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'Prasa r Bharati has potential to turn into profitable organisation' : KS Sarma - Prasar Bharati chief executive officer

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As a career bureaucrat, KS Sarma is neither a stranger to the Indian political system nor the opportunities that it throws up if one wants to do something worthwhile. Stints in various ministries in Delhi, apart from the state government of Andhra Pradesh, have given Sarma ample scope to display his talents. His critics at times have termed it histrionics.

But such things have never deterred this suave South Indian who finds himself at ease even in the hurly-burly snooty world of the Capital and north India.If his stay in the human resources development ministry, when he was in charge of pre-college level education at regional level, is termed as "enriching" by him, his stint at Prasar Bharati as the CEO of the world's largest public service broadcaster has been "challenging."

In this interview with Indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra, Prasar Bharati CEO KS Sarma holds forth on a wide-ranging subjects, at times quite frankly, and at times in his imitable diplomatic style on a day when he's working late in the office, which must have stretched further as an official meeting with the information and broadcasting minister Priyaranjan Dasmunshi had been scheduled.

Excerpts:

How would you assess Prasar Bharati?s performance as 2005 year nears an end?

It is turning out to be decent year and hopefully the financial year (ending 31 March, 2005) would also help us meet raised revenue targets.

Both Doordarshan and All India Radio are trying to make themselves more seen and heard amongst people and that, I feel, is a good sign of some aggressiveness. We also have TAM data that indicates DD?s viewership in cable and satellite homes has grown by 18 per cent in one year?s time. What?s satisfying that such growth has not come for any other single channel in the same period.

However, the progress also signals that we?d have to work harder to keep the momentum going, which is the tougher part of the game. Especially when an organization like Prasar Bharati is put under a scanner for even the smallest of things. We are criticized continuously for not living up to the image of a public broadcaster, while on the other hand, the organization is also expected to be self-sufficient. But that, I presume, is part of Prasar Bharati?s life, which has always had so much of potential and still continues to do so.

What are the challenges before Prasar Bharati at this juncture when satellite TV has become a pre-dominant supplier of entertainment and Indian politicians increasingly want more control over DD and AIR?

We are seized with the issue of improving our content, especially on DD channels. This, please, remember we have to do while keeping in mind Prasar Bharati?s role as a public broadcaster that also has to provide wholesome entertainment to the masses of India. The task is not easy as many will think it to be. For example, DD has strict programming codes, which forbids it from airing many type of shows that are staple for satellite entertainment channels.



Another challenge is to do efficient marketing of our programmes that used to be outsourced to third parties. From this year we have decided to do our own marketing whether it?s cricket, serials or movies.

We are also trying to fine tune the self-financing scheme relating to serials, which was introduced earlier this year. This scheme helps us not only to sell airtime more effectively, but gives DD the ownership of programmes produced by outsiders, while a chance to control content. In the past, the rights of some of DD?s best programming, especially serials and popular shows, used to remain with producers as they bought time on DD channels. We have done away with the sponsored slots now.

However, the biggest challenge, which can also be called an

achievement, is to change the mindset of people working in Prasar Bharati. The outlook has become more commercial, while keeping the public service broadcaster?s image in mind. I agree, we cannot change set notions and perceptions at one go, but a more concerted effort is being made to revitalize the manpower, which will bear fruits in times to come.

What is this self-financing scheme all about?

The self financing scheme (SFS) puts a stop to sponsored programmes where outside producers used to buy time slots on DD after paying an amount and in return got a fixed amount of commercial time, depending on the amount of time bought. This free commercial time used to be hawked in the market by the producers who also retained the rights over the programmes. Most of the time intense competition compelled these producers to undercut prices (advertising rates) to fill up inventory, which spoiled the market for DD programmes.

Under SFS, in short, Doordarshan appraises programmes and pays outside producers a certain amount factoring in a profit margin for them. Not only the rights lie with DD now, but the on-air life of such programming is linked to ratings. If a certain programme is not delivering the desired ratings, we take it off the air after giving it a notice.



'We are seized with the issue of improving our content, especially on DD channels'

Do you foresee in-house marketing initiatives bearing fruit this financial year (ending March 2006) or would the results start reflecting from next year?

Oh, yes! The marketing and programming initiatives are bearing fruits as are other strategies to tap other sources of revenue. We have been doing quite well this financial year (April-March) and expect to close our books in March 2006 with Rs 1,000 crore (Rs. 10 billion) in total revenue. End October figures tell me that we have mopped up revenues worth about Rs 600 crore (Rs. 6 billion).

(In the FY 2004-05 fiscal, Prasar Bharati raked in revenues in the

region of Rs 7.88 billion. DD?s share being approximately Rs 6.53 billion and AIR?s Rs 1.35 billion.)

What are the other sources of revenue that Prasar Bharati is tapping that had not been done so far?

Our marketing on the government front has got more aggressive. I made a presentation to the information and broadcasting ministry where the underline theme was that if a government diktat says all government employees should fly (state-controlled) Indian Airlines in an effort to boost its revenues, all advertising related to the government and its agencies should be given to DD and AIR. If not all, at least 70 per cent of such ad spend should come to Prasar Bharati.

Gaining from our experience last year where we undertook big projects for some ministries like agriculture and family welfare and health, this year too we are doing so. For example, we do a project of narrowcasting for the agriculture ministry where important information related to agriculture is disseminated to farmers through our terrestrial low-powered transmitters.

This DD and AIR project, worth Rs.100 crore (Rs. 1 billion), was

important for the ministry as India is primarily an agrarian economy.

From broadcasting to narrowcasting is quite a way traveled. How much do such activities contribute to the coffers of the world?s largest public broadcaster?

We are in the process of concluding deals with the ministries of

science & technology, human resources development and environment. While these ministries have huge funds for such activities, Prasar Bharati has the reach through its TV and radio networks. The combination works well.

I would imagine that government and government department-related work should contribute at least Rs. 300 crore (Rs. 3 billion) this financial year, signifying an upswing from last year.

Revenue generation seems to be the latest mantra in Prasar Bharati. Is that why the organization lobbied hard with the government to have laws favouring it where sports content, especially cricket, is concerned?

Why not ? Prasar Bharati?s reach amongst the masses, which is the target for the government, is maximum amongst all broadcasters present in India. And, what?s the big issue with cricket? That cricket is a big revenue earner for us is a big misconception. Moreover, the laws that you are referring to

have been enacted by the government so that a huge chunk of the population that does not have access to cable and satellite TV gets to see quality sports, which may include cricket.

You seem to be deliberately downplaying the cricket aspect. Why this sudden aversion to cricket?

As I said, there?s a misconception about cricket on DD. Let me give you an example. In the four years (up to 2004) that DD had the telecast rights to domestic cricket, it invested approximately Rs. 400 crore (Rs. 4 billion) in rights fee and production and other sundry costs. At the end of four years, DD?s net returns were just Rs. 600 million. From the present one-day cricket series against Sri Lanka and South Africa, DD?s net gains will be approximately Rs. 350 million after paying the rights fee. So, what?s the

big deal about cricket?

However, cricket helps DD in retaining viewership for other programmes. The chances of a viewer sticking around after a cricket match to check out the programme following it, is high. Feedback from TAM has indicated this and we are trying to capitalize on this.

Such pathetic returns from cricket has been inefficient or

manipulated marketing of events. Moreover, new media laws will get Prasar Bharati cricket matches at nominal cost. Your comments.


When did I say we haven?t suffered from outsourcing marketing to other agencies? That?s why, we have taken to marketing all programmes on DD in-house. Still, as we are on the learning curve, give us some more time to sharpen our marketing skills.

As far as going out and bidding for cricket is concerned, there are so many restrictions on Prasar Bharati that it becomes difficult to behave in way as a private sector channel. Every paise that we spend is scrutinized by various agencies.

Tell us about some other initiatives that Prasar Bharati is

undertaking.


We hope to launch by early January (target is the New Year ?s Day) in Chennai and Delhi news on mobile vehicles as part of our digital terrestrial transmission move. Later, we plan to take this unique service to Mumbai and Kolkata.Then, as we complete digitalization of our libraries and the transmission process, we?ll have some surplus infrastructure to rent to others. For instance, private FM radio players would be using Prasar Bharati transmission towers for co-locating their own transmitters in various cities.

We are also in the process of introducing scrolling advertisements on our local transmitters for region-specific channels that?ll compete with cable operators? video channels very effectively.

Has the proposal to make forays in other countries been nixed by the government?

We have concluded deals with distributors in the US for four DD

channels--- DD India (the international channel), DD News, DD Punjabi and DD Bengali --- for a period of five years. The channels will be distributed on the EchoStar platform. Prasar Bharati gets $ 3 million for DD India, $ 2 million for DD News, $ 1 million for DD Punjabi and $ 300,000 for the Bengali channel. Two radio channels too will be distributed in the US.

We are also in the process of floating tenders for distribution rights in places like Canada and the Middle East. In the future, we?ll increase the number of channels to places like the US.

The finance ministry, however, hasn?t cleared our proposal to enter the UK on the BSkyB platform. I would say, the issue is in the melting pot still.

How?s the DTH service is doing and are there any plans to book separate ads for channels on DD Direct + platform?

On last count, five million boxes of DD Direct+ have been sold by

various box manufacturers. Though our target is to reach 10 million households by December 2006, which is a decent number of subscribers, there are no plans at present to separately sell airtime for DD channels on the DTH platform.

AIR has always been the unsung sibling of DD. How?s it doing?

Not bad at all. AIR is expected to cross the Rs. 200 crore (Rs 2

billion) mark this year in terms of revenue.

Do you think the strident employees? unions of Prasar Bharati will allow a proposed financial restructuring of the organization?

The restructuring will be good for the organisation and the employees' unions (that had petitioned the Prime Minister earlier this year to dismantle Prasar Bharati's existing autonomous structure) too is supporting us the move now. They were afraid of their salaries and perks, but have realized a restructuring will make Prasar Bharati fighting fit, allowing it also to tap the capital market and other institutions for funds.

What are the other benefits of the financial restructuring of Prasar Bharati being proposed by the government?

First and foremost, such a restructuring enables an organization to tap the various sources of funds as government backing would lessen over a period of time as part of recommendations made in the 10th Five-Year Plan, which is likely to be included in the next Plan period also.

The restructuring will also help Prasar Bharati go public if the need

be. But don?t ask me how and when because such issues can only be addressed when the time comes.

As you near the end of your tenure as the CEO of Prasar Bharati in July 2006 having reached the age limit of 62 years, how would you term your four-year term?

An eventful one. There have been ups and downs, but it has been

challenging to work in Prasar Bharati, an organization with great potentials, but limitations also. I have tried in my own little way in contributing towards the organisation?s betterment.

(As the CEO, Sarma has worked with four I&B ministers, while the tally goes up to eight if one takes into account his long tenure as a bureaucrat having served in various capacities in the I&B ministry, amongst others.)

Lastly, do you think that Prasar Bharati can ever make profit and be in the black?

I certainly do. Over the next five years or so, Prasar Bharati has the potential of becoming a profitable organization, if managed

professionally. After all, BBC did not become what it is today in one day and even there the British government has a lot of say in the running of its affairs.

Pictures by SANJAY SHARMA/Indiapix Network

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