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NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS

By all means, let Doordarshan launch an all-news channel; in fact, they could even have a separate channel for domestic news and a separate one for international news. Why not' If the government has the funds and is so inclined, who is to stop such channels from being launched' But there are a few questions that must be answered before they do that.

For one thing, the funds being used are public funds. Did the government ever stop to think out the rationale for the news channel they have started' It is not as easy as one thinks it is. Get the government to provide some of the taxpayer’s funds, hire some news people at enormous cost, farm out time to some tried and tested private news outfits, and presto, you have a news channel. It is not that easy. Content is not manufactured; true, there are news agencies which will provide you with visual coverage but that, again, is not enough. It is essential to study, carefully, the need for such a channel, to consider whether or not the existing news bulletins are enough or will an augmentation of those suffice, and a host of other basic issues that are part of the essential focus — is a full time and exclusive news channel necessary'

Remember, there was a DD News channel only a few years back; it too had expensive anchors, studio interviews, correspondents in the field reporting live during a news bulletin, and so on. It folded up. Why' Was it because the news operation collapsed' Not a bit. It folded up because it had run up huge losses, and Doordarshan simply could not sustain these. Now what has happened in the few years that followed to make a full-time news channel viable' Nothing at all. In fact, Doordarshan revenues have been dropping steadily over the years.

What is it, then, that made the government dole out Rs 54 crore to start up the news channel' Knowing it would not only earn nothing but would continue to need larger and larger infusions of funds' Clearly money was not the consideration; it was very obviously the reach that Doordarshan says it has — and for the time being has, but only for the time being — taking its signal, no matter how terrible its quality to remote corners of the country. That reach is more of a myth than anything else; in the very large areas now covered by cable and satellite channels, Doordarshan has virtually no viewership at all, even of its news bulletins; viewers prefer to watch Aaj Tak, Zee or NDTV 24x7 or any of the other news channels that are available. For only one reason. There is a general conviction that these channels report the facts without any bias. They are credible. Doordarshan is not, let’s face it. The news bulletins are not bad at all; either in the manner in which the news is presented or in the coverage. But it lacks credibility. One has only to ask the man in the street to get a confirmation of this.

So, now, if it is not watched, or is watched by a few, in areas where private news channels are visible, then those areas have to be, if one is being realistic, taken out of the “reach” of Doordarshan; because there the reach may exist, but not the viewership. And what matters is the viewership, not the reach. The Doordarshan signal may well reach Mount Everest; but who’s there to see it' Let’s look, then, at the areas where there is no cable and satellite signal, but Doordarshan can be seen terrestrially. There, certainly, viewers will watch Doordarshan since they have nothing else to watch. But these are mostly remote areas, where there aren’t too many people, that is, too many votes.

The trouble is that Doordarshan — or Prasar Bharati — has this weird ostrich syndrome. They will see and hear what they want to; for the rest they’ll bury their heads in the sand, which in their case are their own comforting ideas of the millions avidly watching their programmes. They believe the news channel will be watched; and lo, it is being watched, as their faithful officials will eagerly tell the boss-men. If they don’t they will be dubbed anti-people, accused of not acting in the public interest, and there may even be a few CBI cases started against some of them.

And to think that, folly of follies, this news channel was started by cannibalizing DD Metro! Not that DD Metro had much on it worth watching, but it had the potential. Did no one in Doordarshan or Prasar Bharati see that' It could have been built up as a very attractive channel that could have embodied the best of public service broadcasting, which would have given the mere entertainers a run for their money. Did no one think of spending Rs 54 crores on it' Why on a news channel that very few will watch'

For the obvious reason. This is going to be a propaganda channel, nothing less. It will carry news, true; it will have current affairs programmes by Saeed Naqvi and Rajat Sharma and others, true. But there will be programmes — many of them — that will speak glowingly of the achievements of the government. Nothing wrong with that at all, but these programmes tend to be glossed up, like the pictures of new cars that look shinier, sleeker than they really are. These programmes will be skilfully — or so they think — interposed between news bulletins and current affairs programmes. The finance ministry doesn’t part with 54 crore unless the stakes are politically vital. It must be the political angle that made them agree.

The sad thing is that television never ever won any political party or alliance an election. Just go over all the elections where Doordarshan has been manipulated brazenly to project the ruling party. Go back to the 1989 general elections, when Rajiv Gandhi lost. Go back to 1996, when P.V. Narasimha Rao lost. But, tragically, our political rulers persist in thinking people are fools. Just because they see a large number come to their rallies and shout slogans, they make the mistake of thinking that reaching them through television sets will have the same effect. It won’t. The voters, especially where it matters, have not only a choice of candidates but of television news channels. What they want from them are facts, information. Not views, not propaganda. They want all political parties to be projected in the news bulletins.

Does the ruling coalition really think that viewers have not understood why the news channel was pushed through with such comic haste' They know too that general elections are only around a year away and it is time for politicians to start putting on their acts.

But that is another story; this one is slightly different, a story of sheer waste. A waste of public money, a waste of talent, a waste of time. It’s tragic; a non-essential, hastily-put-together unnecessary channel is launched by stamping out one that could have been built up; but then, if that were to be of relevance, one would have to assume a certain commitment to good public service broadcasting. The CEO of Prasar Bharati seems to have called the private news channels “vested interests”; the waste of 54 crore, and the frantically hasty starting of DD News after cannibalizing DD Metro shows exactly where the “vested interest” really is. And what the commitment really is.

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