RETUNE your receivers: the chop-and-change season is upon Mandi House once again. The information and broadcasting minister is new, the secretary is even newer, the Doordarshan director-general (DG) is just beginning to settle in, and the political frequencies have undergone a profound transformation. So swing your dishes right around and junk the theories that held sway in 1995. Gloss over the comptroller and auditor-general's (CAG) damning report on DD's financial goof-ups. Buy time on the recommendations of the Nitish Sengupta Committee on the Prasar Bharati Act, no matter how unambiguous they are. And carry on regardless.
Isn't that what good 'ol Mandi House is best at? DD-India, Doordarshan's international channel launched in March 1995 to transmit the nation's viewpoint across Asia, Africa and Europe, is about to be switched off for good. DD's much-touted 'elite' third channel, introduced on November 14 last year with a specific audience spectrum in mind, has been sent back to the drawing board for reformatting. DD MovieClub, too, is in for a drastic script alteration. The 24-hour current affairs channel born out of a special two-year agreement with the Atlanta-based Cable News Network in mid-1995, DD-CNNI, is expected to be given a quiet burial once the contract expires in June next year. And nobody is going to be particularly sorry for the interruption.
That is only as far as the channels go. There is much more on the way in terms of policy decisions regarding programming: DD is on the verge of upping its rate card in order to mop up a larger share of the advertising revenue from its programmes. Commissioned shows for DD3 are out because the channel can only afford sponsored programmes. DD Metro's privately-produced news programmes, Aaj Tak and The News Tonight , are to be relegated to a later hour soon so that DD can exploit prime time's advertising draw more profitably.
Plans are also afoot to sell time slots on the regional language channels. Is there any future in such a move? "These channels do serve a purpose and are doing quite well," asserts B.S. Chandrashekhar, DD's director, audience research. Most regional channels are popular and have tremendous commercial potential, he adds.
Long-running non-mega serials are to be subjected to a 13 or 26-episode ceiling. "Mega serials will be outside the purview of the ceiling because they help us make money," says the DG, K. Subramanya Sarma. "But serials like Junoon and Imtihaan , which are not in the mega serial league, will have to wind up within 13 or 26 episodes and make way for other programmes."
As always, private producers are fuming: can things ever change for the better in a Government-controlled organisation that wallows in chaos, confusion and corruption and never says sorry? Says Harish Thawani, executive director of Nimbus Television: "As long as the Government controls DD, continuity is out of the question. Every new minister, every new DG has his own theories."
Conflicting signals, bureaucratic doublespeak, faulty planning, myopic investments, dubious deals: DD has been guilty of just about everything that militates against the basic norms of prudent management of human resources and material reserves. The CAG has laid bare numerous instances of bad spending, if not outright malfeasance ( see box ). Nitish Sengupta has suggested that the Government loosen its grip on DD and let it function as an autonomous corporation with a paid up capital of Rs 2,000 crore. The contradictions on the three-man panel's recommendations are already out in the open.
Yet, the flamboyant Information & Broadcasting Minister C.M. Ibrahim and the rather low-profile DD chief are, expectedly, going full-steam ahead. They are hopeful that the upcoming modifications will have a positive impact on the overall quality of the existing channels, besides replenishing the national broadcaster's rapidly depleting coffers. "We are hiking our ad rates within the next month," reveals Sarma. "This will tilt the revenue-sharing ratio between DD and the private producers a little more in our favour. It is 55 per cent to 45 per cent at present. It should be 70:30 once the new rate card is introduced."
Hogwash, says Thawani. "The present ratio isn't 55:45. Our data, gathered after monitoring every single DD channel over the past 24 months, shows very different figures: 66:33," he claims. The decision to hike ad rates is a rather short-sighted step, argues the man behind one of DD's most successful programming concepts, Superhit Muqabla . "Producers are being treated as adversaries and not as partners."
This attitude perhaps stems from DD's desperate need to earn its own keep. Admits Ibrahim: "DD has to make money, but without compromising its social and cultural goals. In 20 years, DD has barely crossed the Rs 400-crore mark while some private satellite channels, despite their limited reach, are generating up to Rs 350 crore within just four or five years." But isn't it tough striking a balance between the network's social responsibilities and its commercial needs? "Yes, it is," admits Sarma. "That is perhaps why we draw so much flak."
One decision that has been particularly unpopular is the one that pertains to DD3. All the programmes for the channel were originally meant to be commissioned. But the new dispensation in Mandi House has decided to go in for only sponsored shows. "Rs 18 crore has been sunk into software for DD3. Programmes worth only Rs 6 crore have been received so far. I am trying to limit the damage," says Sarma. But will anyone be interested in sponsoring programmes on DD3? "No way," thunders Thawani. "In its existing format, people wouldn't take it free." And after the proposed changes? "They are serving rice and sambar now. Tomorrow, it'll be idli and sambar . Is that change?" As far as Thawani is concerned, DD3 is as good as dead. "When channels like Sony, which enjoy a much higher viewership, are struggling for ads, who'd be interested in putting money on DD3?"
Zarine Mehta of United Television agrees: "It won't work for DD3 because it just doesn't have that kind of reach." Prem Krishen of Cinevista, however, is willing to give the experiment a chance. "The decision to open the channel to sponsorship is wise," he grants. "Initially, it'll be a trial-and-error method, but it should be welcomed by clients because the decision will rest with them." He sees no problem in DD3's limited reach. "There is enough space for all kinds of channels and programming," says Krishen.
But is their sufficient space for good sense in the musty corridors of Mandi House? The way it killed off Chandrakanta, the goose that lay golden eggs every Sunday morning until it was unceremoniously ousted by Ramanand Sagar's Shri Krishna less than a week before the last elections for reasons other than merit, proves that there isn't. In 92 weeks, the big-budget sword and sorcery drama, for whatever it was worth, raked in a whopping Rs 65 crore for DD, staying at the top of the viewership charts virtually without a break.
Every provision in the rule book was flouted to pave the way for Shri Krishna. First, Chandrakanta was accused of being too violent and then, when the contention didn't hold much water, the serial's abrupt and surreptitious termination was attributed to its 'waning popularity'. And that was another load of balderdash: even during the lean season, made worse by the Wills World Cup in February March, Chandrakanta generated Rs 50 lakh on an average, while the Shri Krishna collections dropped to Rs 6 lakh on DD Metro.
The Ramanand Sagar serial had already been on DD Metro for nearly three years, yet it was permitted to restart from episode one on the national network. The contract drawn up for Sagar was strangely without any termination clauses, an unprecedented arrangement, to say the least. Shri Krishna was given 490 seconds of free commercial time despite being an old serial, one on which no production costs would be incurred. While Chandrakanta garnered 1,150 seconds of ads in its last episode, Krishna managed only 600 in the first week of its rerun. By the sixth episode, the spot bookings rose to 1,020 seconds, well short of the average of almost 1,300 seconds that Chandrakanta notched up during peak season. " Chandrakanta wasn't even given an alternative slot because DD's bosses were apprehensive that it would still do better than Krishna ," says the serial's producer-director Nirja Guleri. Prem Sagar, one of Krishna 's producers, insists that there is another side to the story: "The allegations against our serial are mischievous. It was shifted to DD1 due to public pressure. DD Metro caters to only 30 per cent of the population. So it was felt that it was unfair to deprive the remaining viewers." Moreover, he claims, the serial has yielded DD a record Rs 4 crore in the first nine weeks of its second run. Yet, it is felt that Krishna will entail an average weekly loss for DD of Rs 30 lakh-plus. Chandrakanta , which generated more than Rs 1 crore a week for DD on as many as 25 occasions.
Ibrahim is not in favour of imposing a ceiling on mega serials primarily because they will be grabbed by other channels if they are taken off the air by DD. That is precisely what is about to happen with Chandrakanta. Several Hindi general entertainment channels, including Zee and Sony, have evinced interest in an unprecedented syndication plan to pit it against Krishna. If it works out, Chandrakanta will be on not just one channel, but several, with perhaps Zee collecting the advertising revenue on a pro-rata basis and then distributing it. "Our sets, including two palaces, are still standing at Film City," says Shrey Guleri of Prime Channel, the producers of Chandrakanta.
More recently, DD gave away the lucrative Friday and Saturday film slots to the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) although the latter offered a minimum guarantee of only Rs 90 lakh against the Rs 1 crore assured by a private company. Where does that leave Mandi House's avowed resolve to mobilise more revenue? Well, DD has always been a hive of disconcerting questions, but no clear-cut answers. So it will drift on until it hits the next barrier.