India needs to reimagine public service broadcasting

Prasar Bharati, India’s autonomous public service broadcaster, marked its silver jubilee on 23 November 2022. In 1997, on this day, the statutory Broadcasting Corporation of India was finally set up, nearly seven years after Parliament voted to pass the Prasar Bharati Act. The 25-years milestone also comes at a crucial moment when the organization finds itself at the cross-roads of a much larger transition with a significant proportion of its workforce set to retire in the next few years.

Prasar Bharati’s journey of the past 25 years can best be described as a saga of two decades of lost opportunities that have been made up for belatedly with the revival of the past 5 years. As an organization that was born out of the erstwhile government departments of All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (DD), Prasar Bharati’s struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of its many stakeholders explains to a large extent why the public broadcaster had failed to keep pace with the times for nearly two decades.

A critical folly in the creation of Prasar Bharati was the decision to retain the staff of erstwhile AIR and DD as government employees deemed to be on deputation, while failing to resolve decades-old disputes on service-related matters. The sum total of these two factors has been a demotivated workforce on the verge of retirement being challenged to compete with the private media for both viewership and revenues.

Unlike other public broadcasters in the world that derive a substantial portion of their revenues from such assured sources as licence fees, Prasar Bharati is unique in having to compete with the private sector to generate commercial revenues that pay for its operational expenses. This places an enormous burden on the public service broadcaster. It needs to be commercially competitive while simultaneously shouldering a substantial burden on account of its public service obligations. From mandatory election broadcasts to servicing remote and underserved regions in more than a hundred languages and dialects, Prasar Bharati’s arms of Doordarshan and All India Radio bear public service obligations unlike any of their global peers.

As an example, the BBC operates a handful of channels and services while receiving several thousands of crores in licence fees, allowing it to invest more than a hundred times on a per-channel or service basis compared to DD or AIR. This is a crucial difference that is missed out in misplaced comparisons between a global public broadcaster such as the BBC and Prasar Bharati. With the commercial success of DD FreeDish DTH as a free-to-air platform reaching more than 45 million homes, its operational burden is reduced significantly, but the wage bill for its nearly 20,000 government employees, which runs annually into more than 2,000 crore, still requires support from the government in the form of grants-in-aid.

As it reaches its silver jubilee milestone, the challenge for Prasar Bharati going forward is two-fold. It has to accelerate and sustain its reforms trajectory of the past five years to further modernize its operations through information technology, while digitalizing its audience touch points with compelling and creative content. It has to do so while managing the biggest manpower transition in its history, with nearly 2,000 employees retiring annually for the next few years. Managing this manpower transition is not merely an exercise in human resource management, but also in commercial management, as any new infusion of manpower will have to be funded from its commercial revenues. Herein lies the catch-22 for the public broadcaster, as it would require ensuring the infusion of professional talent at competitive, market-determined wages for specialized functions across sales, marketing, digital and IT, among others. Efforts underway to amend the recruitment rules and related provisions within the Prasar Bharati Act will have to be taken to their logical conclusion for the public broadcaster to successfully complete this major manpower transition.

The future vision for the public broadcaster over the next two decades will have to be in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision for a New India by 2047, with increasing technology convergence and consumption of media content on smartphones. Broadcast automation and IT-based integration of key operational functions will be essential to enable this vision. Further, a shift to cloud-based broadcast management is inevitable, so as to bring agility and flexibility to operations and address the shift towards on-demand consumption of media. Lastly, for the public broadcaster to sustain itself financially and expand its international footprint, it would have to create new avenues for monetization, be it from archival content or real estate assets. With direct-to-mobile broadcasting, an opportunity exists for the public broadcaster to create a DD FreeDish-like business model that takes free-to-air broadcasting directly to smartphones and other smart devices.

Twenty-five years on, India’s autonomous public service broadcaster enjoys both great nostalgia, as was evident during the covid lockdown, and a high degree of trust, as revealed by a recent survey. Creatively building on these strengths with a clear technology vision and a manpower roadmap for the future would be crucial to sustain itself for the next 25 years.

Shashi Shekhar Vempati is the former CEO of Prasar Bharati.

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