BBC on the boil; some lessons for Prasar Bharati

BBC, the public broadcaster who benchmarks broadcasting audio and video signals all over the world, seems to be under siege. The British government has launched a Consultation paper to decide on the future of BBC's Royal Charter.

A number of questions and ideas have rolled from non existence of 'Codified set of values' to 'not reaching out to youngsters' the world over who shifted to on line accessing from fixed TV viewing. The Green paper points out that the last Royal Charter is one of the most tumultuous and numerous issues have arisen placing BBC's people and practices to a great deal of scrutiny.

"BBC is a public broadcasting organisation and it is right that it's values should reflect the views of public. This charter review presents the opportunity to consult on what a potential set of values might be.”

BBC's several headlines making failures from "excessive severance payments" to a "cancelled report on Jimmy Savile" have called into questions of BBC's governance itself. A model based hence on the Trust, which presently chaired by Ms Rona Fairhead with more powers to censure BBC as also withhold funds, a new stand alone regulatory organisation like Public Service Broadcasting Commission are being considered.

There are some major lessons from the Green Paper for our own pubcaster Prasar Bharati (PB), which is many times bigger in infrastructure and manpower compared to the BBC but on whose model the Prasar Bharati Act 1990 was enacted. With some of the provisions yet not acted upon, the checks and balances originally intended by the framers of the Act remain inoperative till date making PB a polio child despite of its huge work force and wasteful expenditure on its obsolescent terrestrial network, which even rural India is not interested in.

An important provision like public funding through license fees does not exist in India whereas huge public funding continues to pay to the tune of about Rs 1500 crore annually on pay and related expenses of the huge establishment, which the government conveniently handed over to a presumably autonomous PB in 1997. 

The major plan expenditure is on maintaining thousands of ineffective terrestrial TV and less effective AM and SW radio towers. But not a single practical Board resolution of PB like leveraging dormant assets to fund content, power to hire and fire with flexible recruitment rules for creative professionals and an Independent Servicing Body have seen the light since successive governments continued to administer PB as an adjunct of government. As far as the word autonomy goes, it is an ‘oxymoron' that does not exist in real life as one of our former MOS, I&B once remarked.

BBC spends 97 per cent of its programme funding on children whereas PB spends only about eight per cent of its total expenditure on content itself across all its TV channels. The efforts on kids' programme by PB is negligible. With its strong creative capabilities, BBC developed numerous programmes and sold off to the world commercially like Strictly Come Dancing, which fetched ?20 million giving no space to other commercial channels. 

PB is yet to commercialise any programme worth its name and pose a challenge to commercial channels in the recent past for a variety of reasons. Despite huge infrastructure and equipment, there is no vibrant audit and monitoring mechanism on utility of its huge inactive studios and mobile camera units. The commercial codes and guidelines of course are self restrictive, inhibiting any novel initiative in PB. 

It is time the government has a closer look at the Sam Pitroda Committee report, which has some workable suggestions. The government needs to review PB with objectivity as the functions to 'educate, inform and entertain' also needs lead funding for quality content. PB caters to the citizens of the nation and other commercial audio and TV channels to the consumers, but the pubcaster yet needs to net more eyeballs for passing public service messages and codified set of values enshrined in section 12 of the PB Act.

As the Green Paper on BBC voices concern on reaching the youth that accesses anything on line at the time of their choosing, PB needs to revolutionise web streaming its content of all its audio and video channels as of yesterday. For TV, it is DTH and for radio, it is FM in India today, but the survival depends more on content, the king.

The potential values British government looks forward to for the Royal Charter are, independence, impartiality, high quality, efficient value for money, transparency, distinctive status, diversity and representative of the views of public. All these imperatives are aptly applicable to our Public Broadcaster too. The best that could happen to PB is a strong professional and truly independent Board with an efficient monitoring mechanism and powers to intervene along with an executive set up with 'real' powers to handle this mammoth organisation with complete verticals viz. Technical, Marketing and International Relations in addition to Personnel, Finance and Accounts.

Less Government and more efficient Governance by PB itself could set the pubcaster right.

Note: The author of this article is former member (personnel) of the Prasar Bharati Board. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are purely personal views of the author and does not necessarily subscribe to them.

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