13.3 per cent. Compared to 75 per cent of its budget for NHK, 71 per cent for the BBC and ABC of Australia, 66.7 per cent for the Canadian broadcaster.

Is it winning audiences with its outsourced low cost content? No, says the report. Terrestrial viewership in this country is down to 8 per cent. 92 per cent of the country is now into satellite viewing mode, and in that universe DD struggles to get a TRP of 1. Digitisation has done DD a favour over the last year; it has driven people back to it because poorer households cannot afford the extra cost of a set top box for every TV in the house.

Prasar Bharati had accumulated losses of Rs. 13,556 crore in 2011-12. “If we want no shortfall in a 5 year period, Prasar Bharati would have to almost double its revenues.” How do you do that when you have shrinking viewership?

Prasar Bharati does not earn any license fee, which is the source of funding for almost all international public service broadcasters. BBC earns 70% of its revenue from a license fee. Prasar Bharati does not earn any subscription revenue, which accounts for 36% of revenue for all commercial TV channels in India today. DD currently has 8 per cent of ad revenue share among TV channels.

The bottom line looks something like this. DD is not autonomous, not particularly watched, and expensive to maintain. Its staffing costs make up most of its cost. The bulk of its staff are engineers who are increasingly redundant. Satellite transmission does not require hundreds of manned terrestrial transmitters. The rest of the staff are for programming when 80 per cent of programming content is outsourced.

The Pitroda committee suggests that terrestrial transmission be jettisoned in favour of satellite transmission which 92 per cent of the country is on. Junk terrestrial, free up that spectrum and release it for commercial use. One straight recommendation should have been: any revenue accruing from resale of spectrum given up by Prasar Bharati should be put into a fund to create a corpus for its running.

This leaves us with the million dollar question: does India need public service programming? That is a no brainer, it does. In hundreds of villages and slums all over the country the default public service broadcasters today are the Discovery, Animal Planet and National Geographic channels. The rural poor have shifted to DTH. Do those channels meet all their information needs? Of course not. But they make for compelling viewing.

If Mr Narendra Modi is going to be the next Big Chief as the polls maintain, he could begin by looking at the wasted opportunity DD has become. And he could begin in Gujarat where a labourer told me dryly last December in a Surat slum, “If you want to find out about DD, then you should go the rural areas. In the rural areas of Gujarat they watch it. They watch because there is no cable channel there.”

Reprinted from Mint Feb 6, 2014

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