It is both strange and unfortunate that the world’s largest democracy has a public media system that most people disparage. That the public media are themselves blamed for their shortcomings is stranger yet. The formal autonomy Prasar Bharati acquired in 1997 has led to a betwixt-and-between situation that is the worst of both worlds. It is neither totally free nor completely controlled.
Prasar Bharati has the problems of most other government organisations. The hiring criteria are so rigid that talent cannot be engaged. The government continues to control appointments and funding, so Prasar Bharati’s effective decision-making powers are extremely limited. The Sam Pitroda committee, in its January report, made a series of recommendations to overhaul the organisation, reduce its reliance on government money and make it competitive with commercial broadcasters. It will require a considerable upfront investment however, and already there are signs the government is shying away from this. The reasons are clear enough.
Its failure to compete even passably with commercial broadcasters is a scandal. This is despite its decades-long head start, and infrastructural and personnel investment that exceeds any of its competitors. Eighty per cent of Prasar Bharati’s programming positions are vacant. Consequently, less than half production capacity is utilised. Its TRPs are so low, it is typically omitted in audience surveys. Those who tune in are mostly those with no affordable option, mainly the rural poor.
This is a government that has come to power on an unprecedented wave of media support. It is ironic that the very idea of public media should be in question at such a time. Should India retain a public broadcasting service? Let us change the question: Should commercial services have a de facto monopoly over the airwaves?
A handful of business and political groups, a majority of them family-owned, currently dominate the news and entertainment landscape. The fast expanding mediascape has become a mating ground for moguls and netas. “Paid news”, another manifestation of this mating game, has taken propaganda to new levels.
In the era of state monopoly, the demand from the opposition and private sector was for autonomy. If independent professionals controlled radio and television, the media’s potential could be fulfilled, most people imagined. But that the huge media infrastructure created by the government could be bypassed was unthinkable. The last committee to make recommendations for Doordarshan in the monopoly era, the P.C. Joshi committee, cautioned that what was needed was “An Indian Personality for TV.” That was the title of its 1985 report. Its fear was that consumerism and Westernisation would corrupt Indian society through electronic media.
The debate has clearly changed. Today, we do not fear continued…