If Mandi House wasn’t so short on wit, its mandarins could well say that reports of the imminent death of Doordarshan (DD) have been greatly exaggerated. And certainly, such reports have done the rounds with unfailing regularity through the better part of this year. Alarms were first sounded with the arrival of cable. And the advent of CNN, Star TV, ATV and latest, Zee Television, only made the prophecies of doom even more strident.
It was all over for Doordarshan, bar the weekly Hindi film telecast over the weekend ( and the odd Chitrahaar), they said. The satellite wars would claim DD as their first victim.
Of course, at Doordarshan, they see things differently. Yes, they admit at Mandi House the increased competition has made things difficult. But no, this is not the end of the road for Doordarshan. And the network is trying to adapt to the changed situation in order to survive in the changed scenario.
Last week, we received positive confirmation of this when Doordarshan lifted the cross-media curbs earlier in operation, thereby allowing newspapers and other publishing groups to compete for time on the proposed Metro Channel of Doordarshan as well as on the FM channel of All India Radio (AIR) to broadcast news programmes.
In the earlier scheme, the government had prohibited them from applying for time-slots for news-related programme in the areas where they already operated. These restrictions had followed the recommendations of the suggested the implementation of this measure to check monopoly in the area of news, and to avoid spread of misinformation.
In fact, a government notification issued on 28 September made it clear (in Clause-7F) that “applicants interested in news/news-related programmes must not own any newspaper/magazines in circulation in the area covered by the channel for which the application is made.”
Cross-media restrictions are not peculiar to India, being prevalent in most of the countries of Europe and in the USA, where newspaper groups are not allowed to run broadcasting stations in a city where they bring out a newspaper. However, unlike India, media houses are allowed to own and run private TV/radio stations in other cities.
But why did the government do an about-turn by removing the cross-media curbs? Explains a senior Doordarshan official: “After consultations with several media houses and a cross-section of people, we decided to remove the cross media curbs. We felt that newspaper houses were better suited to handle a news-oriented programme independently. Moreover, in India, the circulation of newspapers is limited. Therefore, the chances of disinformation by media are limited.
The removal of cross-media curbs has not surprisingly, been welcomed all the publishing houses in the country. Aroon Purie, the editor of India Today (Living Media India Limited). We among those to express approval. We think this is a welcome and necessary move,” he says. “I believe that the inclusion of these restrictions was based on misunderstanding. The Metro Channel is not owned by anybody. It only hires out time, and that too, is limited to a certain number of hours per week per producer. Therefore, to think that media troups will come to monopolise information is completely absurd.”
According to Purie, these provisions exist in countries like America where situation is entirely different. In the he explains, there are a large number of cities which have only one main newspaper. Therefore, if same company owns TV/radio stations as well, it leads to monopoly situations. But the company is free to set up broadcasting stations elsewhere.
These conditions do not exist in India and, therefore, such cross-media curbs are not necessary. And from that point of view, says Purie, the removal of these curbs is not a big concession as is being made out, for these provisions were misconceived in the first place.
Agrees Raghav Bahl, executive director, Bussiness India TV ( a part of the Bussiness India Group): “Cross-media restrictions have no meaning. And if you can do without them for 10 long years, what is the rationale behind it now? There can be no monopoly as there will be about four or five competitors simultaneously making different programmes. Does that constitute monopoly?”
Karan Thapar of Eyewitness (Hindustan Times Group) takes a slightly more charitable view. “The government has done the most intelligent thing”, he says. “This gives the chance for media personnel to show their talent and improve the programme contents.”
Though the cross-media restrictions have been removed, doubts are being raised about the financial viability of the Metro Channel. Some argue that it is a non-starter, as the producers will be required to fund their productions from the advertising revenue generated by them individually, and also pay telecasting fee to Doordarshan, thus making it a very expensive proposition.
The former B secretary, S.S. Gill, I&B made just this point in an article in The Pioneer, the Delhi newspaper. According to him, the producers were finding it difficult to get advertisement for just one prime-time national network programme of 30-minutes duration. “So, how can we assume that enough advertisements will be forthcoming to fill 20 to 30 minute slots, day in and day out? It may be possible to secure adequate advertisement support for a couple of highly entertaining prime-time soap operas. But who will advertise during the six/seven hours of slack viewing time?”
The media houses are optimistic, though. And all of them are waiting eagerly to get their slice of the Metro Channel cake. Aroon Purie, for one, insists that the venture is financially viable. “I know there is an audience hungry for different programming than what is available and there are advertisers who would like to reach such an audience. But the amount of advertising time available for every slot of programming and broadcasting fee should be structured in such a way as to allow market forces free play. If they start putting too many rules and conditions then they will get a mini Doordarshan which will defeat the whole purpose.”
According to Raghav Bahl, however, it would take at least two to three months for those media houses who do not have experience in this field to break even. But for those with experience, it is commercially viable right from day one. In the beginning, explains Bahl, the media houses will have to make sustained and prolonged efforts to cultivate the audience, by giving them the programmes they want. Advertisements will follow automatically.
The removal of cross-media curbs comes soon after the constitution of broadcasting Panel of India to allocate time slots to independent producers on the Metro Channel of Doordarshan and the FM network of All India Radio. The council set up under the stewardship of renowned electronic expert P.S. Deodhar is to have five non-official members: Mrinal Pande, TV personality and editor of Saptahik Hidustan, Nikhil Chakravartty, editor, mainstream, stage personality Habib Tanvir, noted litterateur Kapila Vatsayan and retired IAS officer Anil Boardia. The official members of the body will be the directors general of Doordarshan and AIR and the engineers-in-chief of the two organisations.
The committee, though selected the ministry, is supposed to act independently and choose programmes for second channel by floating tenders.
The committee will also determine the pricing. Private programmes expected to be beamed from early next year if everything goes well.
Certainly, Doordarshan officials optimistic about meeting the challenge thrown by overseas competition. Explains a senior official: “Star TV has very limited reach, mainly catering the English-speaking, Metropolitan audience. Zee TV’s potential has yet be realized, so far it has been glorify the version of Chitrahaar and Some Hit movies. But then we are not taking chances.”
As per the recommendations of Mahalik Committee report, Doodarshan has begun increasing its entertainment programmes, improving both content and production values. It is also planning to strengthen its news coverage.
Despite these positive steps, much remains to be done. And in spite of the daunting nature of task, Raghav Bahl, for one, is optimize. “Doordarshan has the potential to fit any competition,” he says. “It has excellent hardware, all it needs is good supportive software. But then,” he caution “having good intensions is not enough, implementing them will prove to be litmus test.”
And how Doordarshan shapes up on that score will determine its fate for all time.