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Broadcasting for the poor

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-05-2014 Sevanti Ninan

Not surprisingly the media has begun to chirrup about how the new dispensation will use social media. But for a prime minister who says that his government will be for the poor, the bigger opportunity surely lies in how purposefully he decides to use public broadcasting. Given the scale of the transformation required to genuinely impact lives at the bottom of the income ladder, its importance can hardly be overestimated.

Two questions arise at the start. Does public broadcasting have to be created in the public sector? And, can the poor be fobbed off any more with drab television?

The whole issue of public broadcasting of the not-BBC-but-Doordarshan (DD) kind comes alive when you squat on various floor coverings in villages and slums across the country, discussing television with working class men and women. The medium is a window of opportunity for the deprived, and people are very clear about what they would like it to do for them.

The small joys that come from watching serials and cookery shows are cherished, but the bigger demands are livelihood related. “Many villagers work hard, give up their land to educate their children in courses that are the trend of the day. There is no proper guidance for them. The government should give advice on TV on the trends in employment so that people can make proper choices,” says a farmer from West Godavari in Andhra Pradesh where farming distress is palpable. The sentiment is echoed right across the breadth of the state in Adilabad, which will soon be in Telangana: “Children are being educated, even though parents are illiterate… We need to know the right kind of jobs for our youth. In a village, you do not have access to information on education and careers,” says a participant in a village focus group discussion.

The same need is felt in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Said a father in a village in Kandhamal district of Odisha, “It would help our children if the government will take interest to broadcast free coaching programmes for the students from standard 1 to standard 10th.” Adds a young student in Dewri in Chhattisgarh, “Yes, on TV they do tell about careers, but not in practical terms like for the children studying in villages, what are the options for them? They should show how to earn from home-based work at a small level.” In Sambalpur in Odisha, another young woman wanted to know if there was a TV programme that would tell her how to handle an interview for a school teacher’s job.

In late 2012, I had mapped the content on five DD channels including DD National to see what this broadcaster actually shows on its transmission in each of these states. All 18 hours of telecast for 30 days. Suffice it to say that vocation- and employment-related programming barely figures. The exception was DD Girnar, the Gujarati channel.

If that is one dimension of the livelihood programming shortfall, the other is farm telecasting. One talked to farmers and farm labour across Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Some value DD broadcasts enough to maintain a separate TV for terrestrial transmission on which DD’s farm narrowcasting comes. Others depend on ETV’s agriculture telecasts. But power cuts, rural India’s shift to direct-to-home television, and scheduling which sees DD’s Krishi Darshan and local variants come at 6pm when farmers are not home yet, ensures that the outreach goes waste. Then farmers in coastal Andhra ask, “What’s the point telling us how to produce more? We need information on marketing.”

If practical utility for low-income families is one aspect of public broadcasting, quality programming is another. In a satellite bouquet, what DD has to offer competes poorly. Beedi rollers, farm labour, vegetable vendors, domestic workers—all have unflattering observations to make about DD’s production values. Both in its fiction and non-fiction shows. Guess what the poor are watching instead in homes across the land? The Discovery Channel. Along with Animal Planet and National Geographic. All three have become India’s default public service broadcasters.

The rural and urban poor love the programming because it is attractive and educative. From the most garbage-ridden Delhi slums to humble homes in Kutch, Kalahandi, Srikakulam or Dantewada, Discovery is eagerly mentioned everywhere. It has grown its reach from 20 million in 2004 to 50 million in 2013 via the Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu feeds it introduced. Its viewership grew over the same period by 187%. Once localized, it is a formidable competition for home-grown public broadcasting. Animal Planet increased its viewership by 92% over 2012-14.

How does any responsive broadcaster tailor its offering to the needs of its viewers? Discovery has devised an online research panel called Talk to Discovery, for which viewers from 250-plus Indian towns have registered. Towns like Islampur, Itarsi, Palitana, Bhusawal, Port Blair, Kothagudem, Kothamangalam, Dhekiajuli, Dombivli, Vashi, Nabagram, Nadia , Yamuna Nagar, and Gadarpur in Uttarakhand. They are constantly asked for feedback, including on preferred times of viewing.

If you are a funded public broadcaster, you do not need either autonomy or more allocations to do any of this. You just need to care enough about your audience.

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

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