Rekindle public service broadcasting

DD must set its own value and benchmarks rather than copying commercial television in its revamp efforts

By Author VV Sundar   |   Published: 6th Dec 2018   12:14 am Updated: 5th Dec 2018   11:02 pm

Prasar Bharati is finally kicking off a manpower audit encompassing Doordarshan and All India Radio. Sometime back, Doordarshan announced its intent to re-design its antiquated logo. Perhaps nothing came of that exercise. The ‘eye’ logo, as it is popularly known, is easily the most recognised and iconic logo of the decades gone by.

The glacial pace of change at the ‘national’ broadcaster and the fact that it took so long to realise the need for this makeover are both interesting and fascinating. By re-assessing its organisational structures and manpower, for one it is signalling a desire to resuscitate life into a brand that is atrophying. In a way, it also hints at the struggle and efforts to refresh, reinvent and be relevant to the larger audience and stay in tune with the times.

Doordarshan (DD), a colossus in ‘public service’ broadcasting, covers 92% of India’s 1.24 billion people through a vast network of 2,000 transmitters and employs more people than any public broadcaster in the world. However, in spite of its scale of operations and reach, it ceased speaking to its audience long ago on the programming front. How many of us would have reached for the remote to watch DD in our recent memory?

With each passing year, DD’s mindshare in the popular memory became feebler and feebler. The onslaught of commercial satellite television channels had put DD at the crossroads in the last decade. It also raises the fundamental question on the relevance of ‘public service broadcasting’ in the country and the conundrum DD faces in adhering to its ideals considering the commercial environment it is operating in today.

Prasar Bharati

National Ritual
For many, especially the Gen Y, the prospects of DD going for a makeover is also an occasion that brings with it a gush of old memories and nostalgia. Simply put, it was DD that introduced India to the Indians. It would be unfair to ignore the immense contribution it made in weaving our national fabric and creating a collective national identity and culturally integrating the citizens of the country.

It was a source of intense socialisation for the masses and owning a television set and watching DD, the sole television entertainment channel available during those times, was a marker of one’s upward social mobility in the 70s and 80s. DD’s iconic ‘eye’ logo and the slow and haunting signature track and montage may be off-putting to today’s generation, but it was an intoxicating tune that the whole country waited for.

Today’s television programming is frenzied and can make you gasp for breath. Television programming, on the other hand, on DD was more sedate, simple, realistic, clean fun with grassroots stories and with often the underdog as the main protagonist. Nukkad, Malgudi Days, Wagle ki Duniya, Surabhi are just a few examples that were timeless in its appeal and cultural value.

Newer formats in programming and production quality kept improving. The DNA of the programming was to inform, educate and entertain. DD was multicultural long before the term became fashionable. The showcasing of regional cinema was perhaps the most effective use of the medium in culturally assimilating, engaging the audience and creating a pluralistic society.

Caught in Binaries
The reign of DD gradually started to wane once the satellite channels started beaming. DD boldly defended and put up a good fight but lack of technological investments, programming innovation besides bureaucratic quagmire led it on the path of irrelevance and it ended up becoming an institution of the last century both in terms of content and carriage.

This process of overhaul was long overdue. There is always the knotty issue of defining what is and is not public service programming. It seems to be confronting with the binaries — on the one hand, be profitable and on the other hand deliver socially relevant and ‘public service’ programming. Both terms seem to be mutually exclusive and in a way, unachievable at the same time!

DD seems to be floundering and tangled in a web of confusion and is in no position to provide an effective alternative to the current fare available on commercial television. It is becoming more and more indistinguishable and relegated from our national consciousness. The fear of sounding elitist or being boring creates dislike to produce any serious programming. Popularity seems to be the sole criteria and value to measure worth and commercial success.

Effective Alternative
It is important to realise that the fragmentation of the audience and hyper regionalisation due to commercial satellite television are coming at the expense of our collective national identity. The public service broadcasting mandate for Doordarshan has never been more relevant than today. Many of the cultural and political trends strengthen the case for effective public service programming in the Indian scenario, which can benefit society and that works towards preserving the idea of our interconnectedness.

Prasar Bharati needs to optimise and produce genuinely plural, engaging and quality content of public merit, which commercial media avoids with a barge pole. Often the saying goes that we are a nation of storytellers. Educational and entertaining content with superior production values focused on themes such as arts, museum, handicrafts, architecture, history, culture, festivals, people, customs, landscapes, stories from the heartland can help create a niche for DD and reinvigorate the programming and serve the national audience.

DD must go beyond mere cosmetic logo changes. It needs to rekindle its spirits, transform and showcase its expertise as a nation builder and set its own value and benchmarks rather than merely copying commercial television and end up appearing a run-down version and one more channel down the wire.

(The writer is a communications and management consultant)