The problems that dog India’s state-run media have made for lively dinner-time conversation for decades. None of the suggested remedies have worked as Doordarshan and All India Radio (AIR) sink deeper into a morass of increased government interference, inept babus and poor programme staffing. But now, a top bureaucrat panel has advised the prime minister to make public broadcasters “corporate entities” to help reduce dependence on government funds and increase elbow room for independent decision-making.
This is an idea worth trying.
Doordarshan and AIR’s woes are cyclic. The lack of innovative programming depresses viewership and hence revenues, driving the broadcasters to seek the patronage of politicians who clear bloated budgets. But this financial muscle encourages politicians to dictate programming, which is made anodyne to not offend anyone.
A corporate-style governance is the first step to change this, on two counts.
One, viewership is often driven by non-news entertainment content. Private channels have shown popular programming by independent producers and artists not only draw viewers but buoy revenues.
Doordarshan was a pioneer in this field with shows such as Shanti, Hum Log and Buniyaad but lost the plot as pressure to promote favourites increased. The AIR too stuck to its older format of jockeys playing old movie songs.
The only way to shake the state broadcasting bosses out of their slumber is provide yearly targets – something only a corporate set-up can do. This will ward off complacency that translates to blandness and state media’s unique infrastructural strength would be finally harnessed to tailor content for different regions.
Two, for news content, less dependence on government funds will automatically empower editors to be more adventurous with presentation and not toe the line set by the government.
The money generated can be used to upgrade in-house infrastructure, which often looks shoddy when compared to private channels.
A corporate-style broadcaster will be able to attract new technicians and presenters to augment a huge but demoralised staff, sorely needed if Doordarshan and AIR are to be relevant.
But becoming a corporate entity is only a first step, to be followed by lesser government oversight, more independence for directors and a clear “arms-length” policy.
One frequent objection to corporatisation is the fear that state media will become shrill and sensational. But a major chunk of Doordarshan and AIR’s programming is not news. In addition, shrillness is an editorial call, one that many private channels have stayed away from despite the revenue lure.
The proclivity to dictate what is sober or responsible content instead of catering to viewers’ demands is behind the downfall of state-run media. Attempts at reform are stonewalled with a stock defence on the need for a public broadcaster for rural areas and the poor. But a mandate of public service is no excuse for poor content as is evident by small towns and even villages moving away from AIR and Doordarshan. A radical overhaul is the only way forward.