Mumbai: Former Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati joined broadcast journalist and host of ‘Media Dialogues’ on CNBCTV18 Anuradha Sengupta in conversation about his tenure at the public broadcaster recently.
India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharati is one of the largest broadcasting organisations in the world that runs a vast terrestrial network in addition to the satellite. During the interview, Vempati noted the changes brought during his tenure including phasing out obsolete technologies, figuring out the manpower roadmap for digital technology, and growing Prasar Bharati’s own media platforms like Free Dish and NewsOnAir app.
The biggest change at Prasar Bharati
Vempati highlighted that in the last five years the biggest change at the public broadcaster was the change in its revenue mix. In FY22, the public entity reported that commercial revenues were up by 13 per cent. Historically, the government was the primary source of revenue for the broadcaster via advertising & sponsored content. “What has changed in the last five years is how non-traditional sources of revenue have reduced dependence of government sources of revenue on DD and AIR,” said Vempati.
“A big component of this reduced dependence is because of DD Free Dish. When I joined as CEO, Free Dish revenue used to be about Rs 270 crore and in the last financial year and this year it has crossed Rs 700 crore and touched Rs 750 crore,” he stated.
Further adding, “There were hardly any digital revenues five years ago and now digital revenues amount to several crores and are growing fast at almost 30-40 per cent a year.”
“We also have assets like TV towers that are leased out to private FM broadcasters and telecom operators which generates another Rs 100 crore in terms of revenue,” said Vempati.
“The revenue growth that you’re seeing is largely contributed by these non-traditional sources of revenue. Interestingly, our radio revenues also saw recovery during Covid so that also contributed to overall growth,” he explained.
Journey of DD Free Dish
The public broadcaster's free-to-air DTH (direct-to-home) platform reaches 43 million homes in India, as per EY (Ernst & Young) estimates and up to 50 million homes, as per Vempati’s personal views. This makes it the largest DTH service provider in the country, more than twice the size of any private DTH player in the country.
Vempati praised the foresight of the late NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee that they envisioned a platform of this nature. The cabinet gave its approval in 2003-04 with the stipulation that the platform should be self-sustaining and not be a recurring liability to the public broadcaster. It was important to bring private players onto the platform so that it pays for itself.
Initially, the placement of private channels happened through a committee process until 2010 when there was a need to make the process more transparent. A Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) ruling directed the public broadcaster in 2010 to frame a policy regarding terms and conditions for the broadcast of private channels via its DTH platform.
The public broadcaster introduced an auction process where private channels had to bid for slots on the Free Dish platform. Over the years, the policy evolved from offering one base price for all broadcasters to offering a differentiated base price based on genre and language of the channel. This move resulted in immense value creation for Prasar Bharati and unlocked the potential of the DD Free Dish platform.
Free Dish impact on private broadcasters
There exists a love-hate relationship between private broadcasters and the free DTH platform as they gain access to immense reach, especially in the Hindi heartland, but the trade-off is the subscription revenues from this massive customer base.
Vempati stated, “The DD Free Dish is only growing especially during the lockdown. The educational channels that were made available on the platform were a huge draw for audiences. The dealers who sell these set-top-boxes (STBs) also reported to us that it is impossible to keep up with the demand.”
“Now, as we add more languages, the viewership of DD Free Dish is growing beyond the Hindi heartland. The promised 200 educational channels means that Free Dish still has an enormous headroom for growth,” claimed Vempati.
Vempati observed that DD Free Dish has given rise to competitiveness in the TV broadcast industry where younger channels have been able to challenge the dominance of incumbents. He said, “If you see the Hindi genre, when I look at the ratings, there are several Free Dish channels in the top ten in terms of viewership. Ultimately, the public broadcasters’ purpose is to enable more choice to the consumer.”
Vempati commented on private broadcasters pulling their flagship channels from DD Free Dish. He said, “This was a consequence of the new tariff order (NTO) regime which had an unintended impact on DD Free Dish. I see it as a transient phenomenon. The big players have other channels and have not completely exited the platform. It is a change that the media sector is going through and I’m hoping that we come out of it and get back on track.”
The trends in media consumption have shifted its dominance from traditional devices such as TV and radio to devices such as smartphones & smart TVs. While Vempati was not supportive of regulations in terms of pricing, he said regulations do have a role to play and supported the creation of a media regulatory framework not just for the broadcast sector but all media.
During Vempati’s tenure, the public broadcaster signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with IIT Kanpur to develop direct-to-mobile broadcasting capabilities to reach more than 800 million mobile internet users in the country.
He said, despite being the largest market for mobile phones, there’s very little standardisation in India. “Look at the emphasis China has put on creating standards. India is making an effort for the first time with 5Gi telecom technology standards. And with direct-to-mobile broadcasting, we have the opportunity to take a leadership position.”
Vempati’s run-in with TV ratings
Another initiative taken by the public broadcaster was to air footage of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan on DD Free Dish during the lockdown.
“When the lockdown was announced we debated on what to do, and I must compliment the PM and Prakash Javadekar (former union minister of information and broadcasting) to come up with the idea that we should air these epics,” recalls Vempati. “They insisted that it should be Ramayan that is aired first as it appeals to such a broad section of society.”
The oddity was that Doordarshan’s popular shows were not the property of the public broadcaster but sponsored programmes. So, Prasar Bharati reached out to the Sagar family that owned the rights to the programme, the tapes were retrieved and special permission was granted to air the archival footage.
“I feel this is the first time that the entirety of India has watched Ramayan because the first time it was aired only on the terrestrial network that was available only to a limited part of the country,” said Vempati. “All of India truly watched Ramayan during the lockdown which saw spectacular numbers and for the first time, Doordarshan’s rates were in the lakh plus range. When I look at global numbers apart from the finale of American sitcom M.A.S.H, Ramayan beat the charts!”
Vempati was also part of the committee instituted by the ministry of information and broadcasting in 2020 tasked with looking into the rigging of TRPs and strengthening the overall ratings measurement system. Speaking about the TV ratings framework, Vempati noted that it was an interesting challenge for the committee and especially since the public broadcaster Prasar Bharati was also a client of Broadcast Audience Research Council (Barc). Addressing the lingering question of whether ratings are robust and credible, Vempati stated, “The important thing to remember is that Barc ratings are sample-based and not objective reality. When you start to infer viewership estimates by Barc as an objective reality that’s when you get into trouble.”
While the committee made several recommendations to Barc on its corporate governance, technology and processes, ultimately Vempati believes that it is a question of business practices. “In a competitive environment, unless all players respect and adhere to certain business practices, you’ll always question the rating framework. Then it is a question of business culture and competition and ratings cannot solve that problem.”
“The news genre has very erratic viewing patterns and there was a need to smoothen the fluctuations in the ratings which is why we rolled out the four-week rolling average,” said Vempati. “But business practices such as landing pages are beyond the ability of algorithms to solve. It is a business issue. My advice is that the industry should come to a consensus on how landing page data should be measured or there should be regulatory intervention. For example, a regulatory stipulation that only platform services can be on landing pages.”
Vempati said that he was proud of being part of phasing out analogue terrestrial TV at the public broadcaster which he believes was one of the biggest reforms during his tenure. This freed up resources for digital and Free Dish and enabled Prasar Bharati to invest in the future.
An outsider in the bureaucratic environment of Delhi, Vempati noted that his time at Prasar Bharati helped him understand the difficulty and complexity of the challenges in the public sector. He said, “The microcosm of small reforms that we tried to do gave me a sense of the complexity and challenges & better appreciate the job of the PM,” He concluded that the public sector would benefit greatly from having private-sector talent and professionals come in.