December 13, 2019
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Down A Prime-Time Abyss

The battle over Prasar Bharati could be called 'the DD comedy show', if it weren't so tragic

Down A Prime-Time Abyss
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FOR months, all eyes have been transfixed on the information and broadcasting ministry's well-documented war to rid the Prasar Bharati board of 'undesirable' elements. The final battle is now being fought in court. A late Saturday night low blow—promulgation of the controversial ordinance reinstating the Prasar Bharati Act 1990 in its original form—has knocked the pugnacious S.S. Gill off his perch in Mandi House. It could be the end of the road for Gill, but the Great Doordarshan Drift which he failed to arrest is only getting worse.

The All India Radio director-general and ex-officio member of the board, O.P. Kejriwal, the interim CEO of Prasar Bharati, isn't ready to speak his mind yet. "Let me settle down first," he says. Time isn't on his side. The search is on for a new man to fill the vacancy I&B minister Sushma Swaraj's 'moral victory' over Gill has created. One name—Discovery Channel's chief operating officer Kiran Karnik—is being bandied about, but Swaraj dismisses it as "pure speculation". Says she: "The file on the appointment of the Prasar Bharati chairman and a part-time member (to replace A. Padmanabhan, who is now Mizoram governor) has already been referred to the three-man selection committee," she says. "By next week, I'll write another letter to the panel informing it about the three additional vacancies that have come up after the promulgation of the ordinance."

In all the brouhaha, the primary issue—DD's continuing slide—has been pushed to the background. With disastrous results. Consider the signals: big ad spenders are deserting the ship, revenues have slumped alarmingly and urban viewers are being weaned away by aggressive satellite TV channels. A survey done in mid-May by Carat India, a media marketing agency appointed by Gill, revealed that in the four metros, DD's dominance is a myth. Its prime-time viewership lags behind Zee, Star Plus and Sony Entertainment Television.

That's not the only reason why advertisers are losing faith in DD. Faced with Mandi House's rigid ad code, its oppressive ad rates, the air of indifference DD bureaucracy exudes and the prolonged bout of uncertainty created by Gill's stand-off with the I&B ministry, top ad spenders—Hindustan Lever, Reckitt & Coleman, Dabur and Nirma, who between them account for nearly half of DD's commercial revenue—have drifted away towards friendlier, more flexible channels.

As the world threatens to collapse around it, DD continues to lurch from crisis to crisis. With the debate stuck in the autonomy versus accountability mire, the Prasar Bharati board is now without five crucial functionaries—the chairman, CEO, member (personnel), member (finance) and a part-time member—while DD hasn't had a director-general since K. Subramanya Sarma was shunted back to the I&B ministry. "We can't allow DD to be in a limbo for too long," says Swaraj. "We will spare no effort to expedite the process of filling up vacancies."

BUT, says a senior DD official, "Who occupies what position in Prasar Bharati is certainly not as important as how the organisation is run." The clash of personalities has taken its toll on DD. Its commercial revenue dropped to Rs 439 crore in 1997-98 from Rs 573 crore in the previous financial year: a whopping Rs 134 crore decline. Except Calcutta, where the DD kendra's revenue generation registered a marginal growth, all other major centres—Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai—showed a downward trend in 1997-98.

During July-August, viewership of its flagship channel, DD national network, has declined. With the exception of Shri Krishna, which registered a slight increase in TRPs between July 18 and August 15, and Jai Hanuman, which stayed steady through the four weeks, even its Top Five shows have been finding it difficult to sustain their popularity. By contrast, top shows on Zee, Sony and Star—channels that have steadily crept up on DD despite the disadvantage of competing with a government-owned terrestrial service—have maintained their consistency.

Leftist litterateur Rajendra Yadav, who is a member of the Prasar Bharati board, warns that the 22-member parliamentary committee reinstated by Swaraj's ordinance to oversee the functioning of the board will only aggravate matters. "MPs are corrupt people," says Yadav. "They're vulnerable to manipulation." Swaraj doesn't agree. "The fears about the parliamentary committee are misplaced. If anything, it'll be a forum where the Prasar Bharati board can lodge a complaint if it thinks the government is interfering," says the minister.

No matter what Swaraj says, much of DD's woes, autonomy or no autonomy, stem from overt or covert political interference. Nearly 3,000 serials approved for DD at the behest of politicians over the past few years are lying in the cans because their quality is "too poor for telecast". Constitutionally-sanctioned parliamentary supervision can only add to that mess. No wonder the ordinance hasn't made the remaining members of the Prasar Bharati board happy.

 They've already held a meeting to assess its implications. B.G. Verghese's view is well-known: the original Prasar Bharati Act is a piece of legislation that was drafted in haste. Romila Thapar and Yadav vote for complete autonomy. Are they likely to quit in protest? "Not yet," says Yadav. "If we're allowed to stay on and fight, we will."

But the fight should be fought on the battlefront of quality. To unshackle DD from its mindless dependence on film-based shows and mythologicals, to make its news watch-able, to make its proliferating channels viable, to capture the live sports market. On the last count, Gill made a major breakthrough. He appointed a consortium of three media companies—Stracon, UTV and Creative Eye—to bid for global sporting events and then share the profits in a 70:30 ratio with Mandi House. It has worked very well so far. In the first quarter of 1998-99, DD has done business worth Rs 50 crore—in 1997-98, it didn't do that in the whole year—mopping up profits of Rs 9 crore without investing a penny. All the money—Rs 23 crore—was raised by the consortium.

With a DD sports channel round the corner, cricket can be used in an unprecedented brand-building exercise leading up to the 1999 World Cup to which DD has exclusive terrestrial rights. "DD can show a significant amount of good cricket in the next few years," says Siddhartha Ray of Stracon. "It's free to air. If it does well, why would cable operators pay Star Sports and ESPN for carriage?"

But with Gill gone, will the new Prasar Bharati dispensation see the logic? Lack of long-term vision and the absence of continuity has always been DD's undoing. Haste killed the promising DD3 and indifference is allowing DD International to languish in no man's air. If DD's top brass isn't stirred into action right away, the goose that promises to lay golden eggs—the network's cricket branding plans—could drop dead.

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