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Throwback2020: DD’s importance stood out this year

Retro content, tele-classes, social messaging, digital transformation marked the PSB’s year

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NEW DELHI: 2020 was a challenging year for public broadcasting. But it was also the year when public broadcasting made its presence felt and reminded people of the reason it exists. That the mission was fulfilled at the peak of the pandemic, when everything was paralyzed, but Doordarshan and All India Radio (AIR) continued their services uninterruptedly.

Unfortunately, we lost some colleagues to the pandemic. Our reporters tested positive for the coronavirus while they were out in the field. So in that sense, public broadcasting went through the test of times.

One key area where public broadcasting came through was in delivering social messages and creating awareness about the pandemic. Doordarshan emerged as the top five social advertisers, which underscores the value of public messages put out by us. We also saw record viewership ratings in the early days of the lockdown.

Then, the tele-classes on Doordarshan ensured that the academic year did not go waste for students from far-flung areas. India is blessed with the only free to air satellite platform DD FreeDish, reaching thirty-five million plus households. With thirty plus Doordarshan channels and fifty-one educational channels, we have eighty-six channels delivering tele-classes across different languages.

This year reminded us why people tune into Doordarshan. It remains the only platform where the entire family can come together and watch iconic content, no matter which region they belong to. This will be our focus going forward- to create selective iconic content that is not only a part of the heritage of the country but will appeal to the entire population and becomes a benchmark for the decades to come. Content like Mahabharata, Ramayana, Shaktimaan, which have a recall value that spans decades.

But it’s not just content, but also a question of production values. People, especially youth, have high expectations. The benchmark is, what they call ‘over the top (OTT) quality,’ coupled with the latest use of technologies, graphics, and visual effects. We will try to ensure that the projects we work on bring in those elements.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that public broadcasters operate on public funds. There are constraints. So it cannot invest in the same manner that a private sector media house could do.

NewsOnAir application proved to be a dramatic game-changer this year on the radio front, just like DD FreeDish proved to be a game-changer on the television front. It ensured that traditional radio listening is no longer restricted to the terrestrial reach of the transmitters. Now, it does not matter where you are, you can listen to your favourite channel. It has changed radio listening habits for audiences across the world.

It also brought all radio services of AIR under one umbrella. Unlike TV where everything is uplinked in the satellite so you can monitor what is going on, with radio, it used to be restricted to that particular radius of a few kilometres. But, now we can tune into any of the radio stations among the 200 livestreams. It has also brought a degree of transparency and accountability.

We also saw Doordarshan regional channels discovering life beyond the satellite way of traditional broadcasting. From our TV rating standpoint, they may be struggling with the private channels, because there are hundreds of channels, so it’s a huge challenge for a public broadcaster to stand out. However, on the digital side, each of these channels has acquired a distinct place. Several of them crossed half a billion subscriber base on YouTube, because of teleclasses being available on demand.

I have a special mention for north-east Doordarshan because it saw dramatic growth in the news this year. The news was available in languages that were otherwise not available in Garo, Khasi, and Assamese. DD News Guwahati and DD News Shillong performed very well digitally as youth increasingly consumed content through the internet and smartphones.

Apart from that, the most interesting thing has been the DD archives. In order to take full advantage of the nostalgia, we had started putting the archival content online, digitising it and making it available online. Old plays, old serials, old songs, all content will be made available. So it has driven renewed interest in regional languages.

On the revenue side, the income was fairly steady, except for some disruptions, on the radio side. There were some hiccups for DD FreeDish too and some channels had to leave, but many new channels came on board, including three movie channels in the recent auction. Overall DD FreeDish remains on a steady path and a source of substantial revenue.

On the advertising side, we definitely saw an uptick in commercial advertising because of the renewed interest in Mahabharata. But some of the biggest sporting events did not happen, so that was a disappointment. Hopefully, we will catch up in 2021.

(Shashi Shekhar Vempati is the CEO of Prasar Bharati. This is an excerpt from a conversation he had with Srishti Choudhary)

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