Sevanti Ninan

Media Matters: Lingering questions

State of the art? The Media Centre. Photo: PTI  

Doordarshan may be the blandest of our TV broadcasters but it compensates by generating enough controversy over what goes on behind the scene. The Host Broadcaster for the Commonwealth Games is now busy fighting some last minute battles with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the Prasar Bharati Board members, battles which have stayed out of sight, partly because Prasar Bharati never makes a sexy enough story for reporters to dig around there.

But should the Government of India deliver on the promised action after the event, across the board on a range of apparent scams, there are some basic questions that will need to be asked of the host broadcaster. What did this event leave us with precisely? The Asian Games catalysed DD into a colour TV broadcaster, back in 1982. Now that much of it is spent, it bears asking, what we have to show for the Rs. 350-odd crores spent by Prasar Bharati on CWG. Did DD acquire HDTV capability? The cameras, the production equipment and trained cadres to operate these? Did we acquire other equipment that will allow the broadcaster to improve its standards of coverage? Or other assets? And if not, why not?

In Prasar Bharati as elsewhere, CWG is turning out to be a colourful saga of money dished out in questionable ways. DD was formally appointed the host broadcaster back in 2007 and had plenty of time to get its act together and plan for what the event might be able to do for it. But it has turned out instead to be a saga of rentals (and single bid rentals at that) which leave the broadcaster with money spent and precious little by way of long term gains to show for it. The niggling little questions which will have to be asked is who took the decisions on rentals, how many bids were there to choose from, and what was the advice given by the Prasar Bharati Board and the Ministry on rentals vs. acquisition.

The best option?

A British company called SIS live is doing the broadcast at all the venues, on a turnkey basis. It will bring the full range of HDTV equipment including the cables, the personnel to manage it (some 300 odd) and take it all back for a cost of Rs. 246 crores. People need to be asking, could we have acquired some equipment for that figure may be? One full HDTV unit it is estimated, costs Rs. 18 crores. The venues they were needed at were 17. As for bringing in personnel, if back in 1982 people could be trained to handle colour TV cameras could not Prasar Bharati's army of engineers have been trained to do HDTV telecasts? The technology is not so different from SDTV that an engineer cannot learn it. DD could have got engineering-enabled assets for the emerging broadcasting scenario.

In 2008, the logic for inviting an Expression of Interest or a global tender was that Doordarshan did not have HDTV technology or people to operate it, or programmers of international standards. But hello, DD knew in 2007 that it was going to be the host broadcaster. Not long enough to chalk out how to utilise this opportunity to upgrade DD for the future? One reason cited was that some of the switching equipment was large capacity, not utilisable later in the studios DD has. Which is fair enough, but surely cameras, TV monitors, and camcorders also did not need to be hired at exorbitant cost?

The International Broadcasting Centre set up to enable crews that come to pick up the feed and telecast it to their countries has hired almost everything it needs. The Media Centre set up by the Press Information Bureau has at least acquired the computers and LCD monitors that will be used, so that they can later be deployed at its offices across the country.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Youth Games came along, scheduled for October 2008, and the telecast for this was to be in SDTV or standard definition TV which DD currently uses. Again Prasar Bharati proposed that the coverage be outsourced for Rs. 44 crores. Which riled the then minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi enough to ask why it could not be done in-house. The Central Vigilance Commission was also called into the picture to check out matters which looked shady. Eventually it was done in-house at 16 per cent of the proposed outsourcing cost, for Rs. 7 crores!

But with the larger contract for the CW Games, not enough questions have been asked at the right level for the single bid tender awarded to SIS to not go through. Prior approval of the Prasar Bharati Board was not sought in 2008. Detailed minutes exist of the Prasar Bharti Board meetings in 2009 January and February to show that the board repeatedly asked what assets were going to be created, but the CEO went ahead with the outsourcing decision and everybody all round seems to have been powerless to intervene. There was a host broadcaster management committee which took decisions on much of the expenditure. Minutes of meetings held by it in April and May this year have still not been finalised.

May be the GOI needs to explain all this. If Opposition politicians and the media care to ask the questions!

Drama aplenty

Meanwhile there is another side drama being played out. Partly because some of the venues have not been ready in time, SIS, the company doing the HDTV broadcast has been arm twisting Prasar Bharati, demanding more of the contracted amount upfront, and threatening to walk out, if they don't get it. So the ministry is now being bludgeoned by Prasar Bharati to change the terms of the tender and give a greater percentage upfront to prevent a walk out which will leave us with no telecast. Riled, officials at I and B have responded in writing by saying that the CEO and the DG Doordarshan will be held personally responsible for cancelling cheques issued, in the event that the delivery is not up to the mark. All of which is eyebrow-raising stuff, to put it mildly.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2021 1:07:55 AM |

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