Apart from failing to resolve decades-old disputes over service-related matters, a crucial blunder by Prasar Bharti was the decision to retain erstwhile AIR and DD employees, who were considered to be on deputation, as government employees. The combination of these two factors creates a degraded situation for those on the brink of retirement. Moreover, operators are challenged to compete with private media for audience numbers and revenue.
Unlike global public broadcasters that derive a significant portion of their revenue from fixed sources such as license fees, Prasar Bharti has to compete with the private sector to generate commercial revenue for its operating costs. Prasar Bharti has a heavy burden on its shoulders to remain commercially competitive and at the same time fulfill the heavy responsibility of public service.
Prasar Bharti’s affiliates Doordarshan and Akashvani also carry public service obligations, unlike their media counterparts. This includes everything from mandatory election broadcasting, in more than 100 languages, including local languages, to non-remote and underserved areas.
For example, the BBC operates a handful of channels and services. Meanwhile, thousands of crores are being received as license fees. This gives the BBC an opportunity to invest more than a hundred times on a per channel or service basis, compared to Doordarshan or All India Radio. This is a critical difference that makes a false comparison between global public broadcasters like the BBC and Prasar Bharti.
With the commercial success of DD Freedish DTH, a free-to-air platform reaching over 45 million homes, this operational burden has been significantly reduced. But the wage bills of nearly 20,000 government employees, amounting to over Rs 2,000 crore annually, are still awaiting government support in the form of grant-in-aid.
As it reaches its silver jubilee, the challenges ahead for Prasar Bharti are two-fold. The reform trajectory of the last five years should be accelerated and sustained to further modernize its operations through information technology, while digitizing the sentiments of the audience with better and more creative content.
The greatest human resource transformation in history is about to take place in Prasar Bharti. Prasar Bharti’s biggest challenge will be to manage this at a time when nearly 2,000 employees will retire annually over the next few years.
Managing this manpower transition is not something that is confined to human resource management alone. It also affects commercial management. For any new inspiration of manpower would have to be financed from its commercial revenues.
To stand out among others for specialized functions across sales, marketing, digital and IT requires the services of professional talent at competitive and market determined wages. A public broadcaster can launch a catch-22 campaign to overcome this limitation. At this juncture Prasar Bharti has come to a logical conclusion with regard to efforts to amend the Recruitment Rules and related provisions of the Prasar Bharti Act to complete this human resource transformation successfully.
Prasar Bharti’s future vision for the next two decades should be in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision for a new India by 2047, with the integration of technology and increasing consumption of media content on smartphones. To realize this vision based on broadcast automation and information technology, fundamental integration of key functions is essential. A shift to cloud-based broadcast management is essential to enable the shift of media to on-demand consumption and bring efficiency and breadth to operations.
Finally, the public broadcaster needs to create new ways of monetizing everything from archival content to real estate assets to survive financially and expand its international footprint. Direct to Mobile Broadcasting (D2M), Prasar Bharti has an opportunity to create a DD Freedish-like business model that broadcasts directly to smartphones and other smart devices.
A recent survey revealed that the nostalgic response to the people of India during the Covid-19 lockdown is proof of Prasar Bharti’s high level of trust and enjoyment as India’s autonomous public service broadcaster even after twenty-five years. It is imperative to recognize such strengths and make positive improvements. It is critical that Prasar Bharti sustains itself for the next twenty-five years with a clear technology vision and a roadmap of how to harness manpower for the future.
(Shashi Shekhar Vembadi is the former CEO of India’s public service broadcasting firm Prasar Bharti)