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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Zoom shots and blackouts: When the two Houses came home

For over a decade now, both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha television channels have been a window into the workings of Parliament. Last week, LSTV and RSTV merged into ‘Sansad TV’, amid criticism from the Opposition.

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri |
Updated: March 7, 2021 9:52:30 am
Last week, LSTV and RSTV merged into ‘Sansad TV’, amid criticism from the Opposition.

In February 2014, an unprecedented pandemonium broke out in the Lok Sabha as then Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde introduced the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill to bifurcate the state. Glasses were hurled, mikes broken, and finally all hell broke loose when Congress MP L Rajagopal used pepper spray to disrupt the proceedings. As MPs dashed out of the room, many with their eyes watering, and marshals began to stream in, Speaker Meira Kumar pressed the ‘red button’, and Rajiv Mishra went straight to an ad break.

“Disruption in the House is a part of the democratic process, but we cannot show events that lower the dignity of Parliament. That red button is used to signal that. After returning from the ad break, we began to show proceedings from earlier in the day,” says Mishra, the former CEO of Lok Sabha TV, recalling the 90-minute blackout that day.

For over a decade now, both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha television channels have been a window into the workings of Parliament for viewers across the country. Last week, LSTV and RSTV merged into a single ‘Sansad TV’, despite criticism from the Opposition and little information in the public domain on the road ahead.

“Earlier, Doordarshan and All India Radio had programmes with highlights of Parliament proceedings. In 1988, during his first stint in Rajya Sabha, Congress leader Pawan Kumar Bansal raised the issue of live telecast of proceedings. He suggested that as a starting point, Question Hour and some part of Zero Hour could be telecast live… But it was finally in 2011 that both LSTV and RSTV gained popularity when Parliament passed a law making it mandatory for cable operators to transmit the channels,” says Chakshu Roy, head of outreach at PRS Legislative Research.

It was around the same time that Mishra joined LSTV as CEO, when the noisy television news format was finding its moment in the sun. “LSTV had launched in 2006, but even in 2011 it did not have a USP. At the time we had nine cameras in Lok Sabha and one ‘mixer room’ on the premises. I began by introducing ‘window-in-window’ frames, reaction shots with zoom focus of MPs when the prime minister was talking, and sweeping pan shots,” says Mishra, now CEO and editor-in-chief of the Amity TV Network.

But his “innovations” irked a senior bureaucrat who asked him to stick to the 10-page programming guidelines. “I sent him a reply and never got a response… It wasn’t surprising. Our TRPs had increased by 400% in less than a year, and we were available in every district, in every home at no extra cost. We ended up saving Rs 70-80 crore annually which other channels spent on distribution. That is when I also pushed to increase ad rates. While private channels were charging Rs 3-4 per eyeball, we were doing it for less than a paisa, and we had maximum eyeballs,” he says. The channel only receives government ads.

In 2007, on the one-year anniversary of LSTV, former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee pitched the idea of a 24×7 channel for the Upper House as well. While the proposal was cleared by a General Purpose Committee, the idea was to have two channels under one network – a suggestion not acceptable to the Lok Sabha Secretariat which runs LSTV. The differences led to more delays and RSTV finally went on air in January 2011.

“Our first challenge was to ensure autonomy. We were part of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat and rules specified that a department of a secretariat cannot have a separate finance wing. Also, to have a separate finance wing, the department should be at least 200 km away from the main office. But RSTV was just 100 meters away from Parliament! We made a presentation to the Controller General of Accounts and after a lot of persuasion, RSTV got special permission for a separate finance wing. It became the main facilitator for exercising journalistic and organisational autonomy,” recounts Gurdeep Singh Sappal, former CEO of RSTV.

At a time when multi-coloured tickers and top bands were jostling for space on television news screens, Sappal’s team decided to take a step back, “keeping the look and feel of the channel on the lines of BBC and Al Jazeera.” “Our attempt was to introduce viewers to in-depth, non-sensational programmes. When news channels switched to debates, we focused on ground reporting,” says Sappal.

A strong Content Advisory Committee with members such as Rajeev Shukla, Sitaram Yechury, Satish Mishra, Ramgopal Yadav, Chandan Mitra, Shyam Benegal, among others, also helped the channel’s content, with some of its programmes such as Samvidhaan – The Making of the Constitution of India gaining immense popularity among civil service aspirants.

Former LSTV CEO Mishra counts handling “screen time” complaints from senior leaders as among the challenges he faced during his tenure. “The proceedings of the House are shown live during the day and, at night, we run a one-hour special show with highlights. A Cabinet minister saw one of the special shows and complained to the Speaker about his speech being too short… Many parliamentarians, much like this minister, use long sentences and editing them is hard,” smiles Mishra.

Sappal faced a similar controversy in 2015, when a BJP leader accused Rajya Sabha TV of “completely” blacking out live telecast of that year’s Yoga Day event and attacked then vice president Hamid Ansari, the controlling authority of the channel as Rajya Sabha chairman, for not attending the function. While Ansari clarified that he had not been invited to the event, Sappal tweeted links confirming the telecast. “We had a no censorship policy. We didn’t censor content,” says Sappal.

Later, as digital integration became the norm, RSTV was the first news channel to be available live on YouTube free of cost. Today, with five million viewers on YouTube, it is among the most popular channels on the platform.

But it is these efforts to be on a par with the private news industry that may have led to the recent merger of the two channels. “They started having six-seven bulletins a day, competing with private news channels. That is not their job. They must focus on Parliament and working of the country’s democratic institutions and inform people about it,” says a source close to the panel that suggested the merging of RSTV and LSTV.

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