Resuscitating Prasar Bharati

The non-coverage of the last historic test match of Sachin Tendulkar by Doordarshan entailed numerous explanations by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Prasar Bharati - on its part - painfully chose not to telecast the mega event because of an unsupportive legal provision that financially favours the content right holders telecasting such sports events.

Every household watched the match of  Bharat Ratna Sachin Tendulkar with nostalgia and gratitude since the most respected cricketer decided to draw the curtains on his cricketing career representing the nation and relished the visual treat  gratefully acknowledging  “Sachin the Legend” in great measure.

The Sports Broadcasting (mandatory sharing with Prasar Bharati) Act, 2007 mandates all right holders telecasting or broadcasting through radio to share the signals without any advertisements to enable Prasar Bharati to re-transmit on its terrestrial and direct to home network. 

During the ICC Championship Trophy, ESPN (Now Star Sports 4) as content right holder had offered to share the live signals along with commercials embedded by ICC already.  Prasar Bharati insisted on a clean feed and chose to telecast the event without any commercials that resulted in average of DD National TVTs  soaring to an all time high - higher than other telecasting channels - for all the five matches proving that people in India preferred matches without intervening commercials.

The Honourable High Court of Delhi decided the issue in favour of the Public Broadcaster. After a series of discussions, marketing inputs and considering the dynamic changes in technology, Prasar Bharati decided to alter the proposed amendment by withdrawing the issue of revenue sharing substituted by a very minor alteration in the Act for the mode of transmission and platform which would enable Prasar Bharati to telecast the sporting events of national importance on the dedicated free-to-air channel of Doordarshan, DD Sports, where the opportunity costs were minimal. Amendments proposed to the Sports Broadcasting Act, 2007 basically focused on the revenue sharing with the rights holders from existing ratio of 75-25 to 40-60 in favour of Prasar Bharati. 

A recent experiment showed how independence in Prasar Bharati can make an impact. A truly independent team with young professionals in DD News prime time has rattled the industry with ratings showing an upswing.

Ever since the Sports Act, 2007 was notified, Doordarshan has been telecasting sports events of national importance on its DD National terrestrial channel and free-to-air DTH network in compliance of the Act.  In all, 43 events have been telecast under the Act till November, 2013.

In 18 events, Doordarshan suffered a total loss where even the amount quoted by the revenue management company, that is, the highest bidder out of Prasar Bharati and the content right holder was not enough to meet the opportunity cost (monetary value of advertisement revenue on normal programme) and in 25 events Doordarshan suffered a loss where even the opportunity cost was not realised.

Doordarshan had no choice but to undertake these telecasts as it is mandated to comply with the Act.  The 25 per cent revenue share to which Prasar Bharati is entitled has been way below its financial obligations resulting in outright losses. It is time to stop lacerating incursions by commercial interests and to amend the mandatory sharing of Sports Broadcasting Signals with Prasar Bharati Act to avoid any further financial bleeding by the pubcaster. 

Since 1997, DD  has been demanding literal autonomy enshrined in the Act of Parliament and has been juggling its financial management with a depleting workforce superannuating in thousands every year without a Recruitment Board in place for inexplicable reasons. It is programmed inaction that cost Prasar Bharati heavily with the  Member (Finance) with only one officer sanctioned to assist him in his Secretariat, managing the annual business of Rs 5,000 crore. The Personnel wing too has a crippled structure to handle the workforce of 48,000 sanctioned employees and continues struggling with inherited legacies along with land, buildings, technical infrastructure, ponderous liabilities and unsolved complex HR issues to manage.

Self sustainability and financial freedom are issues that warrant immediate solution. Vast tracts of land held but not optimally utilised due to technological advancements in broadcasting  resulting in obsolescence of Relay Centres is an immediate viable option for unlocking of land for value otherwise they may end up being exposed to encroachments by land sharks. 

The large number of government servants on deemed deputation to Prasar Bharati is a legacy that warrants serious restructuring to match modern day broadcast needs. While it has surplus of trained engineering manpower in its terrestrial infrastructure, and skilled manpower to manage content  its news related function is grossly inadequate. The much awaited Sam Pitroda Committee report is expected to offer ample opportunity for government solutions. 

There is a bright light in the horizon with a positive I&B Ministry leading from the front, correcting inherited infirmities and guiding legal and personnel issues to operationalise practical proposals and resuscitate Prasar Bharati to a genuine and vibrant public broadcaster.

As far as autonomy goes, all major successful public broadcasters in the world have functional and operational autonomy. The BBC model continues to be the best. The  Supreme Court of India while delivering judgement in the case of Cricket Association of Bengal in 1995 brought out the need for total autonomy for ensuring plurality of use, opinion and also to ensure a fair and balanced presentation of news and public issues, the broadcast media should be placed under the control of the public, i.e. in the hands of a Statutory Corporation or Corporations, as the case may be. 

While dealing with the issues of airwaves, the apex court noted: “Government control, which in effect means the control of the political party or parties in power for the time being.  Such control is bound to colour and in some cases, may even distort the news, views and opinions expressed through the media.  It is not conducive to free expression of the contending viewpoint and opinion which is essential for the growth of a healthy democracy.”

It further added: “The right to use the airwaves and the content of the programme, therefore, needs regulation for balancing it as well as to present monopoly of information and news relayed, which is a potential danger flowing from the concentration of the right to broadcast/telecast in the hands either of a central agency or of few private affluent broadcasters. That is why the need to have a central agency representative of all sections of the society free from control of the government is essential.”

On the other hand, broadcasting system control managed by states is found to be inconsistent with the basics of full democracy all over the world.  S. Jaipal Reddy during the XIII Lok Sabha debate Session II Winter Session stated: “I do not think that our democracy is so backward to need the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.  In fact, in no advanced country in the world do we have a Ministry for Information and Broadcasting.” 

For a vibrant Prasar Bharati nevertheless, there is a need for the government to provide financial and personnel stability and ensure that attained ad hocism will be replaced. There is a bright light in the horizon with a positive I&B Ministry leading from the front, correcting inherited infirmities and guiding legal and personnel issues to operationalise practical proposals and resuscitate Prasar Bharati to a genuine and vibrant public broadcaster.

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