How much money does it take to set up and run a news channel?
About Rs 50-65 crore to set up and Rs 25-30 crore (without distribution costs) a year to run it, depending on language, distribution costs and so on, says Sanjay Salil, managing director, MediaGuru Consultants. The firm has worked with Malayala Manorama and Sakshi, among others, to set up news channels. Going by that, Salil reckons that the Rs 206-crore that Rajya Sabha TV (RSTV), which telecasts proceedings from the Upper House of Parliament and analysis on it, spent since its launch in 2010-11 is not out of the ordinary.
Why then is it in the eye of a storm? In April this year, DNA and Tehelka had reported that the channel had spent Rs 1,700 crore over four years from 2010-2014. In the same month, lawyer Prashant Bhushan moved a public interest litigation (PIL) over irregularities in appointments to the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, under which RSTV comes. While the fate of the PIL will be decided by the courts, the two publications have been slapped with a breach of privilege notice by 60 (Rajya Sabha) members of Parliament across 14 parties. They contend that the reports were "false and maligned the image of the House".
According to the audited figures that RSTV CEO Gurdeep Singh Sappal shared with Business Standard , the channel spent close to Rs 147 crore in the years in question. Even if you ignore the figures Sappal gives and go by the Union Budget website, the total money spent by the Rajya Sabha and its Secretariat, of which RSTV is a part, is almost Rs 1,000 crore over the four years in question.
This is less than Rs 1,700 crore. The Lok Sabha and its Secretariat, of which the Lok Sabha TV is a part, spent over Rs 1,764 crore in the same period. And Prasar Bharati, which runs All India Radio and Doordarshan, got a grants-in-aid of Rs 2,140 crore in 2013-14 alone.
Much of the money on RSTV and LSTV is well spent, reckon experts. "Some of their (RSTV's) panel discussions are far better than anyone else's," says Jawhar Sircar, CEO, Prasar Bharati. "It (RSTV) is in a enviable position. They have flexibility, they can get high-quality people on a hire and fire basis and have only one channel."
Prasar Bharati has 67 channels and 33,000 employees and cannot hire or fire its people. RSTV has 250 people and one focussed channel.
What happened? Sappal says that RSTV is governed by Parliament and is audited on a running basis. He shared with Business Standard a number of the queries that the Draft Audit Inspection Report of the Director General of Audit (Central Expenditure) or DGACE has raised over the years. Many are valid queries. Others stem from a lack of understanding of broadcasting - like the demand for performance guarantees from documentary film-makers. Of the 56 queries that the DGACE raised in 2014, 55 were cleared, claims Sappal.
However DNA and Tehelka refer to a draft report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India or CAG. This alleged report questions everything -from the raison d'etre of RSTV to its expenses to its method of appointing people. Both Sappal and the privilege motion are emphatic that there is no such report. The Draft Audit Inspection Report of the DGACE could have become part of the CAG report if the explanation provided by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat had not been satisfactory.
An e-mail with questions sent to the chief of DNA , Uday Nirgudkar, and the reporter who did the story went unanswered. Tehelka stated that it stands by its story and will be doing another two-part series on the issue of appointments to RSTV.
Sappal agrees that costs have gone up in the last two years to over Rs 60 crore a year, primarily because of two reasons. One, RSTV has rented a building in Delhi from New Delhi Municipal Corporation at a whopping Rs 27 crore a year. Experts say it is possible to get a space at 40 per cent less rent in Film City, Noida. Sappal says this is a government-to-government transaction and, therefore, acceptable.
The second reason for the cost increase is the response to Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India . This RSTV-commissioned, Shyam Benegal directed, 10-part series released last year and has been in great demand in schools, embassies and so on. This prodded RSTV to commission three feature films, including one on Subhash Chandra Bose and another on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Both of these will also be a TV series. Besides this there are telefilms on science in music, sufi reformers and so on. This is content that no private broadcaster would commission. These are being made by National Award winning film-makers, says Sappal who believes "art, culture and history have to be patronised. They cannot be left to the market."
On the audit query that Rajya Sabha TV makes no money he is unequivocal: "The idea behind RSTV was not to cater to the common minimum denominator. The Indian Express doesn't sell much, but everybody who matters reads it. Similarly the people who matter should watch RSTV. It was decided not to take ads, Parliament should not take money from anyone."