‘I Want To Build A Strong Global Voice’
Shashi Shekhar Vempati shares his vision of modern, innovative and globally competitive public broadcasters with Ruhail Amin
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Shashi Shekhar Vempati’s LinkedIn profile describes him as a ‘technocrat, innovator and commentator’. The 43-year-old chief executive officer (CEO) of Prasar Bharati, is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and the first ever technocrat to hold a post that was so long the domain of civil servants.
Vempati worked in various leadership roles at Infosys Technologies and led a digital media and digital campaigns startup called Niti Digital, before joining the Prasar Bharati board as a part-time director a year ago.
Vempati shares his vision of modern, innovative and globally competitive public broadcasters with Ruhail Amin.
Excerpts of a conversation:
How has the journey from a corporate to a public organisation been so far?
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. So there is automation that is happening, but we have to do it at a much larger scale and within some constraints, as we are operating in a government regulated set up.
Prasar Bharati has been through a lot of challenges in the past. What is your vision for the organisation?
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.
There are a lot of areas in which modernisation should have happened over the last two decades. The pressing need is to make this 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 to bring technology into 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 the way the BBC, Al Jazeera or Russia Today have.
Public broadcasters are seen as mere mouthpieces of the government? How do you plan to address this perception?
There are a couple of things about the role of a 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 we need to amplify that. Today if you go to the tier-2, tier-3 cities, they listen to AIR News and watch DD and even the 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.
There were some recommendations for Prasar Bharati during the UPA regime. Are you planning to consider them?
Yes, it has been in the public domain for a long time and there is nothing partisan about these recommendations. These are recommendations that are still relevant. In fact I was reading a report headed by Narayana 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 Narayana Murthy report wherever we need to, to bring in changes. There is no point in reinventing the wheel.
How do you plan to take on the private players?
I don’t see private players as competitors — 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 very valid feedback. I think we have to improve the quality of our programmes.
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 are legacy issues. We are a statutory body and not a corporate, 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 to utilise our inventory better. So this is something that 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.
How tough is it for legacy organisations to become digital first entities, both at the technological and cultural front?
It is a big challenge on multiple fronts. It is a challenge culturally. Prasar Bharati is an aging organisation. The workforce is largely in its fifties. In the next five to six years, you will have a big chunk retiring.
Secondly, on some fronts, we have been very effective in adoption of technology. In DTH, we have done a good job and will soon roll out the next version of set top boxes. In embracing social media, we have done a decent job. We require innovation to become more relevant to the youth and that can only happen 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 a 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 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 the BARC data, the free-to-air channels which went on DD Free Dish have 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.
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 targeting smart phone users, who are major consumers of content?
Yes the future is going to be digital, it’s going to be mobile. So when we will roll out new features of Free Dish, 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.
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.
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 our 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.
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 can we be a world-class organisation and have a strong global voice?