Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Interview with K.S. Sharma CEO, AIR

Modernising and moving ahead Interview with K.S. Sharma,
Chief Executive Officer, Prasar Bharati.
Radio broadcasting in India has a history of over 75 years and television has been there for the past 40 years. All India Radio and Doordarshan have become part and parcel of almost every Indian household, providing not only entertainment but also educative, informative and cultural programmes. Until recently, both enjoyed monopoly and had the full share of the advertisement spending by the private sector, besides budgetary support. But recent advances in satellite technology have brought about a revolution in communication and the air waves are no longer the monopoly of anyone. The result has been the mushrooming of profit-oriented private channels, which offer a variety of entertainment programmes. The whole situation had changed and it was in this context that eight years ago Prasar Bharati was set up, with AIR and Doordarshan as its constituents, to function as a public service broadcaster and ensure a balanced development of broadcasting on radio and television. This is no easy task, considering the financial and administrative constraints Prasar Bharati faces as a government organisation and the fierce competition from the proliferating private channels for a share in the advertisement spending of the consumer products industry. Prasar Bharati has to depend increasingly on government grants to fulfil its mandate and strike a balance between its role as a public service broadcaster and the need to become commercially viable. In spite of all these disadvantages, Prasar Bharati has been able to expand its reach. Today AIR covers 92 per cent of the geographical area of the country and almost the entire population. Doordarshan covers 90 per cent of the population and justifiably claims that its reach is way ahead of the reach of all the satellite channels put together. Although Prasar Bharati has become the most preferred choice of advertisers, its mandate is to devote a large chunk of its broadcasting time to educative, informative and socially relevant programmes, which do not earn revenue. To create a healthy public broadcasting environment, there is an urgent need to find ways and means of funding its operations in a sustained manner, said K.S. Sharma, Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati. Sharma, who was recently re-elected president of the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, detailed the various initiatives taken by Prasar Bharati to keep pace with global developments in the field of broadcasting and cater to the wide-ranging needs of listeners and viewers without compromising on the quality of the programme content or succumbing to market forces. He underlined the need to regulate the growth of broadcasting in India. Excerpts from an interview he gave B.S. Padmanabhan: What is the significance of AIR and Doordarshan going digital and acquiring state-of-the-art facilities for the production and transmission of programmes? How would this help Prasar Bharati fulfil its mission as a public broadcaster? The communication landscape worldwide is undergoing rapid changes. Digital communication, which promises clear picture and sound quality and ensures optimum utilisation of [satellite] spectrum, has become the technology of choice for many broadcasters around the world. Prasar Bharati, being one of the leading public service broadcasting organisations in the world, does not want to be left behind.
In fact, digitisation and automation are the thrust areas of broadcast development during the Tenth Five Year Plan period. Out of the 26 channels of Doordarshan, 23 have been made digital. Captive Earth Stations, uplink and downlink facilities are being digitised in a phased manner. Seven major studio centres of Doordarshan in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and the Central Production Centre in New Delhi have already been made fully digital. The newly inaugurated studio set-ups at Doordarshan Bhawan and the New Broadcasting House rank among the largest facilities in the Asia-Pacific region and perhaps the best too. As regards the public service mission, one of the objectives of Prasar Bharati, as laid down in the Prasar Bharati Act 1990, is to expand the broadcasting facilities and promote research and development in broadcast technology. So the digitisation drive of Prasar Bharati is in line with its public service mandate. As a government organisation, what are the constraints that Prasar Bharati faces in fulfilling its social commitment and at the same time effectively competing with private operators for advertisement revenue? As a public service broadcasting organisation, Prasar Bharati is bound by all the rules and procedures that apply to government organisations. Despite increasing revenues, nearly two-thirds of Prasar Bharati's requirements are met by the government. It is true that even as our revenues are growing, the market share is declining because the advertising pie is being divided among far too many players. The reach of DD National, with nearly 400 million viewers, makes it the biggest media vehicle ahead of any satellite channel, radio station or a print publication. By its sheer reach, it is the most preferred vehicle for brand building for most of the mass consumption products. Yet, only one-third of the total broadcasting time on the channel is devoted to revenue-generating entertainment programmes. Rest of the time is used for information and education programmes. We are perfectly happy discharging our role as a public broadcaster. But to create a healthy public broadcasting environment, there is an urgent need to find ways to fund the operations in a sustained manner. How is the financial performance of Prasar Bharati? Although revenues have been increasing, losses too seem to be mounting. What are the factors contributing to this situation and what is the remedy? For the past three years, the revenues of Prasar Bharati have been increasing rapidly. Live telecast of cricket matches, feature films and serials have boosted the revenues for Doordarshan. A large chunk of the government's media budget is now spent on Doordarshan, which offers turnkey production-cum-broadcasting solutions. All India Radio crossed the Rs.100-crore revenue mark two years ago and is now headed for over Rs.150 crores. Prasar Bharati earned a total revenue of Rs.835 crores and the target for this year is in the region of Rs.1,000 crores. Increasingly, we have been laying thrust on in-house marketing and it is bearing fruits. Our marketing division in Mumbai has acquired expertise in selling cricket, films and other special events with maximum impact. We have six such marketing divisions in operation. We have also rationalised our rate card and made it market friendly. The decision-making process has also been quickened with the approval of the Prasar Bharati Board. However, mounting establishment expenses and expenditure on maintenance of vastly expanded infrastructure have put a strain on our finances. Public service broadcasters facing funds crunch is a worldwide phenomenon - from Australia to America. However, some countries, such as Britain, have found acceptable solutions in the form of licence fee on television sets to fund the operations of BBC. Elsewhere, the Universal Service Obligation Fund provides the answer. The National Federation of Akashvani and Doordarshan Employees have sought a repeal of the Prasar Bharati Act in view of its financial unviability. How do you respond to this demand? Some of the grievances of the employees are genuine. They have been denied government accommodation and the concessional Central government health cover. We have taken up these issues with the government and have been assured of a sympathetic consideration. It was reassuring that Minister for Information and Broadcasting S. Jaipal Reddy, while inaugurating the new buildings of Doordarshan and AIR, said that the interests of employees would not be compromised in any way. The argument that Prasar Bharati has lost relevance with the advent of several private channels does not hold much water. Instead, the role of an autonomous public service organisation has increased manifold - to ensure universal access to information, education and entertainment and to create a balanced public opinion through dissemination of information on a non-discriminatory basis. This is the reason why every developed country in the world has a vibrant public service broadcaster. The Parliamentary Standing Committee, in its Report presented in August 2004, voiced concern over the overall shortage of staff, especially on the programme side and mentioned that trained staff was migrating to private channels. What steps are being taken to deal with the situation? The popular perception is that Doordarshan and AIR are hugely over-staffed organisations. But the reverse is the truth. We are facing acute shortage of staff, especially in the programming field. For example, programme personnel account for only 17 per cent of total staff in Doordarshan and 27 per cent of total staff in AIR. We need to address this issue urgently, as it is affecting our in-house programme production ability. Prasar Bharati is in the process of formulating its recruitment rules. Prasar Bharati launched its direct-to-home (DTH) service in December 2004. What has been the public response to this? How many households have opted for DTH? What steps are being taken to expand coverage by DTH? Our DTH service, DD Direct Plus, is a runaway success. Within eight months of the launch by the Prime Minister, the Prasar Bharati DTH service has attracted over four million customers across the country, with Tamil Nadu leading the way. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat are the other States where our DTH has been quite popular. Currently, we are offering 33 television channels and 12 radio channels. We will be expanding our bouquet soon to include 52 television channels and 30 radio channels. Several private players have evinced interest in joining our DTH platform. However, DD Direct Plus being a free-to-air DTH service, we can only take non-pay channels. We are yet to take a decision on taking private radio channels on our platform. The primary objective of Prasar Bharati's DTH service is to attain near 100 per cent television coverage in the country through Ku Band transmission. Towards this end we are distributing 10,000 DTH dish antennae and set-top boxes to community organisations in remote areas of the country. I would also like to mention about two of our on-going projects - digitisation of Akashvani and Doordarshan archives and the Indian Classics project. AIR and Doordarshan are the treasure houses of India's cultural heritage. Many memorable and rare performances of maestros of music and doyens of Indian classical dance have been captured and preserved in the tapes of AIR and Doordarshan for posterity. The digitisation process of Akashvani and Doordarshan archives is in an advanced stage. We have brought out outstanding recordings in the form of compact discs, video compact discs and digital video discs for the benefit of general public. You were recently re-elected president of the Indian Broadcasting Foundation. How do you view the prevailing trends in the Indian broadcasting industry? Indian broadcasting industry has been growing rapidly. Keeping in tune with the expanding economy advertisement spending is also increasing, but at the same time the number of channels beaming into India too is going up. There are already more than 150 channels beaming into India, making it one of the most crowded television markets in the world. The spurt in news channels has changed the way information is presented, but cut-throat competition has contributed to the sensationalisation of trivia. The biggest lacuna of the Indian broadcasting industry is its unregulated growth. It desperately needs a regulator to ensure proper growth and promote healthy competition. [Frontline Volume 22 - Issue 20, Sep. 24 - Oct. 07, 2005]