Prasar Bharati doesn't need a Green or White Paper, it needs action & implementation

"If you think you know what your purpose is, but can never seem to gain satisfaction from it, then it’s probably not the purpose you’re destined for.”

Perhaps these lines by Canadian author who penned the fantasy series Morningstar aptly sums up the confused state of Prasar Bharati, which will be completing two decades in the next two years having been operationalised in 1997.

For although the Government keeps claiming Prasar Bharati is a fully autonomous public service broadcaster, it interferes whenever it wants including in senior level appointments, which should have been left to the Prasar Bharati Board the moment the Corporation was operationalised in September 1997.  But irrespective of the political party ruling the nation, the state of the public broadcaster has not changed.

In comparison, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) – arguably having the most diverse, exciting and long history – keeps examining and re-examining its role as a public service broadcaster 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.

Once again, the BBC, which will be marking its centenary in 2022 has come out with a Green Paper that 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 merely that, but the 86-page document has been made public for the viewers to react as that would help it to decide its future course.

In India, although there were some reports on autonomy of the public broadcasters Doordarshan and All India Radio even before the Prasar Bharati Act of 1990, there has been just one report after the pubcaster was operationalized: the Sam Pitroda Committee Report.

Unfortunately, this report came out with nothing new that was not already being done by the broadcaster or had not been said by the Parliamentary Standing Committee in report after report, year after year. However, the real test is whether the Sam Pitroda Committee’s recommendations have been implemented. And there, sadly, the answer is in the negative. 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 number of fresh talent to fill the huge number of vacancies or putting some popular radio channels on FM – it has been due to the individual action of the different CEOs or the chairmen of the Board.  

At a time when the country has around 800 operational television channels and around 245 private FM radio channels – with the auctions for a massive 900+ beginning soon – it is necessary for the pubcaster to wake up and smell the coffee.

Doordarshan and All India Radio cannot be complacent by just telling themselves that they are the most seen and heard broadcasters in the country – particularly since their viewers are rural and they have failed to make much headway in urban areas, except for the FM radio channels.

Even after the media keeps pointing out these failures, DD for example has still not been able to ensure that the private DTH players or even its own FreeDish carries the name of the programme and a basic summary – something which the DTH players do for all the major private broadcasters.

In its report, the BBC has asked whether it is failing audiences and notes, "The BBC remains highly valued and well-used by the majority of people within the UK. But there are variations across different groups and there are particular challenges in reaching black, Asian and minority ethnic audiences and in meeting the needs of younger age groups who increasingly access content online, rather than via the traditional platforms of television and radio. There is also variation across the nations and regions of the UK. Charter Review will consider the extent to which the BBC is meeting the needs of these different segments of the domestic audience."

Surely, if the oldest broadcaster is worried by such concerns, the younger pubcasters like Prasar Bharati need to wake up. The Naxal or Marxist movements or separatist movements in some states, could be curbed if the pubcaster played its role well.

BBC's Green Paper admits that although there are funding options like advertisement-funded, licence fees, funding through general taxation, or a universal household levy, or mixed public funding and subscription fee, “no funding option is perfect and all involve trade-offs.” The Green Paper even discusses whether licence fee can be shared with private broadcasters.

Unfortunately, this aspect has never been discussed in detail in India for the simple reason that the majority of Prasar Bharati employees want government funding as that ensures them pensions etc. In India, the concept of licence fee was given up sometime in the late sixties.

While the Green Paper suggests some core values that the BBC must have, and undoubtedly the Prasar Bharati Act and Programme and Advertising Codes in India also swear by this, the core value that prevails is a rosy picture of the political party in power – at least as far as Doordarshan goes. 

In fact, the Paper also discusses the issue of whether and how BBC should be regulated. 

A close look at the Prasar Bharati Act would show that successive governments have deliberately failed to look at the clauses relating to a Broadcasting Council or a Committee of Parliament, as that would not suit the ruling party at the centre.

Unlike BBC, India has far more complex problems in view of the number of competing private channels, the large number of languages, and the cultural values, which change almost every fifty kilometers.

However, this does not mean that Prasar Bharati should sit comfortably, waiting for the Ministers or Secretaries to dole out instructions.

What Prasar Bharati needs is a serious look at the Sam Pitroda Committee recommendations to find out why these recommendations 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. 

Additionally, the rule of the Indian Administrative Service babus has to stop with professionals from the Indian Broadcasting (Programme) Service or – since this service never really took off – of the Indian Information Service till the IB(P)S officers can take over!  

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