Four days prior to the final of the 2017 Fifa Under-17 World Cup on October 28, Doordarshan Sports’ Twitter handle posted a video which was a promo for the match.

Given DD Sports was broadcasting the matches, you would think such a video would only include footage from the tournament.

Instead, there were visuals of senior footballers such as England’s Daniel Sturridge and South African Siphiwe Tshabalala’s iconic celebration from the senior 2010 Fifa World Cup. South Africa did not even qualify for the 2017 U-17 World Cup.

Three days before the U-17 World Cup began, the channel’s Facebook page posted a promo with footage from a video game showing Cristiano Ronaldo, in a Real Madrid jersey, shooting towards goal.

The Field spent two weeks following DD Sports’ programming and it is, to put it plainly, quite unwatchable. DD Sports was the official broadcaster of the senior national badminton championships earlier this month and apart from the quality of production and graphics, which seemed at least from a decade ago, the commentators and anchors kept goofing up with names and rankings of the players.

When there is no live event happening, the channel only shows reruns of past tournaments, again rather poorly produced. The only mildly interesting show on the channel is one called the Indian Khel League, which showcases indigenous sports from remote corners of the country. Unfortunately, poor production quality takes away from the uniqueness of the sports being played.

In a world where public service broadcasters are constantly reinventing themselves to keep up to pace with their rivals from the private sector, India’s Doordarshan seems to have not moved on from the nineties.

Why is Doordarshan the way it is? Does it not have the money? According to the 2017-’18 Union budget, Rs 2,996 crore was allocated towards India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharati, which includes Doordarshan and All India Radio.

In an age when media rights of the Indian Premier League are bought by private broadcasters for more than Rs 16,000 crore, Prasar Bharati’s total budget of less than Rs 3,000 crore seems tiny.

But does that still justify Doordarshan’s quality of production? Does it justify putting up a points table for the knockout stages of a tournament? (Let’s not even get into the typos, which in spite of being pointed out by Twitterati were not rectified).

Senior media professional and entrepreneur Charu Sharma remembers the good old days of sports broadcasting on Doordarshan. You’d have to go back to 1982, when colour television was first introduced to India by Doordarshan ahead of the Asian Games in Delhi that year.

“It was a fabulous bunch of people – all the technicians, cameramen, commentators were very well trained,” said Sharma, who started his commentary career at the 1982 Asiad. “The coverage was not fantastic but there was a lot of purity of purpose. There was an intent to do well,” he added.

To think, Doordarshan managed to revolutionise television viewing in India.

The turning point

Riding on the wave of the Asian Games, Doordarshan boosted its coverage of sporting events after the tournament. However, one of the most significant political and economic moves by any Indian government changed all that in the early nineties.

In 1991, the Indian economy was liberalised, which led to the entry of private satellite television. Before 1991, the only channels available on Indian television sets were Prasar Bharati’s, which also meant that if a sports federation wanted to telecast its matches in India, the only option was to pay Doordarshan to do it. “None of the advertising revenue also went to the federation,” said Roshan Gopalakrishna, chief legal counsel at Copyright Integrity International.

Everything changed after 1991.

In 1993, the England cricket team toured India and, for the first time in Indian sporting history, the broadcast rights for the series were sold to a private company, Trans World International, for $600,000.

Later that same year, the Cricket Association of Bengal sold the broadcast rights for the Hero Cup, a tournament that featured India and three other international teams, to TWI. Prasar Bharati challenged the decision in court but the decision eventually went in the CAB’s favour.

The Supreme Court recognised the CAB’s right as a private body to sign contracts with whichever party had submitted the highest bid. “It was a landmark judgement in Indian sports broadcasting,” said Gopalakrishna.

The Doordarshan headquarters in Delhi (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The cost of media rights for cricket matches has only skyrocketed since then. In 1999, Prasar Bharati won the rights for all international and domestic matches to be played in India for a five-year period after bidding $54 million. The rights have since been bought by private broadcasters – Nimbus in 2006 for $450 million and Star Sports in 2012 for $650 million, both for six-year periods.

Mandatory sharing

Since losing the Indian cricket rights to Nimbus in 2006, Prasar Bharati has not been the official broadcaster of any international sporting event. However, the public broadcaster benefits from a Bill passed by the Indian parliament in 2007 that forced private sports channels to mandatorily share their feed with Prasar Bharati.

According to the Sports Broadcasting Signals (Mandatory Sharing With Prasar Bharati) Act, 2007, no private rights holder can telecast a “sporting event of national importance” live in India unless it simultaneously shares the signal – without any advertisements – with Prasar Bharati.

Under this Act, Prasar Bharati is also not obligated to show the logo of the rights holder’s channel and can generate its own pre- and post-match programmes. The Act also forces the rights holder to share 25% of its television advertisement revenue with Prasar Bharati (50% in case of radio).

The most peculiar bit in the Act is that “sporting events of national importance” have not even been specified. The list of such events is determined by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting after consulting with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, and Prasar Bharati.

As of now, it includes all of the Indian cricket team’s One-Day International and Twenty20 International matches, certain Test matches “considered to be of high public interest” by the Indian government, the semi-finals and finals of the cricket World Cup and Champions Trophy; the Olympics, the Paralympics, the Commonwealth Games, and the Asian Games; the Fifa World Cup semi-finals and finals; Davis Cup matches featuring India, the men’s and women’s singles finals of tennis Grand Slams and all matches featuring Indian players from the quarter-finals onward; the hockey World Cup and Champions Trophy.

The list pretty much covers every sporting event that can be monetised in India, and Doordarshan does not have to pay a single paisa for broadcasting it. The only relief for the rights holders is that the Supreme Court has allowed Doordarshan’s feed to be visible only on the terrestrial network and the public broadcaster’s own direct-to-home satellite platform DD Freedish. Private DTH platforms such as Tata Sky and Dish TV do have Doordarshan channels but are made to block the feed when it comes to these sporting events.

Even with the private blackout, Doordarshan’s television viewership for cricket matches is sometimes higher than that of the rights holder. DD National, which showed the India-Australia cricket series in September and October, got more viewers than Star Sports channels for the first two One-Day Internationals, and marginally fewer for the third and fourth, according to figures provided by the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India.

Note: The Field has requested the Broadcast Audience Research Council to provide figures for the rest of the matches in the Australia series, and the New Zealand series following that, but is yet to get a response.

Doordarshan’s stance is clear: If we are doing great in terms of viewership without actually paying for the rights, why bid at all?

Planned revamp

When The Field contacted Doordarshan, national channel advisor Abhishek Dubey said that the public broadcaster was in the process of revamping its sports coverage under the leadership of Director General Supriya Sahu, who was appointed in June 2016.

Firstly, it has been decided at the level of Prasar Bharati that all international sporting events will be shown on DD Sports and not DD National like before, according to Dubey. That being said, the cricket is still being shown on DD National, but the U-17 World Cup – borrowed from the Sony Ten network – and the badminton Nationals were on DD Sports.

Secondly, DD Sports is giving its production a makeover. “The Under-17 World Cup is the first example. We have a state-of-the-art set – one of the best ever seen on Indian sports television,” said Dubey, adding that the network had also started experimenting with its graphics during matches.

“Gone are the days when we had the hackneyed graphics – a goal was scored in this minute by this player. Now we are using things like player trackers, where you can see micro-details during replays,” he added.

DD Sports is also going to be far more selective in terms of the anchors and experts it hires to come on air, Dubey said. “We are putting onus on merit – if you are good you will be there. If you are not, you won’t be there. This wasn’t the case before.”

The "state-of-the-art" DD Sports set for the 2017 Fifa U-17 World Cup coverage

Asked how the network plans to tackle the problem of their feed being blocked on private DTH platforms, Dubey said Prasar Bharati will promote DD Freedish in a big way. Doordarshan’s DTH platform is a one-time investment of Rs 1,200 and consists of 80 free-to-air channels, making it far cheaper than the private players who have a monthly subscription.

Another technology that DD plans to expand and promote is digital terrestrial television, which is again a one-time investment in a dongle that connects to smartphones and receives all DD channels free of cost without internet.

“Both these technologies are going to be a game-changer if promoted in a major way,” Dubey said. “Right now, our DTT technology is confined to 19 cities in the country. But in the coming months, our engineering teams and everyone has assured us that we are going to expand our base to far-flung places.”

Unanswered questions

Whether Doordarshan does go forward implementing all the above-mentioned plans is to be seen. However, it’s going to take a lot more than that.

Considering the content that is shown on DD Sports, the quality of its production and overall sporting IQ, it gives you the impression that the channel still lacks professionalism.

There is also an apparent lack of direction and motivation in terms of what the channel should cover and what it shouldn’t. Earlier this month, the United Kingdom’s public broadcaster BBC announced that it will increase its live sport coverage by up to 1,000 hours a year in a bid to take on the private channels. The network also plans to broadcast its sports content on its website and streaming service iPlayer.

The BBC has also bought the long-term rights for marquee sporting events such as the Olympics, Wimbledon, Fifa World Cup and FA Cup. Live cricket will also be back on BBC in 2020 for the first time since the early 2000s, after the public broadcaster brokered a deal with the country’s cricket board to show a new Twenty20 tournament and two T20 internationals. The BBC spent £1,263 million (Rs 10,880 crore) on programme acquisition and sports rights in 2017, according to their annual report.

Doordarshan, meanwhile, seems content accepting freebies from the rights holder for “events of national importance”, while hardly bothering about the rest. There are so many sporting events taking place around India itself but Doordarshan does not bother broadcasting any of it unless they are paid to do so. Last week, the senior national wrestling championships took place in Indore with stars such as Olympic medallists Sakshi Malik and Sushil Kumar taking part, but all DD Sports was showing were reruns.

DD Sports gets to broadcast sporting events of "national importance" for free but its feed is blocked on private DTH platforms

In July this year, Mint reported that Doordarshan is planning to start its own leagues in three sports – basketball, tackle football and kabaddi. However, there has been no update on that since.

The Field tried to contact Doordarshan Director General Supriya Sahu several times regarding its plans for the future but did not receive a response before this story was published.

“You need to have a long-term vision, a proper budget, and an understanding that sport is not a freebie favour to anyone,” said Sharma. “You can’t have an IAS officer come in for a term of three to four years and then say goodbye. Can you imagine a corporation being run like this?”

It would be unrealistic to expect the Indian government to pump in Rs 10,000 crore for the national broadcaster. However, it would hardly cost Doordarshan a fraction of that amount wake up from its slumber and infuse a bit of professionalism, purpose and intent into its functioning.

What is the point of a Khelo India initiative if the national broadcaster does not seem to care about sports?

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