It has been just about a month since Shashi Shekhar Vempati took over as the new Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati. He has inherited an organisation that is beset with myriad challenges, including the mammoth task of making it relevant to the demands of the digital era. A technocrat to the core, Vempati has his game-plan chalked out for the next five years, which includes making Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR) globally respected brands and transforming Prasar Bharati to a 21st century organisation that is commercially viable and technically relevant with a contemporary work culture in place. Excerpts:
Prasar Bharati is one of the largest media organisations and yet it has never been able to leverage this position, how are you planning to make it more contemporary and more market friendly?
If you look at the history of Prasar Bharati, it was created as a public broadcaster, as a statutory body and not as a corporation under the Companies Act. And then Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR) were brought into its fold.
Over the last two decades, there are a lot of areas where modernisation should have happened; unfortunately it did not happen for various reasons. The pressing need is to make this as a corporate for the 21st century and transform it into a media organisation that operates in this digital era with modern practices. So the vision is largely about how do we make it 21st century media organisation, how do we bring in modern corporate practices, how to bring technology into all aspects of the organisation and be ready for the digital era both domestically and globally. We are the largest democracy and the youngest democracy with a billion people, but we do not have a strong global voice. So we need to create that just like the BBC, Aljazeera or Russia Today.
Is there also need for rebranding since public broadcasters are merely seen as mouthpieces of the government? How do you plan to address this perception?
There are a couple of things about the role of public broadcaster. One aspect is the news. Today if you look at AIR News, it has more than a million followers on Twitter. Look at DD News, a million plus followers on Twitter. You don’t build this kind of base if you are just a mouthpiece of the government. I track social media every day and I see comments from all kinds of people, not by people who are associated with any party or any ideology. The general perception is that while various private channels feature news, which is driven by an agenda, if you want pure news you will watch Doordarshan and that credibility still stands. But what we need to do is to amplify that. Today if you go to the tier 2 tier 3 cities, they listen to AIR News and watch DD and even BARC data supports that. So I don’t buy this perception, which is the view of the elites, because they have a different way of looking at news. But if you want real news without any agenda, it’s DD and AIR.
How do you plan to take on the private players?
I don’t see private players as competitors in the same sense; they could be partners as well. My canvas is more global. So when I look at the impact of a public broadcaster in the news space, I want to build a strong global voice. I won’t get caught in the domestic competition between various private channels. Moreover, they are going after a miniscule portion of the population. If you look at the BARC data, our share is more than 50 per cent in English news while the private players have 40 per cent or less. So we have the widest reach in that sense. And about the larger point of attracting the elite audience, it’s a very valid feedback. I think we have to improve the quality of our programs to attract the interest of opinion makers and influencers.
Despite the great market share, why is Prasar Bharati not able to leverage this potential commercially?
Yes, we have not exploited our potential to the fullest. The reason for this is legacy issues. We are a statutory body not a corporate one, and that poses a lot of restrictions on what you do and what you don’t do. So you cannot be commercially competitive in the same sense that a private corporate can be while chasing advertising dollars.
Having said this, it is not an excuse for why our marketing teams should not be effective and efficient and use modern tools and modern practices in order to utilise our inventory better. So this is something which we are beginning to do, and a couple of initiatives will be rolled out so that we can create some incentives for the sales teams to do a better job.
What specific steps will make Prasar Bharati a commercially viable organisation?
DD Free Dish I think is a good example of how within the constraints of the environment that we operate in, we were able to create a new market and a new revenue stream.
Free Dish created the Free to Air (FTA) revolution. Earlier you had content that was primarily targeted at the urban audience. Now, if you look at BARC data, the free-to-air channels which went on DD Free Dish have got a larger audience base across the country and are counted among the top ten. That is a big shift and we made it happen by opening up entertainment to a much larger part of the population. Similar opportunities exist with other technologies. There is digital terrestrial and there is digital radio. So the future will be –how can we create new platforms which take both information and entertainment to a large part of the population and create commercial value.
I would say we are not necessarily competing with the private players for ad revenues. Instead we are creating a platform where they can come in as partners and it is a win-win situation for both.
How tough is it for legacy organisations to become digital first entities, both at the technological and cultural fronts?
It is a big challenge on multiple fronts. It is a challenge culturally because if you look at our workforce, India may be a young country but Prasar Bharati is an ageing organisation. The workforce is largely in its 50s. In the next five to six years you will have a big chunk who will be retiring. So that itself is a big challenge.
Second is the adoption of technology. Now on some fronts we have been very effective. In DTH we have done a good job and soon we will roll out the next version of the set-top boxes. Similarly, when it comes to embracing social media, I think we have done a decent job. Now what we need to do is to focus on the cutting edge, and that is going to require innovation to become more relevant to the youth. And this can happen only with digital.
We have also started some internal changes. For example internally we didn’t have a HR system for a long time. Over the last one year, the HR information system has been created. Though it’s a small step but it’s a big change for the organisation and the beginning has been made. Similarly we are digitising our land records so that we know what our assets are across the country. So there are efforts, we just need to streamline them and bring in an IT structure, which doesn’t exist right now.
What are the biggest challenges facing AIR and DD, in your view?
The biggest gap is that we have neglected the human resources issues for long. So we have an ageing workforce which has been neglected over the last two decades. Many of them have not got promotions; many have retired in the same post. So we have to work in a mission mode to address these legacy HR issues. Once the workforce is motivated they will become agile and wherever necessary we will re-skill them for the digital era and then we can move fast.
Do you see DD becoming a global brand like BBC, Aljazeera? Can it happen?
It is an imperative and we have to rise to the challenge. To the question, can it happen, I would say we don’t have a choice, we have to make it happen. How will we make it happen is something we will debate and figure out both within the organisation and with any partners who are willing to come on board and the supporting ministry, I&B and External Affairs. This no doubt will be a big vehicle for India’s soft power.
How are you planning to leverage social media to increase the influence of DD and AIR?
Both AIR News and DD News have a large base of followers on social media. People see them as brands that give credible news. Yes, we have to adopt best practices and that is going to be a big area of focus.
How has the journey from a corporate to a public organisation been so far, did you face any surprises during this transition?
Thankfully it’s not a complete transition because I was with the board for the last one year. So I was exposed to a lot of issues and the way the organisation works. I have never signed my name so many times on paper, which I did here, because we are still very paper oriented in the way we work.
On the brighter side, for the first time Prasar Bharati’s accounts were closed on time and before the deadline, since its existence. So there is automation that is happening but we have to do it at a much larger scale and do that within some constraints as we are operating in a government regulated set up.
Since AIR News has not been able to leverage the commercial potential, do you think it’s time for private players to pitch in?
I think it’s a policy matter and a prerogative of the government. I’m sure the ministry will take a view on that and I won’t be able to comment because it’s not under my jurisdiction.
But I have said this before too that irrespective of what the policy is, AIR News should be competitive and efficient. Because technology is fast changing and what we did yesterday gets obsolete in a very short cycle. We are not thinking about the future, we are not efficient and competitive. So irrespective of which direction the policy goes, we have to be ready for the future.
What are your top three priorities for 2017?
One of the first things is to get the planning around English news and Hindi news and give it an international focus so that we start the process of building that global brand.
Second is to streamline our IT operations and start modernising the way we do things. And third is the big one—how to resolve our workforce issues. I don’t know if that can be done in one year but we will definitely work on it.
DD Free Dish has been a game changer in its space, where does it go from here?
We are soon going to expand the number of channels and bring in new partners. The second aspect of Free Dish is how we make it more interesting for consumers with its new capabilities. Also, can we enable new models of content consumption with a large population in mind? Today the barrier for them to watch a premium sports channel is high. The challenge is to think of premium models where the content can be accessed by them on this mass platform. So we will have to look at all those things.
Are you also looking at targeting the smart phone users specifically since that is where the maximum content consumption is taking place?
Yes the future is going to be digital, it’s going to be mobile. So when we will roll out the new features of Free Dish and you will see that mobile will be an interesting part of it.
On the news front, when we do English content on the global front, mobile definitely will be an important part of it. So definitely mobile is an important game changing vehicle and as we roll out at each of these fronts there will be an important mobile element.
There were some recommendations during the UPA regime, are you planning to consider them while strategising the new direction for Prasar Bharati?
Yes, it has been in the public domain for a long time and there is nothing partisan about those recommendations. These are recommendations that are still relevant. In fact I was reading a report headed by Narayan Murthy in the late 1990’s on Prasar Bharati and many of its recommendations are still relevant. We will look at the Sam Pitroda report and Narayan Murthy report wherever we need to bring in changes and there is no point reinventing the wheel.
By 2022 where do you see Prasar Bharati?
The aspiration is to be a globally respected public broadcaster. We are the largest and youngest democracy and we are the largest public broadcaster in that sense. So clearly we should be the role model for the world. So we can be a world class organisation and have a strong global voce.
Do we see an era of bold decisions at Prasar Bharati?
Well, let’s hope for the best. I think the bold decision happened last year when we said we will revamp out prime time on DD National. So there is no dearth of bold ideas, I think it’s all about executing them right in the environment we have to operate in. So the boldness will also come in the execution side.