Doordarshan still has a wide reach. But to gain credibility and audience share, it must put its house in order first.

While a fair amount has been written about 50 years of television in India, there has been an unstated assumption that this had to do with Doordarshan alone. It is true that the first decades of television in this country had to do with Doordarshan, since it was the only television channel, but the picture changed dramatically from the early 1990s onwards, as private channels became visible and more and more people began watching them.

Keeping the focus on Doordarshan, though, is useful, as it continued to be — and still is — by far the largest television network in the country, and one can look at what happened to it as private channels emerged and took away more and more of the audiences with glossy entertainment programmes and with slickly presented news bulletins in the news channels that came up, broadcasting round the clock.

Having worked all through their professional lives knowing that they were the only television channel in the country, Doordarshan programme and technical staff were inclined to be a little more casual than was desirable. While this is understandable, the result was at times shoddy programmes, both in terms of content and technical presentation. One needs to ask if the advent of private channels jolted them out of their complacency into presenting better, more professionally made programmes, which they were certainly able to make.

But before one tries to look for answers to that, two major factors must be kept in mind, as they compounded the television scene and made it more complex than it would otherwise have been. One is the fact that private channels emerged and grew with a rapidity that was breathtaking. They developed more and more confident and polished programmes not over years but in months, as they competed not just with Doordarshan but with one another. The other is that, just to make things really messy, Doordarshan was made a part of the ‘autonomous’ corporation called Prasar Bharati as that hastily and most ill-prepared law was brought into effect with even more haste and with less thought than it needed.

Changed scenario

Consider how the scenario changed. In 1994 Jardine Matheson brought out a study of television channels in India, reporting on the market share each one had, and the rate of growth. It prefaced this study with the disclaimer that it was not considering Doordarshan, in particular what was then known as the Metro channel, because it was so far ahead of the other channels that the comparisons would make no sense, and this was, the study said, not because it had any inherent advantage in terms of reach but because of the astonishing turnaround it had made to become the foremost of the entertainment channels in the country.

Some years later in the last quarter of 1999, McKinsey made a study of the condition of public service broadcasters around the world in the midst of the plethora of private channels that had come up, and they concluded that the larger public service broadcasters were not just holding their own, but actually shaping audience preferences and thus the nature of programming. They found this was true particularly of those PSBs that were funded by licence fees or by law that put them beyond the reach of the State or of advertising money, and that another major reason for this to have happened was because they continually introspected and reviewed their programme formats and content, and costs. Doordarshan was not even considered among the PSBs they studied world-wide.

The shift in international perception from 1994 to 1999 is too obvious to miss. It is, of course, easy to dismiss these ‘foreign’ assessments as being uninformed — which some people no doubt will declare them to be — but one is deliberately mentioning them as they are more disinterested and therefore dispassionate in their conclusions. They know about Doordarshan, and the two totally different assessments are indicative of where the broadcaster has gone.

True, Doordarshan still has a great reach; but, if one were to leave out those areas where private channels are not visible, what is the audience-share that Doordarshan has? Only DD News has a respectable share, and that is because it is not, as private channels and the print media would have us believe, a mouthpiece of the government of the day. The low-profile hardworking people in DD News have kept it objective, and that is how it is perceived by many more than one thinks. And it does not bring in the mandatory story on a curvaceous film star or celebrity cricketer into each news bulletin as private channels do.

DD News underscores the poignancy of Doordarshan’s predicament. It can be a credible, very widely watched and appreciated network; but it simply must put its house in order. Introspection, in the government and in Prasar Bharati, focused and productive introspection is what is urgently needed, if it is to be a truly effective public service broadcaster.

The writer is former Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and a former Director General of Doordarshan.