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Reimagining Doordarshan

| | in Oped
Reimagining Doordarshan

India’s public service broadcaster must move beyond cosmetic logo changes. To be relevant today, it has to ring in substantive changes that can revive its spirits

Doordarshan recently announced its intent to re-design its antiquated logo. Understandably, this piece of news generated a whole lot of excitement among people and instantly became the talk of the town. The ‘eye’ logo, as it is popularly referred to, is easily the most recognised and iconic logo of the decades gone by. The glacial pace of change at the ‘national’ broadcaster and the fact that it took Doordarshan so long to realise the need for this makeover is both interesting and fascinating. By re-designing a logo, for one you are signaling a desire to resuscitate life into a brand which is atrophying.

Perhaps, in a way, it also hints at the struggle and efforts to refresh, reinvent and be relevant to the larger audience and stay in tune with times. Doordarshan, a colossus in ‘public service’ broadcasting covers 92 per cent of India’s 1.24 billion people (approx) through a vast network of 2,000 transmitters and roughly employees 50,000 people. However, inspite of its scale of operations and reach, it ceased speaking to its audience long ago on the programming front.

How many of us would have reached for the remote to watch Doordarshan in our recent memory? With each passing year Doordarshan’s mindshare in the popular memory has become feebler and feebler. The onslaught of commercial satellite television channels has put Doordarshan at the cross-roads in the last decade. Also, it raises fundamental question on the relevance of ‘public service broadcasting’ in the country and the conundrum Doordarshan faces in adhering to its ideals, considering the commercial environment it is operating in today.

National ritual:For many, especially the Gen Y’s, the prospects of Doordarshan going for a logo make-over was also an occasion that brought with it a gush of old memories, nostalgia, and a trip down the memory lane. Simply put, it was Doordarshan that introduced India to the Indians. It would be unfair to ignore the immense contribution Doordarshan has made in weaving our national fabric and creating a collective national identity and culturally integrating the citizens of the country. It was a source of intense socialisation for the masses and owning a television set at home and watching Doordarshan, the sole television entertainment channel available during those times, was a marker of one’s upward social mobility and having-arrived-in-life moment for many Indian’s in the seventies and eighties.

Doordarshan’s iconic ‘eye’ logo and the painfully slow and haunting signature track and montage may be off-putting and utterly depressing for today’s generation but it was an intoxicating tune that the whole country waited for and the sound of which would inject excitement and get the audience mojo back.

In this era of 24X7 television, it may be incomprehensible for today’s generation, but television was a scarce resource in the late 1970s mid-1980s. The scratchy quality of analogue transmission, the wavy images, patchy visuals, screen blackouts and freezes and frequent antenna adjustments by running up to the roof required, to catch proper terrestrial network signals, were all a part of the national ritual. It was an egalitarian fun and everyone had to endure it and go through it patiently. The pay-off outweighed the pains of it all in the end. It was the beginning of an era of romance with television as a medium that would behold the entire country for years to come. Those were also the times when attention span of the television audience lasted uninterruptedly for few hours at a stretch and where watching sporadic TV advertisements was an enjoyable act and part and parcel of the viewing experience. Life in cities and towns literally used to come to a standstill once the television screen would start to flicker. Doordarshan commanded rapturous attention and occupied high place in the cultural lives of Indians.

Timeless appeal: Today’s television programming is frenzied and can make you gasp for breath. Television programming of the 1970s and 1980s on the other hand on Doordarshan was more sedate, simple, realistic, clean fun with grassroots stories and often the underdog as the main protagonist. Nukkad, Malgudi days, Wagle ki Duniya, Surabhi are just a few examples of the exemplary programmes that were timeless in its appeal and cultural value. Every single initiative of Doordarshan was a benchmark in programming. Newer formats in programming and production quality kept improving and popularised television and its adoption rate among the masses. The DNA of the programming was to inform, educate and entertain. Doordarshan was multi-cultural long before the term became fashionable. The showcasing of regional cinema was, perhaps, the most effective use of the medium in culturally assimilating and engaging the audience and create a pluralistic society. Doordarshan became a crucible and breeding ground for many actors, artists and television producers who later achieved success and stardom in their careers.

Caught in binaries: The reign of Doordarshan started to gradually wane once the satellite channels started beaming into India. Doordarshan boldly defended and put up a good fight but due to lack of technological investments and lack of programming innovation and bureaucratic quagmire lead it on the path of irrelevance and ended up becoming an institution of the last century both in the content and carriage terms. The multi-channel television universe and hyper-commercial environment caught Doordarshan off-guard and threw newer challenges at it. There is always the knotty issue of defining what is and is not public service programming. It seems to be confronting with the binaries on the one hand, be profitable and on the other hand deliver socially relevant and ‘public service’ programming. Both terms seem to be mutually exclusive and in a way, unachievable at the same time!

Effective alternative: Many of us would admit feeling jaded by today’s thin and repetitive popular television programming and motor mouth news-channels. At the same time, Doordarshan seems to be floundering and tangled in a web of confusion and is in no position to provide an effective alternative to the current fare available on commercial television. It is becoming more and more indistinguishable and relegated from our national consciousness. The fear of sounding elitist or being boring creates dislike to produce any serious programming. Popularity seems to be the sole criteria and value to measure worth and commercial success.

It is important to realise that the fragmentation of audience and hyper regionalisation, due to commercial satellite television, is coming at the expense of our collective national identity. The Public Service Broadcasting mandate for Doordarshan has never seem to be more relevant than today. Many of the cultural and political trends strengthen the case for effective public service programming in Indian scenario, which can benefit the society and that works towards preserving the idea of our interconnectedness.

Doordarshanneeds to optimise and produce genuinely plural, engaging and quality content of public merit, which commercial media has scant regards nor inclination to and avoids it with a barge pole. Often the saying goes that we are a nation of story-tellers. Educational and entertaining content with superior production values focused on themes such as arts, museum, handicrafts, architecture, history, culture, festivals, people, customs, landscapes, stories from the heartland can help create a niche for Doordarshan and reinvigorate the programming and serve the national audience.

Doordarshanmust go beyond mere cosmetic logo changes. It needs to rekindle its spirits, transform and showcase its expertise as a nation-builder and set its own value and benchmarks rather merely copy commercial television and end-up appearing a run-down version and one more channel down the wire.

(The writer is a communications and management professional with cross-sectoral experience) 

 
 
 
 
 
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