||Public TV Broadcasting in Asia-Pacific
K P Madhu
TV broadcasting in India is about 54 years old. UNESCO promoted it as a great tool for education and so it was primarily school television telecast by All India Radio. It was initially limited to Delhi. Teachers and, at times, students in the studio beamed in black and white to the few TV sets on an experimental basis. Regular telecast started only in 1965.
The slow expansion of TV to seven other cities took about a decade. This was also the time when the SITE experiment, spearheaded by the Space Application Centre, took off and demonstrated that it is possible to increase the TV footprint to larger areas using satellites. The objective was development - social, economic. Education was seen as only one of the components of this mandate. It was a successful experiment and a proof of the usefulness of satellite television technology.
In 1976 Doordarshan was carved out of All India Radio. The programmes were shot on 16 mm black and white film. One had to wait for 15 to 20 days for the positive to start editing. The script was translated to different languages and telecast through about 7 transmitters. Keeping the transmitters running with programmes produced in film media was costly. So most of the programmes were studio based: live broadcasts that did not depend on the costly medium of film.
In the early 80's, TV started expanding in India. There was a push for expansion with the deadline of Asian Games in 1982. A large number of stations came up in a short time and the medium shifted from black and white film to video. The cost of raw materials came down tremendously. So did the time required for production of programmes.
Video as a medium is simpler to handle than film. It did not demand as much of technical efficiency and expertise to handle the equipment. It is less also costly. So, suddenly, there were many private studios, educational institutions and even NGOs buying equipment. In most metros, you could rent professional video equipment for shooting and editing.
The notion of National programmes could be achieved because of satellite technology. You would hear the TV blaring news while walking in the street and, from the sound track, follow what was happening in an episode from the Ramayana. Within a decade, Hindi became acceptable and comprehensible to TV viewers in the South, North, West and East of the Indian subcontinent. The popular joke in North India was: "Doordarshan news mein hindi suniye". The language of telecast sought purity rather than comprehension.
The lower cost of technology and production made it possible for the audience in Metros to access a second channel using a roof top aerial.
The rapidity with which broadcast technology evolved from that time onwards was quite exciting. There were a new set of toys to play with, every few years. But technology can be bought. Satellites and TV studios became business investments. And, thus, private satellite TV was born. A decade and half after SITE. Not for education or for development, but for private gain. The share of eyeballs was directly related to dividends for shareholders. Suddenly, it would seem, there were a large number of channels selling soap, toothpaste and whitening creams. It was not merely that most languages in India soon got their own channels. Larger varieties of Hindi were heard on broadcasts.
Growth and development
The increase from just two channels in the early 90s to more than 200 in a decade spelt too many opportunities for too few people. Anybody who had seen a camera became camera person, those who had seen shooting became directors and producers, those who could press buttons became editors. Those who knew anything about TV production and broadcasting were getting offers of employment that paid 4 to 10 times the earlier salaries.
Because the number of capable people was far less than the demand, talents from Doordarshan were poached by the private sector. There was a time for Chitrahar and a time for News, in Doordarshan. But there were channels for only news, for only music videos, for only sports and so on. The streets reverberated with different tracks from a variety of channels. Of course, it was the same stuff, endlessly repeated. Doordarshan which started losing revenue, besides talented people, started aping private sector programming.
Fragmentation of the audience meant that it was not easy to attain the share of eyeballs needed to sustain the show. Even some of the big media houses that entered the fray soon realised this and had to withdraw from the game. The economic downturn in the 90s saw quite a few more channels collapsing.
The loss of one channel was gain for another - the best of human resources were lapped up by the surviving channels. After a period of growth, TV as a medium showed signs of development. But the critical number of good quality human resources was still not available for the media industry, in spite of the large number of teaching shops. The growth and fall in number of channels was a sign for impending development.
Looking out for getting insights
Looking beyond India, it was clear that the same revolution was taking place in most countries. TV medium which was once only state run television was overrun by private TV. Most governments tried to hold on to the power of media by an elaborate process of licence laws. If you could get the private sector to tow the line, the power wielded by the media could be amplified.
The entry of private players from outside the country was more dangerous. The bogey of cultural erosion did not stop the middle class from wanting to see slickly made programmes. Some countries, like Iran, Myanmar and China, limited the entry of foreign channels. Some countries like Malaysia could keep a watch by delaying the programmes delivery by a minute so that "objectionable" content could be replaced by something innocuous. Limiting the players and that too, to Direct to Home delivery allowed keeping a tight rein and control on TV medium.
Cultural Invasion: Control, regulation, self regulation
Governments did not realise that the game had changed completely. Communication is very similar to transportation in many ways. With only a few vehicles, it is easy to control the traffic. But with more vehicles and more crossroads, it is not easy to control traffic. There has to be a system of regulation - achieved by traffic lights and random monitoring of the junctions to keep the law breakers in abeyance. When the vehicles and crossroads increase even further, even regulation becomes ineffective. This is where the other drivers keep the people who break traffic laws under control by overt expressions of displeasure.
A similar development had to take place in the TV medium also. From Government control to regulation to self-regulation by the industry itself, media laws had to be developed to match the fast changing scenario.
But international pressures for democratic norms allowing freedom of information and expression had laid the foundations for a Public Service Broadcasting System in India. Successive political parties coming to power, however, kept the national broadcaster under strict controls. Autonomy for Prasar Bharati was only on paper. The bureaucracy, the political forces, the market forces, all colluded to keep the multitude of State channels alive. The argument was that the private sector had a vast TV media. The Government should also have its voice.
The people inside the broadcast system also had serious opposition to the move. South Korea had set the scene by converting the state broadcaster to a public service broadcaster. And the employees, who were hitherto a part of the Government, suddenly became employees of a corporation which got the promise of a minimal funding from the Government. The rest had to come from advertising and sponsorship revenue. The mindset change amongst the employees was painful.
So when the opportunity was thrown open to the employees of the state broadcaster in Malaysia, the internal doubts itself squashed the offer.
Meanwhile, Thailand made a bold move. The Government was faced with a private channel that had to be closed down: their licence was to be cancelled. To the utter amazement of the onlookers, the Govt made it into a Public Service Broadcasting station. People started getting a taste of Public Service Broadcasting distinct from Public or state broadcasting.
Public Broadcasting and Public Service Broadcasting
Public Service Broadcasting and State Broadcasting have totally different perspectives. The state broadcaster telecasts its master's voice - that of the state. The Public Service Broadcaster listens to the public. It may be the tax payers' money that sustains the system. But the bureaucrats in the relevant Ministry or even the ruling party would have no control on the content or style of the channel: there would be no strings attached to the purse.
Across the Asia Pacific, the resistance to change was strong. In Vietnam, for example, during a workshop, producers admitted frankly that their job is Government propaganda. It took three days of discussions about health issues with producers in Indonesia before they realised that health related programmes are more important to the viewers of TV than political news. Smaller and less developed nations like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar were only slowly opening up to the skies and had not faced the choices. In the Philippines, journalists were killed if they dared to speak out against the political-commercial nexus.
A public service broadcasting - free from political, religious and political biases and independent from the state, but fully funded by the parliament - is not easy, as the case of South Africa shows. In spite of the history of freedom and independence, political and commercial shackles can be surreptitiously and subliminally re-introduced. The South African case showed that wresting freedom from political, religious and commercial forces is only the first step. To retain it, the broadcaster would need people with integrity and courage at the top echelons of management.
Serving the public by private telecasters
The need to keep the shareholders happy is not necessarily antagonistic to the idea of Public Service. YA TV in Sri Lanka managed to survive with its people oriented documentaries. But the case of O2, a Vietnamese channel was the most surprising.
Focused only on Health, O2 did not have a single negative word against the Government. It had news, soaps, documentaries, quiz shows,.. all related to health. A private channel, it broke even by the eleventh month of operations. It started earning profits by the end of the first year, breaking the myth that it takes 2 to 3 years for a channel to start making profits.
I also met a Bangladeshi channel promoter who was actively engaged in formulating a channel for agriculture. I was sure that it would succeed in a country where about 70 percent of the people were involved in agriculture. Of course, he would need to do more than the kind of lip service provided by Krishi Darshan. But if the programmes were useful to people, they would watch. And so far as people watch, the channel will make profits, survive and grow. But then, he needed the moneybags to be convinced. And the moneybags are convinced only about song and dance or high pitched political drama.
The case studies from Sri Lanka and Vietnam raises hope that the private sector - the same private sector that has taken up the responsibility of education, health, transportation and other services that the state should be providing to the citizens, quite often for only commercial benefits - will take up providing the consumers information related to health, agriculture, technology, science etc. and fulfil the communication needs of the public in engaging ways. Even if the political will to serve the citizens is lacking, the commercial interest to serve the consumers will create meaningful TV experience.
Back to future in India
The state broadcaster in India is still at the wicket. Terrestrial reception with old fashioned aerials is the only opportunity for many households that do not yet have cable or DTH. Digital terrestrial broadcasting technology could increase the number of channels and the quality reception considerably. It will add interactivity - if the broadcaster provides for it, like in DTH - giving details of programmes and other information services. The slow and steady move towards digital set top boxes and digitally enabled TV sets will soon pay dividends, when Doordarshan adds more channels to its terrestrial broadcasting.
What has, however, not yet been recognised, is the erosion of standards and depletion of management cadre in Doordarshan. There has not been any concerted attempt to get or retain or retrain or groom people. When in the next few years some of the key top management retire, Doordarshan may have to look outside for leadership. Acquisition of technology is easy. But the manpower to use the technology is not adequate.
At a particular time in the history of many countries, the governments told themselves that business is not their business and divested public sector undertakings. The grip on a powerful medium like Television - though bad for business - was, however, perceived as good to gather votes. No ruling party would think of losing that power. But when the ruling party itself would rather use private commercial channels for their propaganda, the state broadcaster becomes redundant even from that perspective.
The fate of the public broadcaster which does not become a public service broadcaster is sealed. Like the young movie goers of today do not necessarily know about Films Division, the TV viewers of tomorrow will fail to even identify Doordarshan logo. Meanwhile, the young generation, that has never seen Doordarshan, has YouTube and other sources that will satisfy their needs for information, education and entertainment.
The youth today has choice of not consuming "regulated" content from any TV channel. The internet is completing the process of fragmentation of audience initiated by Satellite TV. So even many from the 800-odd private TV channels of today will be forced to close shop if they are not willing to serve the public, without being influenced by political, religious or commercial lobbies.