My column in today’s DNA
The cornerstone of a free market economy is competition – many suppliers who compete against each other for the attention and custom of the consumer. For the buyer there is a diversity of products to choose from, and the fact that there are many suppliers ensures that no product will be over priced for too long. Competition is a preferred way of allocating resources, ensuring choice, and enabling consumers of niche products and services to find producers who make those. In the last few decades the move away from controlled economies and centralised planning has been significant the around the world. Market competition has been seen as being as important a mark of a Democracy as elections. As Milton Friedman, the famous monetarist economist pointed out “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” Questioning free market economics, and wondering whether it leads to the best possible outcomes, has become heresy.
One of the areas where theorists have been committing hearsay for the best part of two decades is in the field of media studies. Leading academics have been postulating whether a free market in the media, in fact, leads to less choice for the viewers. Media policy world over – in Europe, the USA and now in India – looks at the media market in the same way they look at any other market -more Media content providers means more consumer choice. However, unlike most products and services, media does more than satisfy or need for information or entertainment or education. It also shapes opinion, views and tastes. Also, ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ – and in a media market where media vehicles make profits by selling to advertisers as opposed to the consumers of media content, it is inevitable that advertisers who spend big bucks call the tune. Diversity of content declines, as do diverse views, and what sells is repeated across all channels. Film music, soap operas based around family conflict, talent hunts, and news based on talking heads – dominate across the board. Furthermore, whole areas of the country get ignored, because the advertiser is not interested in those consumers – they are either not enough in numbers, or are too poor to purchase the products being advertised. This has repercussions on coverage. If the advertiser is not really looking at people from certain geography, will you cover that region in the media? The answer is, more often than not, a resounding no.
This is the reason why most countries have Public Service Broadcasters (PSB), funded either by the tax payer (Europe) or by trusts (the USA). The PSB is supposed to provide diversity in terms of content, give a platform for views and voices that are ignored, support arts and culture and popularise them, instil a sense of belonging to one nation, and stay away from sensationalism and obvious bias. In India the role of the PSB is played by the Prasar Bharati that runs Doordarshan and AIR. For a decade or more Prasar Bharati has been struggling in a competitive market, with a bloated work force and an inability to be responsive to consumer needs. Its content, although diverse, looks terribly dated and out of synch with the audience. Needless to say, the organisation has been struggling.
On Big Bang Friday, while the Government was announcing a slew of measures, there was one regarding the financial restructuring of Prasar Bharati. – Rs.1350 crores of debt waived off, loans converted into grants and accumulated interest excused. Additionally, the Government (tax payer) has agreed to pay the salary bill for the next 5 years. Prasar Bharati is only responsible for the operational costs of the channels – i.e., programming. Prasar Bharati has the reach, the network and the infrastructure to deliver – but for some reason it has not been able to. For Prasar Bharati to be effective it needs to be more than an autonomous body, it needs to be financially independent. It can still be funded by the tax payer but it needs to learn to work within a budget and deliver.
To achieve its Public Service Broadcasting goals Prasar Bharati has to be run like a professional broadcast organisation – with very clear goals and targets. These targets may not be financial, but they still need to be achieved. Content is not just about filling half an hour slots – it is also about diversity, shaping views and opinions, and representation of all parts of India. If any broadcaster can deliver the promise of diverse content from all parts of India, aimed at various niches within India – it is Prashar Bharati. But, to do that it must be set free.