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 Up loaded on Wednesday February 17, 2010

Future of Public Broadcasting in India.

       There is a world-wide debate today to reclaim the cultural space usurped by commercial interests much to the degradation of social life. While there are some reservations on how effective state-run broadcasting can be in doing this, it is an opportune time to ride the public sentiment and regain the lost ground writes Padmaja Shaw.

Unless one is Rupert Murdoch, very few people have serious objections to the idea of public broadcasting. It’s almost like motherhood and apple pie. But both the high priest of commercial broadcasting, Rupert Murdoch, and the disappointed votaries of public broadcasting have some serious bone to pick with the shape public broadcasting takes in various socio-political contexts.

                 Even as it was struggling with colonialism and its brutal impact on its society, India got an early entry into the annals of broadcast history. The early influence of BBC gave it a head start both by way of technology and understanding about what social purpose broadcasting could serve. All India Radio evolved as a self-confident medium uninterrupted for about thirty years after Independence up until 1977. All major cultural talent in India passed through its portals and found its initial moorings there.

                Partly from the time television arrived on the scene in a big way in the mid-seventies and much more so with the expansion of electronic media in the commercial sector, the public broadcasters in India feel more and more compelled to be defensive about what they stand for, to be apologetic. The commercialization of the media market was accompanied by strident attacks on the state-run broadcaster. Some popular arguments for attack being, ‘it is not the job of the government to run electronic media’, or ‘Why should public pay for programming that they don’t watch’. While some of the arguments may sound true, it is important to examine what lead to this popular perception.

         In this paper, I would like to address these perceptions and the need for clarity on these issues:

a. Not the job of the government to run broadcasting:

This wisdom dawned on the third world intellectuals after President Reagan popularised deregulation in the overall economy and more specifically in the media industries in United States of America. The mid-80s and 90s saw a spate of regulatory fiats which opened up the markets for private sector media players all over the world. The argument was that the private sector is more responsive and will cater to the needs of the market with greater efficiency, while ensuring diversity.

                The advent of private broadcasters was greeted with great excitement and anticipation. But soon, the private enterprises’ business priorities made it clear to the consumer/audience that diversity and innovation are not a priority to the private operators. Unlike the state-run broadcasting, neither did private enterprise privilege the cultural and national goals.

              The reality of private sector’s actual performance in the marketplace is unfolding before us every day much to the chagrin of parents, teachers and civil society in general. The private sector not only failed to cater to the needs of the people, it chases success formulas, without diversity and without much creativity. It is frenetic, market driven and is changing the cultural landscape of the country into a quagmire of immorality, corruption and violence.
With this experience of what the private sector broadcasting is capable of, there is little doubt that a large section of the population is looking for an alternative. Broadcasting being technology intensive and capital intensive, it is well understood that it is either the deep pockets of big business or the state that can set up broadcasting enterprises.

              The Indian state built up a formidable terrestrial broadcasting network over the last 62 years after Independence. The network continues to be the most watched in term of sheer reach to all nooks and corners of the country and cutting across all classes of audience. The miniscule ratings that the satellite channels boast of are no competition to the extraordinary access Prasar Bharati has to its audience. It also serves the interests of a vast rural, poor audience who do not have disposable income and who are not valued as consumers by the commercial media. This in itself is an important contribution.

              But the impact of rapid and successful expansion of commercial media industry on Prasar Bharati has been adverse over the years, not so much in loss of commercial revenue but in loss of policy direction. The public broadcaster began to convince itself that to fight this market, it is necessary to lose its essence and to mimic the competition. The successful public broadcasters across the globe have cautiously avoided this and strengthened their programming strategies instead to provide a high quality alternative to the commercial product. It is for Prasar Bharati to rediscover its former clarity of vision and provide healthy entertainment and information to the audience. More than ever, it is necessary for the state to strengthen its broadcast set up to provide a credible alternative to the commercial broadcasting.

              The answer to the statement, ‘it is not the job of the government to run electronic media’ is, it is the job of the government to protect the public from the onslaught of commercial media by providing alternate cultural products. India is known to be a very different kind of market. It is well known that subscription channels like the BBC and Discovery are doing well in India. There is a fairly good chunk of audience that is willing to support good programming. Only the larger publicly funded systems (BBC of UK and PBS/NPR of USA) will have the wherewithal to take on the commercial channels. The public broadcaster must revive its faith in its audience and address their cultural needs.

b. ‘Why should public pay for programming that they don’t      watch?’

The implication of such a statement is: Commercial broadcasting is providing what the public wants and therefore gets ratings and advertisements. Advertising supported media is free. Expensive media products are generated and delivered to the audience free of cost. This is a myth that has been actively promoted by the media industry and the advertisers. The issue really is what is being watched and in which context and who is paying for what.
Advertising-driven content has many peculiarities to it. Firstly, it assumes much about what the viewer/listener wants and by repeatedly promoting some products and ideas, normalises them. For instance, the newly launched FM stations do not have access to much of high quality music that AIR has. However, by repeatedly playing what is available and presentation couched in bantering conversation with the listener is insidiously making the listening experience ‘interesting’. It is this poor quality product attractively packaged that makes money quickly and moves on to something new, which is the primary characteristic of commercial media business. Some kind of hit and run strategy.

                  The other is, if any charge is associated with the experience of media products, the scenario will be different, as is evident from Rupert Murdoch’s media empire grappling with the idea of charging for its products. Respected establishments like the BBC (domestic and online, not the world service) are providing very high quality product free AND without the support of advertising, News Corporation is hesitating to charge as it may lose a large segment of its current ‘patrons’. This more or less leads us to the point that the news and entertainment consumer will not pay for what he is supposed to be wanting from his media house if it is to be paid for. Crime, sensationalism and disaster news and mindless entertainment that is advertiser-supported and free to the consumer, will have far lesser chance when the consumer begins to play the role of a ‘rational being’ in the economy and spends only on products he perceives as Value-for-Money. This already operates in the film industry. Films that don’t make the cut fail at the box office. The film-goer will not spend his hard-earned money on a poorly made film. However, he may well see it when it is shown on television ‘free’. This does not give us the liberty to claim that that’s what the audience really wants. Much poor quality programming gets by because it’s there, and it’s free.

                  There is a need to make the audience aware of the enormous material and cultural cost of advertising to the consumer. By perpetuating the myth that advertiser supported programming is free, we are not just helping to cover up the hidden social and cultural costs of advertising, we are also getting the audience to accept a much poorer standard of programming ... (we cannot be too demanding about what we don’t even pay for, can we? Even if we are, who’s listening?).

                   Delivering his acceptance speech at the International Press Institute Award 2007, the eminent editor-in-chief of Outlook group of publications, Mr Vinod Mehta* said, “…. content is a mix of what the reader wants and what he does not want. The trick is to marry the two and make money.” More importantly, he concluded, “Really great journalism must do more than merely give people what they want. There has to be room for the unexpected, for stories the public has no idea it wants until it sees them….. “ Ideally, this would be a fitting motto for good public broadcasting too. A good broadcaster also leads audience tastes, doesn’t always follow them.

                 Common belief about public broadcasting is that it guzzles public money. When public money is invested, it also carries the onus of providing programming that is of use. But in the case of AIR and Doordarshan, the licensing revenues and advertising revenues that they earn are not always available for improving programming. Historically, there has been an obsession with technological expansion at the cost of programming. Added to this, the new mantra of all public enterprises, self-sufficiency.

                No public broadcasting enterprise can be expected to survive merely as a profit centre. Expenditure on public broadcasting is an investment in the future of a community. Leaving the cultural landscape entirely to the private enterprise is to abdicate the responsibility of the state in protecting the cultural diversity and integrity of the nation (just as the state is also responsible for the unity and integrity of the country).
Looking to the future….

              There is a world-wide debate today to reclaim the cultural space usurped by commercial interests much to the degradation of social life. While there are some reservations on how effective state-run broadcasting can be in doing this, it is an opportune time to ride the public sentiment and regain the lost ground. A public broadcaster’s identity is closely tied to the kind of programmes it can deliver and the value-for money it can create in public perception. For this, the public broadcaster needs firstly to be proud of its achievements; while boasting of a proud legacy, it also needs to get young and speak to a 21st century nation of young people. Be present on the net - on Facebook, Twitter and other sites to create a buzz on important issues that the broadcasters are focusing on. Interestingly, All India Radio is already on Facebook … but wait a minute... it’s not our Aakashvani… it is an Australian music band!


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