The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- New thinking on licence fees for radio and TV is welcome

The minister for information and broadcasting has recently been reported as saying that the government intends to revisit the issue of licence fees for television and radio sets as a means of raising revenue for Prasar Bharati. He indicated that it could be an annual fee or a one-time fee paid when a radio or TV set is sold. It is still an idea, because he has invited a public discussion on the issue; clearly no one has made up his mind on this.

But the very fact that there is some thinking on these lines is a welcome step, one the government should have considered and acted on years ago. The abolition of the licence fees on radio and TV sets in the Seventies was one of the most stupid, brazenly populist decisions of the government; had it not been taken, many, if not all, of the woes that beset both Doordarshan and All India Radio would have been eliminated. Both organizations would have grown in the manner they needed to, and been a little better insulated from direct interference, both by ministers and officials.

Studies of public-service broadcasters ' notably the one made in 1999 by McKinsey ' have established that the ones which are funded by licence fees are far better, in terms of programme quality and market control, than others, and private broadcasters in those countries come a very poor second. Just two examples bear this out: NHK in Japan and the BBC in the United Kingdom. It's not difficult to see why this is so; licence fees are a steady and lucrative source of revenue, and have two very great advantages. One is that if they are, as in Japan and the UK, established by a law, then it isn't all that easy for a government to fiddle with them, withhold them, or use them to make the broadcaster dance to its tune. The other is that they also keep the advertisers from doing much the same thing, except that they do it with all kinds of statistics and marketing jargon, which oblige broadcasters to air the most mediocre programmes because, the networks are told that is what people want and if that is what they want they have to get it, otherwise the advertisers won't part with the cash the networks need.

The consequence of dependence on advertising produces the garb- age that passes for television programmes in the United States of America and, of course, here in India. The obsession is to make programmes as mindless as possible; anything else is seen as a marketing disaster. This is precisely what NHK and the BBC have disproved; they broadcast programmes that cater to people who are reasonably intelligent, not having advertisers and 'media buyers' baying at them; and these programmes are not just popular they actually set the trend for programming in those countries. This, again, is not just gossip, but one of the findings in the study made by McKinsey.

There are problems with licence fees, certainly. The process of collecting them can be a major headache, but a workable system can be found. Earlier they used to be collected by the post offices, and that's how it's still done in the UK. There's no reason for the system not to be revived, with the postal department being paid for performing this service. But there are other issues that also need solving. How does one know how many sets there are in a given locality, and how many owners of those sets have not paid their licence fees' What about radio sets, black and white sets, or TV sets that are very large or very small, and so on' As I say, all these are problems, true enough, but not ones that can't be solved.

And just consider some figures. According to the National Readership Survey 2001, there are 794 lakh television households. That's 79.4 million TV sets, assuming each household has one TV set. Say 80 million. Now, if there were a licence fee of Rs 200 annually on these sets that would be Rs 16,000 million, if I'm not mistaken. One thousand six hundred crore. And that's if the fee is a modest Rs 200 a year; it could well be Rs 400 or 500, and it still would be pretty reasonable as a fee ' less than Rs 50 a month. Add the takings from the licence fees on radio sets, and, even after paying the postal authorities their cost of collection, the revenue would be fairly good. And if this were to be made available to Prasar Bharati under the law, not by government order, it would mean no one could use this as a means of getting the corporation to do what it wanted.

Leaving radio aside for the moment, the fact is television ' good television ' is expensive. This is how it could become a reality, and eventually set the trend for other networks that are advertisement- driven. In fact, Prasar Bharati should, if the licence fee becomes a reality, do away with advertising on its channels. It could do without the revenue, and give watchers welcome relief ' in fact, it may well get many more switching over to its programmes precisely for that reason. Imagine, for example, seeing a film without a single ad to clutter it up.

Of course, this does not mean that political interference, or interference from officials, will stop. If the executives in Prasar Bharati are pliable and anxious to curry favour with those who they think will be of use to them in one way or another, then the situation will remain just what it is now. Programmes will be farmed out on directives from various authorities, and resentment among people to the licence fees will grow when they see no change in the programmes. But if, by some miracle, the executives in Doordarshan and All India Radio are able to stand up to pressure, if Prasar Bharati is insulated from directives from the minister to transfer someone from one station to another, then things may begin to change.

One may argue that the system will not put an end to corruption, and the argument would be valid. It won't. Licence fees are not anti-corruption measures. They are merely a means of ensuring that the public-service broadcasters are insulated from financial dependence on the government and on advertising. To check corruption, there will have to be other means, and that, again, is something that can be worked out, difficult though it is, if the political and official people keep off. It's not easy; people can be bought over by giving them a programme or two, and we would need truly saintly people in Prasar Bharati to put an end to that. All I'm saying is systems can be worked out, if the will to work them out exists. Just as it is possible to re-introduce licence fees, if the will exists.

It finally comes down to what the government truly wants Prasar Bharati to be ' a respected public service broadcaster, or a mouthpiece for the government and a source of handsome profits for a large number within and without the organization. That really is the decision that must be taken first.

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