Doordarshan turns 56: Time to celebrate or introspect?

NEW DELHI: 15 September, 2015 marks 56 years to the day when Indian public broadcaster Doordarshan (DD) was first launched with an experimental telecast starting in Delhi in 1959 with a small transmitter and a make shift studio.


The regular daily transmission started in 1965 as a part of All India Radio (AIR) and that’s when DD too began a five-minute news bulletin. The television service was extended to Bombay (now Mumbai) and Amritsar in 1972. Up to 1975, only seven Indian cities had a television service and Doordarshan remained the sole provider of television in India. Krishi Darshan was the first program telecast on Doordarshan. It commenced on 26 January, 1967 and is one of the longest running programs on Indian television.


Television services were separated from radio on 1 April, 1976. Each office of AIR and DD were placed under the management of two separate director generals (DG) in New Delhi.


Finally, in 1982, DD came into being as a National Broadcaster. National telecasts were introduced in 1982. In the same year, colour TV was introduced in the Indian market with the live telecast of the Independence Day speech by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 15 August, 1982, followed by the 1982 Asian Games, which were held in Delhi.


Since then, DD has seen growth in many ways. Today, DD broadcasts in 17 languages including DD Urdu, and has the country’s only free-to-air (FTA) sports channel. DD Bharati has kept alive the decades-old archives of broadcasting in the country, DD India reaches almost the entire world and is watched by the diaspora, and it also recently launched DD Kisan, which is a dedicated channel for farmers. In addition, DD News – barring a few aberrations – remains one of the most dependable news channels in the country.


More than five decades down the line, while the numbers have changed with greater reach, little else has and the pubcaster is struggling for viewership. Though it is claimed that DD has the largest viewership in the country since it is a terrestrial network, the fact remains that viewers in the metros and the larger cities generally tend to stay away from Doordarshan, which despite the so-called autonomy is perceived a propagandist channel.


Today, Doordarshan’s terrestrial coverage is estimated to be available to about 92 per cent of population spread over 81 per cent area of the country. There are 1416 TV transmitters of varying power in the country. However, by the government’s own admission, the percentage of rural viewers who are accessing Doordarshan through its terrestrial network is a mere seven - eight per cent of 170 million TV households.


The areas uncovered by terrestrial transmitters along with rest of the country have been provided with multichannel TV coverage through Doordarshan’s free to air DTH service FreeDish. Pertinent to note here is that despite claims that its capacity would be raised to accommodate over 100 channels, FreeDish today has a total of 56 channels, of which a majority are DD’s own channels.


As far as the clause for all platforms to mandatorily show DD channels in the prime band is concerned, very few are doing so and in any case viewers do not bother since they feel attracted to the juicer sagas that most channels put out.


Even though it has been in the eye of constant criticism, DD has still not been able to ensure that private DTH players or even its own FreeDish carries the name of the programme and a basic summary – something which DTH players do for all the major private broadcasters.


The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) – arguably having the most diverse, exciting and long history – keeps examining and re-examining its role as a pubcaster and independently takes its decisions about changes it wishes to make to reach out to more and more viewers in an era of increasing competition from private broadcasters.


The BBC, which will be marking its centenary in 2022, has come out with a Green Paper, which examines whether it is failing audiences, whether it should be advertisement-funded or take licence fee as it has been doing, and even whether it should be putting on-air certain shows that have drawn the ire of the general public. Not only that, the document has been made public for viewers to react as it would help decide the pubcaster’s future course.


In comparison, Doordarshan has failed to make any in-depth study into why it has failed to make a dent in the hearts of the viewers despite its largest geographical reach. Its own Audience Research Unit exists only in name, and with a sample of only 900 homes, TAM does not cover DD adequately. Now that BARC India and TAM have formed a JV to form a meter management company, what DD’s representation in that will be, remains to be seen.


If BBC has issued a Green Paper, there have been endless reports before Doordarshan became part of the pubcaster Prasar Bharati through an act of Parliament of 1990, which was only half-heartedly notified in 1997. And it had taken the country around 20 years to – at least on paper – notify an autonomous body since the first report on such a body came in the form of the BG Verghese Committee report in 1978, the aftermath of the manner in which the electronic media was controlled by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the National Emergency.


Sadly, there has been just one report after the pubcaster was operationalised: the Sam Pitroda Committee Report.


Unfortunately, this report came out with nothing new that was not already being done by the pubcaster or had not been said by the Parliamentary Standing Committee in report after report, year after year.


The pubcaster’s real test would have been to implement the recommendations given by the Sam Pitroda Committee but that is not the case. This is because the biggest stumbling block to the pubcaster moving ahead is the government, which does not leave it free to move on its own and instead believes in the general principal of he who pays the piper plays the tune.


If there has been any movement within Prasar Bharati – like the recent appointment of a large number of fresh talent to fill the huge number of vacancies – it has been due to the individual action of the different chief executive officers or chairmen of the Board at different times. 


What Prasar Bharati needs to do is to take a serious look at the Sam Pitroda Committee recommendations to find out why these were not implemented when they were under consideration much before the Committee came on the scene, and also to radically examine the relationship of Prasar Bharati with the Government or the ruling party.


However, that is easier said than done, since the pubcaster and particularly Doordarshan continues to be a valuable tool for the government in power.

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