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Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati on the fairytale rise of Doordarshan

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For long, there were many who sang the eternal dirges of state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan. Rightfully so. For almost a decade, the broadcaster seemed to be frozen in time, in total confusion about its raison d’etre, even as private broadcasters gave it a walloping in the viewership sweepstakes.  And also laughed all the way to the bank.

Circa 2020 and it has made an unbelievable comeback, sitting atop the BARC ratings charts. Just like in the nineties when it launched DD Metro, giving private broadcasters a run for their money under the leadership of director-general Rathikant Basu and I&B secretary Bhaskar Ghose.

This time, it is Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati who has done the magic rope trick for the pubcaster by launching a gaggle of old shows which made it tick  in the eighties and nineties. The prominent among them are: Ramayan, Mahabharat, Shaktiman, Buniyaad, Dekh Bhai dekh, Sai Baba, Alif Laila, and Chanakya.

Indian audiences who have been forcibly locked down in their homes courtesy Covid-19 have been lapping up the retro fare. In week 14 of BARC India ratings, DD National's rating has moved up from 376 GRPs to 451 GRPs in 15+ HSM urban markets, beating even the top Hindi GECs, riding on the back of iconic re-runs.

DD National and DD Bharati became the most watched channels in week three of lockdown. While Ramayan on DD National garnered 545.8 million weekly impressions in week 13, Mahabharat on DD Bharati garnered 145.8 million impressions. The re-telecast of Ramayan series garnered the highest ever rating for a Hindi GEC show since 2015. The show was highest rated in the urban market and mega cities. According to BARC India data, the first four episodes of Ramayan garnered an average of 28.7 million impressions. Numbers which have not been reached by even private broadcasters in the past half a decade.

An IIT alumnus, who worked at Infosys for 16 years, and later became the CEO of NitiCentral.com, Vempati then worked closely on prime minister Narendra Modi’s Mission 272+ during the 2014 general elections. He then worked on several Prasar Bharati committees before taking up the job of leading it in 2017.  (Prasar Bharati as we all know is the holding company of both Doordarshan and All India Radio.)

Vempati has been in the driver’s seat at DD since September 2019 when the then-director general Supriya Sahu moved on to another posting. Indiantelevision.com's editorial lead Firos B reached out to Vempati  for an interaction on the success of his charge. 

Excerpts from the interview:

Doordarshan seems to be shining bright now as compared to the private channels. What are the things you have been doing right? How have you defined the role of DD and its slate of channels?

The nation is experiencing extraordinary circumstances unforeseen in recent memory and not experienced perhaps in over a century. The citizens see in Doordarshan both nostalgia and a reassurance. The prime minister invoked the metaphorical lakshman rekha when he called for a nationwide lockdown. The citizens in response to that clarion call made Doordarshan their home resulting in these audience figures. I am thankful to the rights holders who responded to our requests and helped us bring back iconic DD content. The appeal of this iconic content is universals across all target groups and we are not looking at any kind of segmentation-based targeting. For a long time audiences have been fragmented by the industry. TV which was once the glue that brought families together ended up on split screens. I am happy that the public broadcaster has once again brought back wholesome family viewing to television screens thus turning the calculus of segmentation on its head. 

How did the programming of Ramayana and Mahabharata come about? What did it take to bring it on air? Who assisted you in it?

Every one of the rights holders played their part despite the constraints of the lockdown to work overnight with our teams in Mumbai and Delhi on a war footing. The biggest challenge was incompatibility of archival media formats and transporting the content from Mumbai to Delhi. Several firms and individuals helped us out in solving these problems despite the constraints of the lockdown. It was as if it was a national duty that everyone came together to make it happen. 

Are you happy with the ratings to all the old new shows? And are they paying good old DD ad rates when it was in its heyday or is it lower rates?

Ratings were secondary to us. The primary purpose was to ensure the prime minister's call for a total lockdown was successful and effective. I am happy that DD played its part in ensuring the same. Advertising demand naturally followed but our priority was the social messaging which we have not compromised on despite the tremendous pressure from the market. COVID-19 infomercials continued to air on priority. I would not like to comment on rates and revenues at this time. 

What is the road ahead for Doordarshan? 

It is too early to speak about the road ahead as India is still grappling with the pandemic. We will, however, continue to build further on this momentum around nostalgia and work with the various rights holders to air as many iconic DD shows as possible during the period. 

What are the efforts to produce relevant and relatable programmes to engage the audience, especially the youngsters who grew up watching satellite channels and are now on OTTs like Netflix?

We will pursue fresh content creation once the situation normalises. Until then our priority is news and information dissemination related to the pandemic as well as enabling mass education through broadcasting till schools and colleges can reopen. 

What is the strategy to sustain the advertiser interest?

We have developed a sizeable pipeline of iconic DD shows which should continue to engage audiences and sustain advertiser interest. 

You have brought in professionals from the private sector to help you in your efforts. How has this been received?

We have cross-functional teams from both the public and private who are working together closely to deliver during this crisis. It would not be right to overstate anyone's role. 

Will regional Kendras receive make-over in the days to come as part of the revival?

Priority is education as DD/AIR team up with state education departments. A lot of iconic and archival content is also being aired. 

Apart from DD Retro, are there plans to launch any genre-specific channels?

Not at this time.  

You have launched the Prasar Bharati News on Air app. How is it faring?

Over the last two months since the crisis began, NewsOnAir App has since had a 125 per cent growth in traffic from India with nearly 1.5 million listeners tuning in. International traffic which accounts around 10 per cent of overall traffic has also doubled during the same period. Nearly 20 million visits during the same period for the audio content on the App across both live streaming and on-demand audio content of All India Radio. 

DD Free Dish: Is that a lifeline during the COVID-19 crisis? How is it faring?  How many channels are on board the DD Freedish platform?

India is lucky and unique as we are the only public broadcaster the world over to have our own DTH platform which is free to air with no monthly fees and reaching into 35-40 million households. Free Dish has become a lifeline for mass education through broadcasting during the pandemic. At this time more than 80 channels (public and private) are part of Free Dish. Since several public education channels of HRD and NIOS are also beamed on the same satellite, they can also be accessed using Free Dish set top boxes. This is a game changer for India in ensuring mass education on such a scale through broadcasting unlike any other country.

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