One of the flashpoints between Prasar Bharati and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, the auction of slots on Doordarshan Free Dish, has been ironed out with the change of guard in the ministry, allowing the public broadcaster to start the e-auction of the slots again and giving it an opportunity to raise funds.
Former I&B Ministry secretary N K Sinha had kept in abeyance the e-auctioning of slots on DD Free Dish, an open access Direct-To-Home (DTH) service, which was to take place on August 22, 2017. The move, which became a bone of contention with the then Smriti Irani-led ministry, had cost the cash-strapped public broadcaster around Rs 300 crore.
The ministry under Rajyavardhan Rathore now has ordered that the process resume again by “following transparent procedures”.
Prasar Bharati Finance Secretary Rajiv Singh told The Indian Express: “The e-auctioning had been stalled, but now it will resume with revised categories. The new policy is a dynamic model that takes care of a different eventuality.” According to Singh, the e-auctioning will open in February and the revenue to Prasar Bharati could be around Rs 300 crore.
DD Free Dish, which reaches 30 million households, has slots for 80 channels. Twenty-six of them are reserved for DD-run channels, and bidding is open for 54 slots for private channels.
Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati said many channels had been continuing on a pro-rata basis. “However, with the new revised policy, diversity of the platform is ensured. While for the top end, Hindi general entertainment channels, the reserve price is Rs 15 crore annually, the bottom entry point for under-represented channels is Rs 6 crore. This will ensure many channels, especially in the south, get slots, making the DD Free Dish platform more competent, attractive and diverse,” he said.
Reversal of the earlier order will also make DD Free Dish more competitive among private DTH and cable platforms, a source said. Currently, the rate for non-news channels, as per a Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal order, is Rs 8.4 crore per annum, and news channels Rs 6.7 crore per annum. But if the slots are auctioned at revised policy rates and if all 54 slots are occupied, the revenue could be more than Rs 560 crore per annum, said sources.
After Sinha took over as secretary on June 30, 2017, two weeks after Irani replaced M Venkaiah Naidu in the I&B Ministry, Prasar Bharati and the ministry had a series of disputes including an order directing the Prasar Bharati CEO to be appraised by the I&B Secretary and reviewed by the minister and a ministry decision not to release funds to pay salaries to 29,000 Prasar Bharati employees.
In a Cabinet reshuffle in May 2018, Rathore took over with independent charge. Sinha was replaced by Amit Khare on May 31.
“By reversing the decision, it has sorted out a major bone of contention with Prasar Bharati. The Prasar Bharati board did not agree with the previous secretary’s contention that the public broadcaster was losing thousands of crores due to auctioning. It was not just the money, it was also how DD would have lost its prominence to private players in the sector. The board’s position now stands vindicated,” said a source in the board.