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A whiff of fresh opportunities for Prasar Bharati

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Almost 16 years after it was formally set up, pubcaster Prasar Bharati may be able to tide over its most pressing crises in the next three years – provided it manages to avoid the bureaucratic pitfalls that it has been continually encountering.

The passing of the Prasar Bharati Amendment Act 2011 taking a major financial burden of salaries off its shoulders, the government’s digitisation plan for both All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan, the ambitious expansion of Doordarshan’s free-to-air DTH DD Direct Plus, and the expansion of FM Radio which not only give AIR more stations but extra income by giving news slots to the private FM channels – these are all signs of major opportunities that the pubcaster can grab over the next two to three years.

Added to this is the promise of early introduction of a comprehensive re-modeled Prasar Bharati Act which will take away a lot of the shortcomings noticed over the past 15 years since it was notified in 1997.

But if the public broadcaster has to stay afloat in a sea of almost 750 TV channels and the over 800 private FM Channels that will become a reality after FM Phase III, it has to realise its weaknesses and attempt to overcome these. And its greatest weakness lies in its organisation, with Indian Administrative Officers manning key posts which should ideally be given to broadcasters or to officers of the Indian Broadcasting (Programme) Service which was created especially for this purpose in the early eighties.

A comprehensive study made by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has also identified the different forms of challenges the pubcaster faces. In the first place, it has to compete with different kinds of content being tried by broadcasters and which may not be possible on AIR or Doordarshan.

The failure to successfully monitor the must-carry clause has resulted in most cable operators still resisting putting DD or Parliament channels on their prime bands.

Competition from six private direct-to-home (DTH) delivery platforms – Dish TV, Tata Sky, Sun Direct TV, Airtel Digital TV, Reliance Digital TV, and Videocon d2h – is also a major challenge since DD Direct Plus only carries free to air channels and not popular encrypted channels.

There is no record of subscribers to DD Direct Plus since it entails a one-time expenditure of purchase of dish antennae and there is no subscription base.

Prasar Bharati also faces other problems: it is still dependent to a large extent on casual manpower for both AIR and Doordarshan and has been facing constraints of funds and manpower to implement schemes that may come in the way of progress. There have been constant time and cost overruns due to weak planning and implementation.

There is also non-availability of land and tower infrastructure for Prasar Bharati in most of the cities proposed for expansion of FM channels and most states which have been asked to give land have so far not done so.

But Prasar Bharati’s strength lies in a dedicated listenership to its FM Gold and FM Rainbow channels; a large viewership base of Doordarshan which offers immense potential; the inclusion of a large number of private regional and some foreign TV channels in addition to DD’s own on its DTH service; a wide network of DD Programme Production Centres throughout the country and availability of DD network throughout the country.

The switch to High Definition TV with the Commonwealth Games in 2010 has opened up a lot of opportunities to DD, and Prasar Bharati is also set to earn revenue from giving content to viewers of TV on mobile phones. Digital technology would be more acceptable to listeners and viewers as it tremendously enhances the quality of transmission and broadcast.

Both AIR and DD are now gearing up to meet the challenges, albeit riddled with bureaucratic wrangles and financial constraints.

AIR has embarked upon a sweeping modernisation programme during 2011-16 that will see it broadcasting to the entire country with state-of-the-art technology. Having already covered 99 per cent of the population and area under the analogue mode, AIR has made detailed plans of increasing the coverage to 100 per cent under the digital mode. This coverage would strengthen broadcasting to all strategic border areas as well. Within this 100 per cent coverage on the primary grade signal (MW & SW), coverage by FM signal will increase from 37 per cent to 90 per cent of the population. This would entail digital broadcast in FM band from 50 places in the country including all State capitals and major cities.

The digitalisation of the entire network including studios, transmission and connectivity would include replacement of old/obsolete equipment. In addition, strengthening of related civil infrastructure would also be taken up, particularly for imparting training to staff in the field of digital technology and intensifying related R&D programmes. Staff productivity will be further enhanced through implementation of Assured Career Progression scheme for existing staff and induction of fresh talent. Investment in e-governance will be made for ensuring efficient management of the vast AIR network.

Digitalisation will enable AIR to make its broadcast available on alternate platforms such as webcasting / Podcasting / SMS / Mobile services. A 24-hour AIR news channel is planned besides a speech quality programme. The entertainment programme will be broadcast on the main channel to compete with the best in the industry.

Introduction of value-added-services (Vas) like Interactive Text Transmission, Multimedia Object Transfer (MOT), disaster warning, etc have also been planned. News on Phone is already available and has been digitised in Delhi.

A total of 137 studio centres have been partially digitalised by providing hard disc based systems. There are at present 215 studio centres in the AIR network, and digitisation of 98 Studios will be achieved in the XI Plan. The remaining studios are proposed to be digitalized during the next two years. These studios will have provision for stereo recording, production and transmission, all in the digital domain.

There are 380 Transmitters in the AIR Network consisting of 149 Medium Wave, 54 Short Wave & 177 FM Transmitters. One 250 KW Short Wave Transmitter at Delhi has been converted to Digital mode and has been operational since January 2009. Another 78 MW (Medium Wave) Transmitters including six Mobile Transmitters are being digitalised as part of the XI Plan Digitisation schemes. The remaining MW Transmitters in the network are proposed to be digitalised during next few years. Nine SW (Short Wave) Transmitters (4 in Delhi, 4 in Aligarh and one in Bangalore) are being digitised as part of the Digitisation Schemes in the XI Plan. The remaining Shortwave Transmitters are proposed to be digitalized during the next two years.

At present, Digital Uplink facility is available at 32 Centres, all downlink facilities have digitised except at 44 places, and there are Digital Studio Transmitter links at 20 places, apart from four DSNG Systems (Digital News Gathering Systems). A total of 115 Studio Transmitter links are being digitised, five new Digital Captive Earth Stations are being set up (32 are already available), 44 downlink facilities are being digitised, and 98 Studio Centres being digitalised in XI Plan are being networked to a Central Data Server System for exchange of programme.

AIR programmes are presently available through terrestrial mode and DTH. As part of XI Plan, 20 AIR channels are proposed to be made available through Webcasting/Podcasting with a view to use the Internet platform to serve listeners having Internet connectivity. There are presently 21 radio channels available on the Ku band DTH platform of DD Direct Plus.

AIR will spend Rs 668.5 million on new content creation, Rs 100 million on special activities like music concerts, Rs 62 million on coverage of important international and national events and production of programmes, and an estimated Rs 24.5 million on news activities like production of special flagship programmes etc.

As far as Doordarshan is concerned, it is presently operating 35 satellite channels and has a vast network of 66 studios and 1415 transmitters providing TV coverage to about 92 per cent population of the country. Like AIR, DD will also be making a switch from analogue to digital transmitters, which would offer multi-channel transmission from single transmitter, spectrum efficiency and enhanced picture quality. Old studio, satellite broadcast and transmitter equipment will be replaced to maintain high quality of services.

In line with the trend taking place all round the world, digitalisation will continue to be the top priority so that by the end of the XII Plan, a complete analogue switch-off will have been made.

Doordarshan’s Eleventh Plan Scheme of Digitalisation involving an outlay of Rs. 6.2 billion was approved by the Government in April 2010. This essentially entails continuation of the XI plan schemes to fully digitalise the remaining 39 out of 66 studios and establishing 40 digital High Power Transmitters at existing locations. In addition, provision will be made for 590 low power digital transmitters during the XII plan. Additional infrastructure build up will include up gradation of 10 existing satellite Earth stations and setting up of 5 new ones, procurement of 15 DSNG and replacement of uplink PDAs/IRDs.

A critical component of digitalisation would be setting up facilities for providing HDTV telecasts for viewers, which has a resolution five times higher than traditional television systems. This would entail conversion of a studio for HDTV production establishing a HDTV transmitter in each of the 4 metros.

In so far as DTH service is concerned, DD will upgrade its DTH platform to accommodate 200 channels by the end of the 12th plan from the present level of 59 channels so that viewing of channels becomes less expensive than before. The programme entails establishment of 40 digital HPTs by 2013. There will be provision for 590 digital transmitters and digitisation of four analogue Studios in the 12th Plan.

Projects of setting up of HDTV studios at Delhi and Mumbai; HDTV post production, field production and preview facilities, HDTV terrestrial transmitters at Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata & Chennai; HD TV Play out facility at Delhi, Multi camera OB Vans at Delhi and Mumbai are under implementation.

DD will develop and improve content delivery to the rest of the world on essentially four channels, which are visible in 86 countries on the IS10 satellite: DD-News, DD-Sports, DD-Bharati and DD-India. DD-India channel is additionally available in North American countries, viz., USA, Canada, Mexico. Prasar Bharati is presently drawing up a plan estimated to cost around Rs one billion for strengthening the international DD India.

DD’s plans include production of 15,067 episodes for various channels in three years starting from 2010-11. Out of this, 12,400 episodes are being made in-house and 2,667 episodes commissioned through outside producers. The total cost of in-House episodes would be Rs 620 million and Rs 800 million for commissioned programmes.

Strengthening network of terrestrial transmitters in border areas will be a high priority to check adverse propaganda from across the border. Until a complete analogue switch off takes place, both High and Power Analogue Transmitters will be set up in the border areas, both afresh as well as replacement for transmitters that have served their useful life. Existing analogue transmitters can be converted to digital transmitters at little additional cost. At present, 273 transmitters of varying power are operating in border areas.

Apart from the schemes of digitization and HDTV, schemes of replacement and modernisation of satellite broadcast equipment and studio & transmitter equipment are included in the 11th Plan. Upgradation of 10 existing satellite earth stations, establishment of five new earth stations, and procurement of nine new DSNGs will be achieved this year.

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