It comes as a surprise to no one that the news that Doordarshan has finished its 50th lap in the service of the nation a little while ago, went totally unnoticed, quite in tune with the dwindling viewership of the struggling channel. But what a journey it has been to the has-been master broadcaster, which always had the first dibs on anything and everything that transpired anywhere till not so long ago. The first 30 years has seen it emerge as the default victor, by virtue of non-existent competition and the last 20, finding it dead last in every heat, courtesy all its dead weight, bureaucracy, the fat that it couldn't seem to shake off to remain at least competitive, leave alone among the winners, in the open race. If one were to chart Doordarshan's ascendancy, and its subsequent fall from grace and out of the race, it would resemble a plain inverted 'V', with no variations in between. Just as it was 'THE ONE', literally and figuratively, during its days of supremacy, and total hegemony, it quickly became 'THAT OTHER ONE', once the playing field has been leveled. Sure, it is still active in some quarters, particularly when broadcasting sports held in the country, which it wrested through some administrative arm twisting antics, but in the rest, it is fair to say that Doordarshan has seen its fruit-bearing days and the future appears bleak, if not totally lost or hopeless.
Well, it brought all this upon itself, grudgingly say many, with its ham-handed way of dealing both with its administration and its programming, and therefore doesn't deserve even the slightest sympathy when things do not seem to go well for the state-run television. The issue is not with it being a public sector undertaking (which of late seem to have lost the shine and sheen in the current capitalist marketplace) as that other state run enterprise from UK, the BBC, seem to be doing pretty fine for itself, remaining lean, mean and hungry for the current age of overloaded bandwidths and information asphyxiations. So, is it just ours, the duck that laid golden eggs, that was strangled with greed and avarice rendering it barren, inconsequential and useless? Yes, would be too simplistic a reply, but the real answer lies somewhere between faulty management, outdated programming and changing standards of the society. What is now touted as fair play, a level playing field, for private enterprises to finally have the approval and the wherewithal to compete with Doordarshan, on closer inspection, isn't fair at all on any measured standard. But then it is too late to cry 'foul play' on part of Doordarshan, with its unfair trade practices and monopolistic strange-hold that it once exerted on the airwaves, before the era of liberalization. But that's on the business end of things. On the creative side, the story was completely different.
To make a fair comparison, how many programs on the countless channels today can measure up to Doordarshan's offerings of high quality, informative, educational, entertaining programming of yester years - Bharat Ek Khoj, Chanakya, Tamas, Surabhi, Buniyaad and many such - that weren't just mindless fodder for the lazy mind? To put it differently, how many private channels of today's world can boast of being socially relavant, as Doordarshan was during its heyday? And it is just not for lack of other avenues that such programs of substance invariably found their home at Doordarshan. Social responsibility was a necessary burden that state run media had to shoulder no matter the cost, and it is a luxury that the private enterprise can conveniently choose to ignore. After all, it is the government's duty to care for its citizens, isn't it? And this is the prime reason, more than the mismanagement, that saw Doordarshan fall out of step with the current entertainment driven generation's mindset. It is much easier to provoke than to exercise restraint, much profitable to promote profligacy than to preach judiciousness, much 'too cool' to turn anti-establishment than to stick to values. And the loss of Doordarshan's is not just of its own, but of the very social fabric of the country.
It is not merely a subjective opinion nor is it a fond longing for the long lost times to say that the programming on Doordarshan was far superior in content, if not on the presentation, even by the present day standards. That it had to achieve this without ruffling the sensibilities and sensitivities of a wide diaspora of diverse cultures that extended through the lengths and breadths of a vast nation was no mean feat. Its hard stance on airing the controversial series 'Tamas' against the protests of fundamental elements in the country, its news division's sensitive handling of the Babri Masjid demolition and its aftermath, its steadfast loyalty towards preserving and promoting harmony - religious and cultural - of the land, would put to shame what passes off as television nowadays. Constraints, by ways of sensitivities, and restraints, by being the mouthpiece of the motherland, forced it to find a middleground, where news was simply handed down to the public without coloring it with a broad opinionated brush first. News, back then, meant what just happened, and never what it meant. And it is not just with the news that Doordarshan would stand head above shoulders over its current competition.
Agriculture, art and culture, the three cornerstones of any civilization figured prominently in its program lineup. What was then ridiculed as substandard programming concentrating on trivial aspects of agriculture and animal husbandry, now finds a greater resonance in the calamitous news of global food shortage, environment taking a hit with improper agricultural practices or the extinction of certain bird species altogether owing to lack of understanding of ecological balances. And all of a sudden proper raising procedures of piglets do not sound ridiculous anymore, now, does it? And not enough can be said for the yeoman service that Doordarshan did to the cause of arts and culture, promoting them at every given opportunity. With the recent UNESCO report that everyday a language and a culture are losing their way and way of life adopting the ways and means of 'mainstream', Doordarshan's efforts to turn the spotlight on the cultures of the far-flung regions and the arts of deserted peoples, was not just laudable but indeed noble. Granted the programs didn't have the glitz and glamor of the tinsel-town chaff, granted they never enjoyed the patronage of corporate sponsors, granted it was, at times, difficult to sit through the amateurish presentations, but the efforts of the staff - the producers, the researchers, the promoters - who have gone to great lengths crisscrossing the country, unearthing such hidden gems and gave them a platform to perform, deserve all the praise and applause. And this job of covering the arts and culture was much more than mere discharging the daily duties and obligation of the job, it calls for patience, perseverance, and more, passion - the three aspects that is virtually nonexistent in the current profit motivated private enterprise. All the above rendered Doordarshan for a little more than three decades an important seat at the table of relevancy, as people heard, discussed and listened to what Doordarshan had to say about. And with all this, it couldn't have asked for more.
From there, the curse of being casted into oblivion was as much the result of changing trends as much as it was self-inflicted. Being saddled with the responsibility of shilling for the party in power, the credibility of Doordarshan was always called in question and the clamor for relaxing the rules for private enterprise to compete with the official media on an even keel grew with every election cycle. And so in the 90's along with the liberalization measures initiated by the government to bring the foreign investments in to ease the burden on the public sector, and to kick start growth on the private side. The advent of the private media saw a sharp turn in the quality of the programming offered not just by them, but also of Doordarshan's. And the coining of the word 'infotainment' as though the bitter pill of information has to be sweet coated with easily digestible entertainment for public consumption, spelled doom for everything that stood for quality, credibility, integrity and intelligence. News has been reduced to opinions and perspectives quickly replaced partisanship, and the Goebbels' mantra that the public would come to believe even a blatant lie, if repeated over and over, became the founding principle of the private news media. Add to that the unholy alliance of the corporate world and news media, each badly needing the other for survival, slammed the final nail in the coffin of objective news reporting. And the impossibility of the task for Doordarshan to suddenly shift from being an unperturbed balanced observer of the proceedings to becoming an active participating, partisan and passionate party to the politics, proved too much for its taste. The shrieking and the shouting matches of the talking and bobbing heads brought news down to a new low standard that Doordarshan was neither equipped nor willing to go under. And that ended the age of fair play on news day.
And the less said about entertainment, the better. Despite the ample coverage on arts and culture, Doordarshan had always had a healthy dose of entertainment programming on a weekly basis, that was moderate, satisfying and just enough. Having made a conscious choice of ignoring the indigenous culture of the land, the private media quickly settled on movie based, movie related and movie coated morass to account for much of the broadcasting time. With far much easier production standards to meet, and with far less production costs, movie based programming became the savior of private media, one that beat the arts and culture programming of Doordarshan handily and by a large margin, thanks to the changing tastes of a lazy audience. Of course a film based program is easily consumable compared to dance recital or a vocal rendition, and the chances that more people would be drawn to the former are far more, and with more people watching cometh more advertising money into play, and thus was born the vicious cycle of rating-programming, with merit or quality of the program no where in play. Caught between societal obligations of having to cater to the diversity by promoting the flavor of the land, and the business diktats of the market to reinvent itselt alongside the 'dirty cheap and quick' channels, Doordarshan now stands at the crossroads held hostage to changing times and growing pressures. And there is no magic bullet no where in sight as it now stands too old to adapt and too rigid to change . All it could probably do is keep doing what it has been known for, and hope for the jaded audience overdosed on excess, to return to their roots. Short of that, it could always take comfort in the fact that it truly stood by its motto - Satyam Sivam Sundaram - for however long it could stand for, with its head held high...and for 30 years, to boot.
Posted by Srinivas Kanchibhotla