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'DD is operating in a time warp' : Ravina Raj Kohli CEO HFCL-Nine Broadcasting India.

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Ravina Raj Kohli is a tenacious professional. The lady has come a long way from being an advertising professional to running a radio company in Singapore to heading the legendary Ozzie media and gaming baron Kerry Packer's Indian broadcasting joint venture HFCL-Nine Broadcasting India. So when you hear her say that she is flummoxed, she clearly must be. The government has pulled the rug from under her company's feet by calling for rebidding for supply of five and a half hours of programming by private firms on DD Metro. She had been renegotiating her earlier bid with DD and ministry officials, asking for better terms when they simply cut the line on her.



The first round of bidding has come and gone without any takers, forcing pubcaster Prasar Bharati to call for fresh bids with the carrot that there is no floor price for tenders this time round. Meanwhile, Packer has decided enough is enough and as things stand Nine Broadcasting's DD Metro operations will shut shop on 10 September.





Indiantelevision.com's Anil Wanvari spoke to Kohli in a free-wheeling interview on the strange ways of DD.

 



You were in talks with Prasar Bharati to resolve the situation. Then what happened? Why did the talks fail?

We were in talks with Prasar Bharati to reconsider our proposal. Certain improvements like ensuring reach of DD Metro penetration, enhancement of the transmitter network, had not been made and hence we had not been able to deliver on our targets to advertisers and hence on our revenues targets.



So we asked them for an extension of the contract to a long term one to allow us to recover our investments. They disagreed to this. They then offered us an 18-month extension. We asked them for certain concessions: like flexibility to bank the unused free commercial time, introduce certain programme genres...They never got back on this. There was total silence. And then we got a letter from the Prasar Bharati that they were reopening the bids. Just like that. Now, after the first bid failed, they announced that they would programme and market DD Metro themselves.





What baffles us is that we were told that there would be audit problems if we were given an extension for 18 months. In the new tender they were open to offering the time band to someone for three years. Are there no audit problems now? We are flummoxed.





The whole attitude at DD is incorrect. How can they treat a partner like this? Especially one who has invested so much in its belief in terrestrial television and built up the DD Metro brand? What have we done to become a victim? Research has shown that DD-2 is the preferred channel over DD-1 and Nine Gold has quadrupled viewership in C&S homes for DD Metro.







What issues does this situation throw up?

DD cannot continue in the time warp that it is operating in thinking that it can do what it wants. It should be thinking of milking the assets it has. To fulfil its role as a public broadcaster it must increase viewership and have loyal audiences. It must improve its brand equity. It must raise the value of national reach media. India has a strange situation where the national reach broadcaster has just 25 per cent of the ad market, while cable and satellite TV has 75 per cent. I do not know if anyone is concerned about this. The situation should be the other way round.





DD is a jewel that is not being given its due place in the crown. DD's primary objective as a public broadcaster should be to build audiences. DD has to become competitive or even better than competition if it wants find a place in the calender of viewers. Television today is not a habit like it used to be earlier, it is about appointments made for shows. There are some officials who are good in DD and they want to make DD work; they should be allowed to make it work.





What else is needed to make a privatised DD Metro work?

There are other issues too: fear of reprisal either from the CBI or a joint parliamentary committee is also paralysing many of these officials from taking commercial decisions in the post-Shah era (Former Prasar Bharati CEO RR Shah is under investigation for certain deals that were struck during his tenure). If the government wants DD to work with a private partner, the officials will have to be given a free hand. Television is about instant and firm decisions depending on competitive pressures. It's not about long delayed and arbitrary ones.



One day we are told, we can have a film festival on DD. Two days before we are to commence it, we are told it's a no-no. No reasons are given. No means no. You cannot predict what an official will do. Hence you cannot make a programming plan. How can one work like that in TV?

The sad part is that if the bid fails or the band gets fragmented, it will be the end of all the efforts and money we have put in to build DD Metro as a brand. And even if it succeeds, the other people who come on board will not have anywhere close to the commitment we have towards terrestrial television.



There has to be commitment to make DD Metro's privatisation work. We were debarred from bidding for the late night slot. We were willing to put in good money behind our bid. The authorities refused to lower the floor price from Rs 225 million fixed for the 10:00-11:00 pm slot, in the bid that failed it had been fixed at a much lower Rs 175 million. Leave aside the fact that even at this price there were no takers. And in the latest round of bidding, they have not even kept a floor price.

We are asking why did they not heed us then?







Is there any possibility at all of you re-bidding for the time band?

We will not bid for the new tender as the terms are unrealistic.

 



What about your producers who have been commissioned for shows?

All our producer partners will be protected. Most of the serials will run their course and we will end them as our contract expires on 10 September.

 



Are advertisers continuing to back you?

Advertisers would like us to continue running the programming block. They are backing us all the way. Some of them may be flustered about the culmination of the contract but most are backing us.



 

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