20 June 2018

Ideas for a Public Broadcaster in India

The recent Cobrapost revelations paint a dreary picture of Indian media. The willingness of several media houses to push a specific political agenda for money is a cause for concern. Given the struggle to stay afloat in a competitive market, it is difficult to see these groups making the ethical choice of refusing the money on offer. The picture on the other end of the spectrum is no less discouraging. The Prasar Bharati, the notionally autonomous institution that is supposed to act as a public broadcaster, has been dogged by controversies that showcase its susceptibility to pressure from the ruling government. I even wrote about this a year ago, stressing on the need to set up a Parliamentary Committee to oversee its operations.

Despite this, I still believe a public broadcaster has a role to play in the age we live in today and that it can serve as a viable alternative to our current predicament. However, the lessons from the past year show that it needs to designed in a way that ensures its independence and integrity.

One, its autonomy must extend beyond an impartial oversight mechanism and address the issue of funding. An effective public broadcaster must have a diversified source of revenue that is not reliant on any one entity, government or otherwise. The best way of achieving this is by adopting a system of license fees (India did have a similar system in place before it was shelved in the eighties). The BBC presents the best example of the independence that public funding can bring to the table. In their own words:

The BBC is paid for directly through each household TV licence. This allows it to run a wide range of popular public services for everyone, free of adverts and independent of advertisers, shareholders or political interests. [emphasis their own]

Even a step towards this lofty ambition would be a step in the right direction. However, this is easier said than done. For one, the presence of the existing alternatives, albeit flawed ones, might make people reluctant to part with their money for a service they may not feel the need for. Then there is the baggage that the Prasar Bharati comes with, of mismanagement, poor content, and ratings in freefall. Regaining the trust of people might well be an impossible task.

This brings me to my second point. The public broadcaster the country needs should be a new entity. It must also have a different brief than the Prasar Bharati. One way of achieving this is by focusing on digital content and eschewing the type of content that has been the staple of Doordarshan and All India Radio for the past few decades. This would help target the segment of the population that increasingly consumes its news online. The broadcaster could also, as I mentioned in my previous post, mould itself to represent India and Indian interests for a foreign audience, a market that is currently untapped.

This represents a change in my own thinking on this subject. But if the past year has taught me anything, it is that reforming an existing institution is a tough task; cutting one’s losses and starting afresh might be the best way of giving a public broadcaster a chance in India.

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