Addressing the AIBD Leaders’ Web Summit on Thursday, June 3, Shashi Shekhar Vempati, CEO, Prasar Bharati, spoke at length on ‘Redefining the role of media in the new norm’. Prasar Bharati is India’s public service broadcaster, which saw an increase in viewership during the pandemic.
Challenges during the pandemic
Speaking of the challenges the public service media faced amidst the pandemic, Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati shared that the major challenge was how to spread the precautionary messages related to the COVID-19 virus across India.
He added that during the period what we knew of the virus is continuously changing, what precautions to be followed was fast-changing. Initially, it was about ‘washing hands with soap and not touching surfaces but then it became about maintaining social distance, wearing masks’. Also, our own understanding of how the virus is getting transmitted was evolved, ‘from droplets to airborne’.
He further said, “so getting this messaging across turned out to be a huge challenge, keeping in mind India’s diversified culture”.
“India is a diverse country, (has) several languages, (and) hundreds of dialects, so to get this social messaging in this dynamic environment to a diversity of communities was a great challenge. And that is where the public broadcaster really came through,” CEO Prasar Bharati said.
Repurposing itself to impart education
The public service media went from an analog terrestrial to a Free-to-Air (FTA)across the country Direct-To-Home (DTH) satellite platform, thus benefitting millions through TV channels and radio. “The benefit of having such a Free-to-Air (FTA) Direct-To-Home (DTH) satellite platform was that it had a nationwide reach, now the latest figures are about 40 million households, its geographical spread was the entire landmass, again you are not restricted by the terrestrial limitations there,” Prasar Bharati CEO said on public broadcaster switching from analog terrestrial to free to air satellite platform.
Adding further, he said that more than 70 of its TV channels broadcasted educational content to address the needs of students from different parts of the country with different languages and curriculum. During the coronavirus pandemic, Prasar Bharati repurposed its channels to be of use to students who were confined at homes when schools were closed as a precautionary measure. More than 20 TV channels of Doordarshan which runs general entertainment and news throughout the day, repurposed themselves, making it fit for students across the country. Moreover, the public service broadcaster has over 50 dedicated channels for education.
Similarly, on the radio side, educational programs on radio channels in remote areas continued to be delivered. Recently, the public broadcasting’s radio channel in Jammu & Kashmir has been airing classes for students, which according to data is benefitting around 3 to 4 million students.
Fight against misinformation
During the pandemic, Doordarshan ran a campaign on the ‘importance of masking up’. Anchors and reporters on the channel masked up to spread the message across the country. Moreover, it also displayed a logo of why to mask up below the channel’s logo.
“Even our anchors and reporters went on air with masks, not only for their own safety but to underline the important message ‘why you need to wear a mask’,” the CEO said during his address.
Doordarshan is also running a live doctor’s program to fight misinformation during this time. “It was very important to get the right kind of medical advice. We have been running hours of the live program with expert doctors, taking questions from viewers, and responding to them, clarifying myths and the misconceptions,” he added further.
CEO Vempati said that the doctor’s interactions played a huge role as so much misinformation is out there that getting the right message across was important as things like these have made a big difference.
From paper to online
During the pandemic, the public broadcaster has been playing multiple roles, in not just entertaining or educating, but being there to hold hands and give relief, said Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati. He credited information technology for being a crucial factor in coping with the constraints posed by the pandemic.
“In last three years, we have taken so many steps to be IT-enabled, automated, and to embrace digital tools that it came handy in this pandemic situation. Had we not taken those measures, it would have been impossible for us to function in this environment with these challenges,” said the CEO Prasar Bharati.
Media – a problem finder or solution-enabler?
Speaking about the role of media in today’s time, Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi S. Vempati said that it was distressing how some of the global public service media who have an international presence fell short in their haste to perhaps attract more eyeballs, more traffic, and fell into this trap of clickbait journalism. He said that it was very unfortunate that such reputed institutions have exaggerated and reported in a manner that is not consistent with the values that public service media holds when they are at home and reporting from home.
He further said that there should be a discussion on should media focus only on problems or become an enabler for solutions?
Did public service media live up to the values of journalism during Covid-19″?
Speaking of his views on whether public service media lived up to the values of journalism in the fight against Covid-19, Prasar Bharati CEO said that whether it’s the old normal or the new normal, there are certain values and those values have to prevail.
He further added that the public service media has shown those values. “We often see that media tends to focus on the sensational aspect of what has happened and this phenomenon has gotten even worst with the advent of digital and what is commonly referred to as clickbait journalism. But, unfortunately, that phenomenon has exacerbated the whole problem during the pandemic rather than providing a solution,” he said.
Highlighting the efforts of public service media, he said, “This is where the public service media has always played a very different, distinctive role that to the public service media, it is not about only focussing on the problems but it is about being a part of the solution, finding a solution, and enabling a solution.”
Adding further, he said, “It is very easy to find problems and in a country as large as India with billion-plus people and democratic accountability, not only you will find every problem that is possible in the universe but you will also find enough critical voices. The media has to make a choice, ‘Do you focus on those extremities or do you become an enabler for finding the solutions’, creating a positive environment, so we all collectively come out of this challenge for a greater good.”