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Prasar Bharati CEO on Public Broadcaster’s experience, challenges and future

(This is transcript of CEO’s speech at Kautilya Fellows Programme)

Public broadcasting across the world has some fairly well known names, well known platforms; BBC being one of them, probably the widest global reach and name recognition. Then you have more recent entrants who have made a mark – Russia Today, CGTN. Interestingly the history of public broadcasting in India pre-dates independence. All India Radio, which was stared sometime in the early 1930s has a long history. Right now, we have not made pubic but soon we will have a public museum at the AIR HQ on parliament street where you can see some of the old equipment, photographs, pre independence era artifacts when Mahatma Gandhi for example visited the studios of AIR and there was a very interesting photograph with a signed note from Sir CV Raman, it had a partial differential equation, his way of appreciating radio. And some of the old instruments, so radio has had a quite a long history in India. Interestingly I was also told that our external services division which broadcasts on short waves historically and now off course on the digital media. It was started in response to the world war II, so in that sense radio; both domestically and internationally in India has played a role from a soft power standpoint as well to put out the message. So that was the history of radio. Then off course as we get past independence era and decades subsequently. Then you had television making its debut. Initially TV operated out of the radio facilities and sometime I think in the 80s when India hosted the Asian Games, it was when the TV had its own facility and that was when the first color broadcast happened and so on. But all along these decades till the 90s, both Doordarshan and AIR which are the TV and the radio arms, were the depts of the govt. It was only in the early 90s that there was a debate in the parliament and a legislation was passed that the public broadcaster should be autonomous of the govt of the day and hence what was called the Prasar Bharati Act was voted upon by parliament to create what is known as the broadcasting corporation of India. But the interesting thing is the law was passed in the early 90s, it was in 97 that the law was actually acted upon. So it just again highlights how difficult it was for the then govts to led go off the public broadcasting arms of the TV and Radio. It was only in 1997 that the act which was passed in 90s was formalized and Prasar Bharati was created and both Doordarshan and AIR were made part of it. Interestingly when I joined Prasar Bharati as the CEO in 2017, it was the 20-year milestone and also an opportunity to look back at what happened with this experiment of creating an autonomous corporate for public broadcasting.

Public broadcasting in India is different of what you would see in the many other parts of the world and it has a few reasonsfor that. First is funding. If you look at BBC or NHK in Japan, the funding is not dependent on the govt of the day because you have a license fee and that license fee is collected from all the citizens who own TV sets or have access to TV and that’s how the public broadcaster is funded in these countries. So that is one model. Another model is the American model where there are grants that come from the federal govt but there are also funds that are raised locally and it’s a very decentralized architecture of public broadcasting in the US.  Intrestingly in Canada their was a debate that may be public broadcasting should be completely ad free because why should the public broadcaster compete with the private broadcaster for the same ad revenue and then the funding for public broadcasting can come from some kind of corpus across private broadcasters. So that’s another model.

In India, we have a very different model for two reasons. First, when Prasar Bharati was created in 1997, all the assets of the AIR and Doordarshan were transferred to this corporation, but it is not a corporation in the true sense. Corporates in India come under Companies Act and this Act defines whether you are a public undertaking, whether you are a government company or whether you are a limited liability partnership etc. Prasar Bharati doesn’t come under the ambit of the Companies Act. So, it is not a corporate in true sense, it’s a statutory autonomous body. Secondly, when it was created in 1997, all of the employees of DD and AIR continued to remain employees of the Government of India. So we have this hybrid model where the corporate is autonomous but everyone working within it are the employees of the government. What this also means is that their salaries, pensions etc is funded from the government. So if you take away these wages and related expenses, all of the operational expenditure has to be funded by revenue generation from commercial advertising and sponsorship and whatever other commercial activities Prasar Bharati can undertake, which is a huge challenge because nowhere in the world does a public broadcaster sustains itself through advertising. In India, we ended up doing it because of the unique model we have where operations have to be funded from our revenues.

Then there is a third component which is infrastructure which again is funded by the govt through a capital grant. Now why is that? To appreciate that you have to understand the complexities of India. India is 1.3 billion democracy, has huge diversity; geographic, social, cultural and so on. No public broadcaster produces content in 100s of languages. AIR and DD do that. So there cannot be any model that is comparable in the world, anywhere. When there are languages, if you are familiar with the languages, you probably would not have heard of the languages. To give you a few ex; Garo, Khasi, which are from the North east, Gojri and Dogri from Jammu Kashmir and so on. Then there are all the dialects from the heartland of forest regions of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and so on. These are dialectsand languages some of them probably don’t even have a script and there are very few speakers with the radio or TV skills. But we produce content in these languages and we have to service citizens who live in these regions. And no private sector will ever find a business model viable to ever go into those parts of the country. So that is a unique challenge. Hence, infrastructure continues to be funded by the govt.

So you have salaries that are govt funded, infrastructure that is govt funded, but then there are operations which we have to completely fund from our commercial activities. So it’s a very unique model which has no parallel in anywhere in the world. So when people are very judgmental about the public broadcaster in India, they miss out this complexity picture that the public broadcaster has to deal with all these challenges.

And one of the things that I usually observe in India specially when foreign media reports on India, a lot of the commentary, narrative, headlines seemed to be derived from what happens in this city and a few media outlets in this city put out a certain version of the truth and invariably the foreign correspondents who operate out of Delhi pick up on those themes and those narratives and that makes news, be it – gender violence, mob lynching etc. What people don’t realize that it’s a 1.3 billion nation and if you look at what comes closest, because China is not a parallel, it is not an open democracy, it does not have the same issues as India. The nearest democracy of any size is the US which is probably one forth. So you are basically reporting on 4 Amercias to really capture on what is going on in India. So if any oeof you is looking at career in the media or will be in roles that will influence media reporting happens, one of the message you should carry forward is that to understand India, you cant go by what an English language media reports in New Delhi. You have to understand, the length and breath and complexities of India.  What makes news in Delhi is not really a reflection of the entire totality of India. The reality of India is much more complex, diverse and requires quite a bit of understanding. So when I see Washington Post or New York Times makes a very sweeping judgement on some incident in India, they are missing this big picture because they have not really understood the entire complexity and diversity of this country. So with this kind of environment in which the public broadcaster operates, we have had quite a few challenges which are unique to India and some challenges which are common to other public broadcasters across the globe.

So, I will talk about some of the challenges in this country. Given our constraint in terms of funding from the govt as far as infrastructure expansion is concerned. You will see a whole diversity of technologies. On the one hand we have a digital presence which today is 60 plus YouTube channels, 250 plus twitter handles putting out content from across the country in these languages and so on.  So this is on one end of the spectrum. It can be latest as it can get, with an IOS App and Android App and so on, Alexa – that was an interesting thing we did last year. AIR services are now integrated with Alexa so you can listen to a whole bunch of live streams from AIR on Alexa. So that is at this extreme end. On the other extreme, we still have analog terrestrial TV. Two decades back, probably every roof top in India had an antenna and you were receiving analog terrestrial signals. But that had changed dramatically sometime in the early 2000s when DTH and cable took off in a big way. Today India is largely a DTH and cable viewing country. And analog terrestrial TV has more or less vanished expect may be from some pockets. But we still operate a large analog terrestrial TV network. So one of the things that we did in in last 2 years since I took over was that we have to now rationalize our terrestrial TV operations. So for the first time, because again in India any change of this nature involves a lot of resistance, largely because you have a big workforce which is involved in these operations and natural thing is the insecurity of what will happen to us and so on. But it took quite a bit of effort both within the public broadcaster, with support from the ministry that we have now shut down 600 of our analog TV transmitters and there is still a few more thousand to go. We now have digital terrestrial in 19 cities and 23 transmitters. So that is one change that is happening, moving from analog to digital on the terrestrial TV side. A big infliction point in that evolution will likely come later this year. The South Korea, USA have already taken a step towards it, hopefully India also catches up where terrestrial TV will essentially become direct to mobile. Today you have chips in mobile phones which allow you to receive FM radio signals and I am predicting within a year, we will have chips that can go into smart phones which can receive TV signals. SO you don’t have to depend on 4G, 5G to watch live TV streams. You can watch it over te broadcast network so there is no airtime. There is no choking no buffering and potentially you can watch 100s of channels. And this change is likely to happen in next year or so.  So that’s one inflection point we are waiting for where our digital efforts on the TV side will take off in a big way. Other is on the DTH side. Again, looking at the diversity of India, back in early 2000, we have launched Free to Air DTH platform, again that is one of its kind in the world, where all you have to do is invest in a STB and a dish Antenna – one time and you can receive satellite channel for free for life – without any monthy fee, no subscription. So this digital platform called FreeDish today has about 30 million households across India, receiving content on this platform. So placement of channels on this happens through a very transparent, open method called an electronic auction. We recently did an auction where about 40 slots were taken up by the private broadcasters. It is likely to generate about 400 Cr of  revenue. And interesting thing about this 400 cr of revenue from this DTH platform is that my manpower involved is just 40 people. So it’s a good example of how at a very small manpower I can generate a large amount of revenue. And probably that’s a way forward for the public broadcaster where we are more nimble, more efficient and we are able to do a lot more so that we can subsidize our other operations – our social and national obligations. Because as a public broadcaster, there is a lot of responsibilities that a state expects of you. We have to cover all the events of national importance – be it the Independence day speech from red fort of the PM, be it the republic day parade with the president and the PM and a foreign guest, be it any of the parliament session and so on. These are events which can take up hours of broadcast time on TV and radio and are not monetizable. I cant place commercial advertisements. So my cost that go into a lot of these activities are subsidized by some of these commercial activities that I have like Free Dish etc.

Free Dish is another innovation that came about because of the unique demographics of India, the unique social circumstances. But it has also become the model for the future that how we can be efficient, how we can be revenue generating, revenue surplus. That’s on the TV side.

Radio side, historically we have medium wave and short wave and off course with FM the whole scenario changed. Today FM listening has become very easy through these smart phones and lot of the FM listening is happening through these devices. Consequently, medium wave and short wave off course have lost out in there listenership and there reach. So lot of our expansion is happening on the FM side where we are investing in transmitters across the country in small towns, districts previously which are unserved by the radio market and the private sector is very unlikely to go there. We are also looking at transitioning MW to digital radio. So that’s another shift likely to come. The challenge right now is the digital radio sets are quite expensive so the consumer offtake is  not as much as it should have been. But I am being told that the lot of new gen automobiles are coming with digital radio sets. So may be in the next few years, this also takes offs. A convergence that happens ultimately at the smart phone level where one single chip can receive a digital TV signal and digital radio signal will ultimately revolutionize this entire transition. That may be sometime away but hopefully the innovation gets us there.

Same thing with short wave again. Similar evolution from analog to digital radio. But the future is going to be digital, this is very clear. Today our App for example where you can listen to live streams of radio has a few million downloads and is very actively used. Same thing with our website. So clearly whatever we do will be more FM, more digital going forward on the radio side as well.

But the unique challenge we have as a public broadcaster is that our work force is largely in its 50s . And in the next 5 years this workforce is going to retire. So big challenge in front of us is how do we prepare ourselves for this transision of an aging workforce. How do we bring in new talent, how do we reskill existing talent an how do we ensure the knowledge management happens.So while we are transforming the network from analog to digital, we are also in parallel trying to solve this workforce problem. So there was a committee that was set up by the previous govt back in 2013 – The Sam Pitroda committee which looked at all these issues of public broadcasters and suggested that comprehensive manpower auditing to be done. So that exercise is currently underway.We started that a few months back. EnY is helping us to do that. Some of the recommendations that come out of the exercise will help us to chart out the roadmap of how we should plan our manpower for next 5-9 years, wen this big change happens. So that’s on the manpower side.

There was another committee which was in the last decade led by MrNarayanmurthy, the founder of Infosys which also looked at some of the aspects of the pubic broadcaster. They had an interesting observation that unlike in the rest of the world where the ratio of the engineers to transmitters is very low. India has the highest of the broadcasting side. We probably have about 8 engineers to 1 transmitter.

So one of the big areas of focus will be automation so that we bring down the need for so much of manual activity and manual operations of the network. Today most industries have highly automated, you look at the process industry, probably the highest level of automation. I am chemical engineer from IIT Bombay, I remember when we were doing our field studies during our Btech, so I had to go to the huge Reliance facility which is a little distance away from Mumbai, Patalganaga. And the thing that strikes you when you go to a chemical refinery, you hardly see any human bring around. And a few people are sitting in the control room, just the sheer level of automation.  Coming from that background, I found all that very strange that the broadcasting infrastructure in India is so people intensive. There is no reason for it. We should have designed these things with automation in mind.  So that will be another big area of focus. Our future operations will not be manually intensive as they were in the past. Same thing with how our studios operate, how our channels operate and so on. So automation, rescaling, and managing the challenges of  an aging workforce. These are the some of the challenging we will be grappling with in the next few years.

Then there are certain challenges which are unique public broadcaster challenges across the globe. First is on this whole question of, what should be pay vs what should be FTA. Sports is a great example of that. If you look at it world over, most sports has become pay and subscription based and practically out of the reach of FTA broadcasting. And public broadcasters across the globe who traditionally would show these big matches – be it cricket, be it soccer etc. have over the years lost the ability to carry these sports. One school of thought is, it’s a private commercial activity, what is the public interest there. But at the same time, these games have assumed such national significance because of the sheer number of people who watch them. It is also not acceptable that there is no easy way for the masses to watch these games. And this debate is not new to India, I have seen this in Australia, UK etc. And everyone has tried to find there own solutions to how do you ensure sports of high public interest are accessible, are still FTA. So we in India have our own solution for this. Back in 2007, we passed a legislation, requiring that certain sporting events will be designated as being of national importance and those sporting signals will have to shared by the private rightsholder with the public broadcaster. So consequent to that lot of the high interest cricket matches and certain big events like Olympics, FIFA world cup and so on get shared withthe public broadcaster with a certain ratio of revenue sharing. But this is an active area of debate that how do we bring back sports because as viewing has become individualized. I remember when we growing up everyone watched the TV sets at the dinner table and the entire family was together. These days in my home, my sons have their I Pad, my wife has her I Phone, I am on my I Phone. We are all watching different things. There is no family viewing that is happening. What FTA TV did was to bring that family together and as the commercial TV took over , as Pay TV and off course on demand now, vieweing has become very individualized, that family sense of coming together is probably not happening. Infact this was the topic of discussion at the public broadcaster conference that we had recently in Seoul where we had BBC and quite a few of the international broadcasters. All the CEOs were debating that how public broadcasters played a critical role in bringing families together historically. But with the changes that have happened, that opportunity is being lost out. So how do we bring that back and this something we have to think about, going forward that what kind of content can we create, how can we disseminate, how can we put it out so that we bring back that sense of the family and big challenge is that of the Youth. Because the Youth have practically moved away from public broadcasting. When we were growing up DD and AIR were the only avenues the two brands that everyone grew up knowing about. But this generation which is born after the 2000, they have no memory of public broadcaster.

In the field of brand marketing, I remember that this was MrLeffly, who used to chair P&G had this phrase called “The moment of truth – The First time you experience a brand”  So my sense is that todays youth in India, there first moment of truth of DD or AIR is not happening on TV or radio, its happening somewhere online on their mobile phones and so on.

So not only do we have this challenge, that we to engage this youth who have no memory of public broadcaster. While we have to do it in manner that we actually bring back that sense of togetherness, that family viewing and so on.

So these are some of the things, that we will be grappling with going forward. Let me end with one issue that I want to highlight. This was actually brought out recently in a column that was published in the Gaurdian Newspaper. It quotes a Norwegian Professor Johan Galtungwho wrote a Journal about 50 years back on how news and media are likely to evolve where he sighted that amongst various factors reporting on conflicts and the immediacy of reporting will become the hallmark of news reporting. And as a result he says (now he is reflecting back), he wrote this paper 50 years back, and now he is reflecting whats happening in news media. And he says that News Media has become far too negative, far too sensational and far too adversarial because of this and I think its very true of what we see both in India and in the international media that we all the time are looking for conflicts, discords, because we want to be sensational , we want to report things, break it in split of a second and so on. And in this race to look for fault lines, media has become very negative. I think this is where the public broadcaster has to play a role trying to correct this. SO we have started a segment on DD called Good News India where we look at Positive stories of development, because these things don’t make news otherwise. They don’t make for a sexy headline, they don’t get you the TRP etc. But these stories need to be told. Because there is so much good that is happening, positivity that is happening  and why is that news media has drifted away from positivity and this is something to reflect about what Johan Galtung wrote 50 years back and now he thinks it has become the dominant paradigm with the news media.