Television

"DD News should go on air sometime before 31 December 2003" : K.S. Sarma Prasar Bharati's Chief Executive

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India’s pubcaster Prasar Bharati, which oversees the functioning of Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR), has always been looked upon as a slumbering behemoth.

With assets (including real estate) worth Rs 550 billion and a workforce that runs well over 40,000, the broadcaster has been under severe criticism for its below-than-expected performance. It is also blamed for being pliable to political manoeuvrings - the recent ouster of DD’s director general SY Quraishi being a case in point.

With the assembly elections in five states of India around the corner; and the general elections slated for 2004, DD and AIR become an important vehicle for the government to push through its messages, especially those related to reforms. Information and broadcasting (I&B) minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had indicated this when he once said, "Developmental news too can be projected in an entertaining way."

With criticisms flying thick, the job of Prasar Bharati's chief executive KS Sarma, a career bureaucrat, is not a piece of cake. But Sarma, an old hand at juggling tricky situations, has adapted very well at Prasar Bharati.

Sarma is an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from the Andhra Pradesh cadre. He has worked in his home state as education secretary before coming to Delhi. He has also had a stint at the I&B ministry as joint secretary, broadcasting, where he got his brushes with DD and AIR affairs.

From the I&B ministry, Sarma moved on to the human resources development ministry. Later on, amidst some allegations of string-pulling, he landed the job of the Prasar Bharati CEO.

On the upside, Sarma has done pretty well at Prasar Bharati, playing the balancing act with aplomb. Better still, the man is known to deliver. After all, it is only during his tenure that AIR has crossed the magic figure of Rs 1billion in revenues (in the last financial year).

In an interview with indiantelevision.com’s Anjan Mitra, Sarma discusses the future of Prasar Bharati, some ambitious projects that have now slowed down due to lack of additional funding, and the much-hyped relaunch of DD’s news channel.





Excerpts:

What is the big picture that you’d like to paint for Prasar Bharati?



Well, AIR has done tremendously well last year as well as this. We expect it rake up good revenues too. DD’s KU-band direct-to-home (DTH) project is expected to get off the ground in the near future and, of course, there is DD's news channel that is to be relaunched.

At Prasar Bharati, things cannot move as fast as they do in private channels - one has to understand that.

Let's take one issue at a time. What is the status report on DD’s ambitious DTH project? We have been hearing about it for quite some time now...



Do you think that a project like DTH would be up and running overnight? We have negotiated with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for transponders on Insat satellite for the project. We expect to get them soon.

Then, we would start talks with free-to-air (FTA) private satellite channels and pay channels to come on to our platform. Most probably, the DTH venture should be operational by April 2004. Now, that’s not a bad going.

"DD's DTH service will primarily aim at providing quality signals to homes situated in areas where cables are difficult to lay and terrestrial TV signals are weak."

How many channels would DD start its DTH project with? Why would private satellite and pay channels come on your platform when there are other similar ones in the pipeline?



We are looking at starting the DTH service with about 30 channels - including 20 Prasar Bharati channels and 10 private channels. We are working out a rate card for private FTA channels that would join the DTH service. I would be holding the first round of talks with the channels in Chennai.

The biggest advantage of DD’s DTH platform is that it is a free service, in the sense that DD would be distributing the boxes free of cost. In case of most other DTH projects, subscribers would have to pay for the hardware too, apart from a monthly subscription fee.

Our DTH service will primarily aim at providing quality signals to homes situated in places where cables are difficult to lay and terrestrial TV’s signals are weak.

Our biggest advantage is that initially our DTH service would be almost free of cost. I am sure private satellite channels and pay channels would want to gain access into the untapped markets through our platform.

However, since the project involves heavy investments, the additional funds cleared by the I&B ministry has to get the Cabinet’s nod. Unless the Cabinet’s panel on economic affairs clears the funds for the project, money won’t be disbursed. We hope that this clearance comes through soon.

If the DTH service will be for free, what would be the criteria for distributing the box and the dish that would be needed to access the service?



The distribution of boxes and other hardware would take place on a formula that we have worked out. The thrust of the marketing would be in those places where the (cable and terrestrial TV's) reception figures are less than the all-Indian average.

This means that states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and North-eastern states, apart from 10 other states, would get preference for the DTH service hardware. Both cable and terrestrial TV’s reception in such places are less than in the rest of the country. The endeavour would be to give people from these region better television service.

Also, educational institutions, like the Navodaya Vidyalaya would get the DTH service boxes ahead of others and completely free.

DD is going to re-launch its news channel that closed down last year. How are the preparations going on?



The news channel would be relaunched as we felt there is a growing need to give news and current affairs programming to our viewers. Because DD is a pubcaster, the significance of this in manifold.

The ministry and the expenditure finance committee has sanctioned additional funds (approximately Rs 1,230 million) for the news channel, but it’s awaiting Cabinet clearance. Still, we are going ahead with news and equipment automation work as per schedule, which, anyway, had to be done.

"We have learnt from our mistakes and decided to not commission our programmes to outsiders."

DD News shut shop last year after experimenting at the taxpayers' expense. How would it be different this time?



The Prasar Bharati Board is aware and concerned about the issue. We have learnt from our mistakes and decided to not commission our programmes to outsiders (as done the last time). If at all some commissioning is done, it would be a minuscule part of the whole programming strategy.





(When first launched in 2000, DD News was a satellite channel; and its closure almost 18 months after its birth, was assigned to poor visibility in cable homes, because of the reluctance of the cable operators to put the news channels on the prime band. It was said that because DD News was a satellite channel, it could not attain the penetration it deserved. Nobody had blamed the content.)

But Prasar Bharati, is probably the only broadcaster that is closing down its entertainment channel, DD Metro, to make way for a news channel (which had incurred heavy losses earlier). Why?



DD Metro is not giving us the revenue it used to. The Board is of the view that if the news channel is revived, then it has to replace the entertainment channel. Metro is also a satellite-based channel, but received terrestrially in the metros.

In 1997, Metro earned revenues to the tune of Rs 1,050 million. Today the same channel is getting revenues worth about Rs 220 million. The Board is certainly concerned about the drop in the revenue.

When is the news channel likely to go on air?



DD News should go on air sometime before 31 December 2003. I cannot give you an exact date at present.

Wasn’t Prasar Bharati flaunting a tentative date of 2 October (birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi) for the relaunch?



If Prasar Bharati had its way, we would have liked to start the news channel earlier. As I told you, we are still awaiting the disbursal of additional funds.

What is Prasar Bharati doing with DD Sports, another channel that has been languishing in the stable?



We are bullish about DD Sports, now that we have managed to take the distribution work back. Subject to the Board’s approval, we are thinking of a three-pronged strategy for the channel. That would include auctioning off prime time to private players, collaborating with other sports channels and ensuring that regional centers of DD supply more sports-related software. That would make the channel relevant to various regions of the country.

"We are thinking of a three-pronged strategy for DD Sports. It includes auctioning off prime-time to private players, collaborating with other sports channels and ensuring that regional DD centers supply more sports-related software."

Is DD looking at gaining substantial revenue from auctioning off time on DD Sports and collaborating with other sports channel?



Well, it may not turn out to be a gold mine, but some revenue would definitely flow in.

The prime time that we plan to auction on DD Sports between 8-10 pm would necessarily have new programming, while we can offer some other time band, like the afternoon time, to some sports channel to showcase their archival material. This way, we would be able to have a mix of fresh and archival material for which the revenue earned can be shared between DD and the other party.

Because DD offers a platform that is still unmatched by others in terms of reach, I think this three-pronged strategy should work.

What is the cost that Prasar Bharati incurs annually to run a channel like DD Sports?



Last year, we incurred a cost of about Rs 1,000 million on the channel. That is why we need to augment the revenue through innovative marketing schemes.

If I generate the revenue, then I can also buy the telecast rights of big sporting events. Because Prasar Bharati does not have surplus funds, DD would not be able to air Davis Cup tennis tournament this year. Their rate of $ 60,000 is too high for us.

AIR has been one of your favourite organisations and it has performed well too. What are the plans for the current year?



The full opportunities in radio, I think, have not yet been exploited. There are about 80 million TV sets in the country, whereas the comparable figure for radio is way ahead at 130 million sets. Can you imagine the business opportunity that AIR offers us through its vast network?

Why aren’t these opportunities being exploited?



They are being exploited. Otherwise, how could have AIR mopped up over Rs 1,000 million in revenues last financial year for the first time in its history. But all these things take time.

We are looking at exploiting the various new services that we have started. For example, the news-over-phone at AIR’s centers at Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai, Patna, Kolkata and Delhi generate thousands of calls for various telecom companies.

If the Board gives me the go ahead, I’d like to start negotiations with the telecom companies for revenue sharing on calls that are made to the AIR centers for news. AIR gets over 3,000 calls per day, mostly from the US, for example.

What are the other initiatives taken for AIR?



Prasar Bharati is toying with the idea of starting a classical music radio channel from Bangalore with four hours of telecast to begin with. If possible, a similar channel can be started from Lucknow too as AIR has some fabulous classical fare in its archives. But all these are still in an exploratory stage.

Another idea that is being explored is starting a 24-hour news channel on short waves. Prasar Bharati has made available the day time to non-governmental organisations for airing programmes as part of community radio service in medium wave. This service is being made available through a 6-kilo watt transmitter in Delhi.

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