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Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati on SC verdict, pushing DD Sports and DTT

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Shashi Shekhar Vempati is probably one of the youngest CEOs to occupy the Prasar Bharati hotseat.  Additionally, he is the first private sector executive to have got the job. So, media observers expect a lot from him, especially considering his background in Infosys, one of India’s most respected infotech companies.

And, it is during his watch last month that the Supreme Court issued a verdict upholding the Delhi High Court order which disallowed the pubcaster from sharing with cable operators through Doordarshan (DD) channels the live feed of cricket matches of which private broadcasters ESPN and Star had the exclusive rights. The bench had said under the provision of the Sports Act, the live feed received by Prasar Bharati from content rights owners was only for the purpose of retransmission of signals on its own terrestrial and direct-to-home (DTH) networks and not to cable operators.

Many would have considered that a loss. But, not Shashi Shekhar Vempati. Clarity and optimism is something you can credit him with. He terms that loss as an opportunity. Read on to get some Vempati-speak as he talks to indiantelevision.com.

How do you view the verdict of the Supreme Court preventing you from airing sports feeds to private cable TV operators and DTH operators which you share with private sports rights holders?

The verdict of the Supreme Court on the sports side on the face of it looked like  a setback. And, if you go by the reactions of the viewers to them it was available by default  on Doordarshan. Several matches are not available now.

But, in reality it was an opportunity.  Many decisions that we just postponed or did not aggressively move on.  Now, there is a real reason to do that. First is on  DD Sports. All along cricket was on DD National. The only sports channel of DD had no purpose or identity, it was just drifting.

Now we have a reason to make DD Sports the go-to destination for cricket and other sporting events of national importance because of the manner in which the verdict forces us to operate. It creates an avenue  to make DD Sports the place for cricket.

You cannot air cricket because of the verdict right?

We will air it. The way the verdict on the act will be operationalised is: the signal sharing for games of national importance is meant for DD’s FreeDish and DD terrestrial. So, we will carry future matches on DD Sports, as a channel available on FreeDish and on terrestrial through DTT.

Analogue where we have one or two transmitters where we either show DD National or News, there we will ensure that the feed is sports so that one of the transmitters will show the match on analog wherever it is available.

For the private guys, cable and DTH operators today what are they doing? They are blanking out our screen then they are putting their own commercials, their own promotion. What we are saying is -- we will have a separate feed in the future so that they don’t blank out DD National.

It is atrocious that you can blank out a must-carry channel and put in a commercial message saying "go buy my sports pack." That we will straightaway address.

Now because cricket is available on DD Sports, the channel gets a facelift.  Its branding improves – brand recognition goes up. People will have a reason to periodically  tune into DD Sports. So that just takes that channel up. We have enough content on DD National.

Which of the matches will you show?

Well, the act,…the government has to notify what are the games of national importance.  And a that list is periodically reviewed. As of now it is all home games of India for one day and T20, then the big tournaments like the World Cup, the challenger and ICC trophy and so on.  Then certain tennis matches, certain soccer matches.

The big thing is the FIFA under-17. The entire 52  or 56 matches we will show. The  government sees it as a big way of promoting soccer.  For the first time they are holding an international event. And if you look at the generation that we want to attract – which is what I have been talking about. Today, there is no mindshare for Doordarshan in the youth as this generation did not grow up with it. They have no memories of Doordarshan, they don’t relate to it.

Now with FIFA Under-17 being available this soccer crazy young crowd (chuckling) have an avenue to go and see soccer on FreeDish and DD Terrestrial. DD Sports gets a facelift and it gets a mindshare in this demographic  that we have always wanted to attract and bond with.

Second thing that I get out of this whole thing is that for all those people who think today I cannot watch those matches on DD on either my private cable or DTH...now I have an avenue to go and promote FreeDish and my digital terrestrial which is just languishing in 19 cities which are the main population centres of India.

Now I am going to tell them you don’t have to buy that Rs 60 or Rs 120 package. Forget about all that, many of your TVs have an inbuilt digital tuner. There are certain models of Sony, LG and Samsung which have them.

We will educate people that if you have one of these models, you already have a digital terrestrial tuner, all you need to do is turn it on.  And if you don’t have it, here is an app which you can download. And if your mobile is one of these models, using this app and the DVB-T2 dongle, which is available on Flipkart and other ecommerce platforms you can watch the matches.

Then, there are certain makes of mobile phones where there is an inbuilt DVB chip available in the marketplace.

The fourth innovation and I have seen certain products, there are some startups working on it: you need to plug in this hotspot, into the wall, it will get the DVB signal, it will create the wifi – and on all your devices at home you can watch it as a TV channel. We will say these products can support your app.

How will you monetise the DTT signal?

When we do the rights sharing under the act , the rights holder and DD both bid on who gets to market the inventory. The highest bidder then gets the rights to sell the entire FCT for the matches on DD DTT and DTH. But the sharing is 75:25.

Now DTT becomes a new viewership base. So, for the advertisers it is a new way of connecting to the consumers. To me it is new medium to be clipped to the viewership and it’s something where we have a traditional strength because nobody else has terrestrial. We will see how that goes.

How do you see FreeDish progressing?

The biggest challenge with FreeDish was that STBs were not  addressable and the signals were not encrypted.  Now for a long time we have had this project to move to MPEG4…the infrastructure is in place, but it required a new STB. That spec was tendered out, iCAS was brought in. Now those boxes are getting ready and soon they will be rolling out. The biggest challenge was what was the motivation for a customer who has an MPEG 2 FreeDish STB to switch to MPEG 4. Now there is a reason, because we can go to the audience and tell them that if you want to watch cricket or any of the sports which you don’t want to pay for your Tata Sky or Dish TV or Videocon or whatever, here is a new iCAS box, it gives you all of these features. That’s another promotional avenue for me. So I am getting two promotional avenues and I am getting to rebrand and relaunch my DD Sports. So in a sense what was a setback in one aspect has opened up opportunity for me.

One interesting thing that the TRAI is now pushing is the open STB standard with a return path. I think the return path is going to be interesting. It is going to be important for several reasons: for audience measurement, and we would all want interactivity.  Through the regulator's efforts, and maybe a common standard – and if everyone supports that, it can bring now the price point.

DD Kids is something which was to be launched?

There are several ideas. And we will look at each one of them in time.

What other steps are you taking?

We have taken some measures following the board meeting recently. It was a long pending board meeting. A lot of decisions were taken. One of the decisions was analog.  We will start sunsetting analog. And that frees up resources. Frees up manpower. Frees up certain operating funds. Those can be put to use in areas where we definitely need a lot of things to be done.

Information technology being a long pending area where we have not invested. Digital is another area. Then there is the sheer creativity in programming which has come down. The quality of in-house programming has come down drastically. So that requires us to invest in the right talent so we can bring it back in-house.

DD is the largest network, it has 30,000 people and above… but it has the largest network. We have challenges that nobody else has.

I chanced upon this report. There was a committee set up in early 2000, late nineties, led by Mr Narayana Murthy which looked at Prasar Bharati (one of the many reports). And, very interestingly, they had a chapter on engineering: they looked at the number of engineers to transmitter ratio, they said this is the highest in any country. That means there is very little automation.

So, clearly there is a lot of opportunity to get this great talent out and put them to problems which require real attention – be it IT, be it digital, be it reskilling them and repurposing our workforce.

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