Prasar Bharati and the broadcasting bill

BY Thakore| IN Opinion | 26/08/2006
Prasar Bharati and the broadcasting bill







The subterfuge with which DD and AIR have been introduced as public service broadcasters deserves a universal standing ovation.






Hammer and tongs




The Broadcasting Bill (Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006) has invited the opprobrium of some, especially section 24 that decries the seizure and confiscation of certain equipment if certain sections or subsections of the proposed act are contravened. A number of other sections of the bill leave a lot for any serious media analyst to argue with. But the subterfuge with which Doordarshan and All India Radio have been introduced as public service broadcasters deserves an universal standing ovation for bureaucratic sleight of hand in a bill that has as its intent among other things the provision of information in a "fair, objective and competitive manner."


It is to the subterfuge that one pays homage and does it in the only way it can be done, which is by elucidating the manner in which Prasar Bharati is introduced as a public service broadcaster. In section 2 of the Bill there is a list of definitions wherein under (ll) we get the definition of a public service broadcaster. It reads, "Public service broadcaster means any entity whose primary objective is to provide broadcasting content to the public that is socially and culturally relevant and in public interest and welfare." I can scarcely think of any television channel in India that would not meet this rather benign and all-enveloping definition. Think about it. Anything that is not socially and culturally relevant would not be able to garner an audience and anything that does not get audience would not be commercially successful. All television channels in one form or the other air those programmes that are socially and culturally relevant. If it is not relevant then these programmes do not have any acceptability whatever may be the like or dislike anyone may have towards the content of the programming. The crime programmes on late-night television are hideous, for me, but they excite the interest of a sizeable number of people and they do so because these people feel that is it relevant to their lives. Unless we consider people dupes, and one hopes we do not want to turn arbiters in a hurry, the relevance test is met easily by most channels.


Let us turn to public interest and welfare. The questions are who defines public interest and what is exactly welfare? It is a truism that many entertainment programmes that have only a slight semblance to the state of affairs often give the people more insights into serious issues of politics than news does. A program that lampoons politicians using puppets may be more insightful for the population than a talk-show with nodding heads, a screeching host, and a bunch of studio-guests tutored or pre-selected to ask set questions. Research shows that late-night comedy shows in the United States are important sources of political information for young adults. Also, information or entertainment as a source of welfare is a rather tenous thread on which to hang social amelioration as even the best social marketers know. Is the depiction of a large family in a soap struggling to make do a better way to communicate family planning or a 15-second public service announcement with dancing figures singing "We two and our two." The Mexican telenovellas are a perfect illustration. Moreover, uses and gratification approaches suggest, and they are by no means discredited, that a program or cultural product is used in the manner thought appropriate or needed by the audience.


So what finally remains is the "primary objective" in the definition. I would like to come across a channel whose primary objective in one form or the other would not be "providing broadcasting content to the public that is socially and culturally relevant and in public interest and welfare." If ever there was a sillier definition of public service broadcasting that made no mention of the means of its operation, control, and dissemination, one is still to come across it. And yet, one would be happy to have such an idea in the bill.


So when does the next mention of the "public service broadcaster" appear. It appears in section 3 where the central government is given the power to exempt a "public service broadcaster or such other category of broadcasters, as may be specified, from all or any of the provisions of this Act." Swell thing for an act that intends "to promote, facilitate and develop in an orderly manner the carriage and content of broadcasting." Well what the sovereign gives, it takes away. Even this may be forgiven for customary plenipotentiary behaviour.


It is the third and last mention of the "public service broadcaster" that takes the cake. All along one would believe that under the definition some broadcasters would be treated as public service broadcasters. And that would be true. But for the fact that this bill provides parenthetically in section 6 that deals with sports programming that "Public broadcasters, i.e. Doordarshan and All India Radio of Prasar Bharati" shall be allowed to carry those sports programming that are notified by the Central government as being of "national importance" on such terms as may be specified. I am all for sports programming being broadcast in a manner that reaches the greatest number, especially when Kipling`s flannelled fools of whom I am an admirer are performing.


But since when did Doordarshan and All India Radio under Prasar Bharati whose functioning came in for some comment and criticism in the Shunu Sen Committee Report, which has not been adequately taken into account, become a public service broadcaster. Just because the acts deftly inserts it, or should the authority decide whether it meets the test. Competing for advertisements just like other channels, with entertainment programming that in not much different, and with news programming that still genuflects to the masters in power, and with its cadres drawn from a state service, I wonder how this arm of the government, despite the Prasar Bharati Act, can become a public service broadcaster.


It is this deus ex machina that gives the citizen every reason to believe that the intent of this Act is not as much the facilitation or development of broadcasting or even the constituting of an independent authority, but the putting into place of an act that can be used to exempt an arm of the government from any oversight and check, and at the same time to give the government an instrument, as always bloated and bureaucratic, with which to leash the broadcasters even as it can allow for favoured  transgressors to run rabid.


This bill is in need of serious debate and revision.






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