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Talking Heads with Ambika Soni
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Ambika Soni, aged 65 and having an assets base of Rs 7.5 crore is the Information and Broadcasting Minister, Government of India. Having studies BA from Delhi University, the stylish Soni is known to be extremely well organised and receptive to new ideas.

As tourism minister, she launched the Incredible India charm offensive, which substantially bumped up the backpacker flow. Her remarks over the Ram Sethu got her into a spot of bother. A Sonia Gandhi loyalist and disciplined party worker, Soni has an under stated aesthetic and has recently developed a taste for Raghu rajour pattchitras.

In an exclusive interview to Kishore Sharma of Televisionpoint.com, the Minister speaks about her top priorities and about new initiatives. She also indicates some help for a recession-hit media industry.

Every minister of the UPA has a 100 day agenda. What is your priority for the Information and Broadcasting sector?

To start with, the I&B Ministry looks after the functioning of Prasar Bharati, DAVP, and various other media wings of the government. My first mandate will be to formalise a strategy to consolidate and integrate these strategic units to the government's standardised programmes in the domain of health, NREGA, food security and issues related to women and children. This is a time consuming process and I hope to complete this process during my term tenure.

My second priority is getting ready for world-class coverage of the Commonwealth Games. Addressing policy issues such as FM phase III expansion and HITS (head-end in the sky) broadcasting project are also being looked very carefully.

Very true. When you took charge as the new I&B Minister, you have intimated about the quality coverage of the Commonwealth Games 2010. Can you detail us on the same?
I have devoted the last one month on this issue as it is one of the most important one for us. The Commonwealth Games 2010 will showcase India to the world and we would like to build Brand India through these Games.

Prasar Bharati is the host broadcaster for the event and the Ministry has been able to take the process forward that began late last year when an expression of interest (EoI) was floated. It is a unique challenge to showcase not just the Games to the world, but India and its people.

After several consultations, we will soon announce the eligible shortlisted companies. Once that is done, in next four weeks we will be awarding the contract to one of the short listed firm, who will produce the game coverage for us.

Moving ahead to policy issues, there have been several pending policy initiatives with the Ministry. Is there a forward step on some of them?
As I mentioned earlier, we shall concentrate on FM expansion and on HITS platform. I am aware of the pending work at our end and we shall tackle all of them one by one in near times to come. The Cabinet note on FM III expansion has been prepared and is almost ready for circulation. The HITS policy is also ready to go to the Cabinet.

I am also looking at the policy on high-definition television. The Cabinet note on it is also ready and we will take it to the Cabinet soon. We are working on every pending issues that I have inherited from my dear predecessors.

Besides sports commentary, weather and other useful details, we are considering that news and current affairs sourced from Akashavani be allowed on FM radio. It is a very fast growing medium and we would like to encourage that growth.

What is the status on the much hyped Broadcast Bill and Content Code for broadcasters?
Former I&B Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi has done a lot of work on the Broadcast Bill. I feel this matter should be debated among the media and the government at every level especially when the draft Bill is already in the public domain, but it is not on top of my priority.

On Content Code, my Ministry will work at strengthening the industry bodies of broadcasters and news channels. I want to make it clear to our media friends that my Ministry is not looking at any regulation on media actively. I have held meetings with representatives of two self-regulatory bodies - National Broadcasters Association (NBA) and Indian Broadcasters Foundation (IBF) and other stakeholders in this regard.

We will sit together and arrive at a solution in a way that it would not in any way clamp down on our constitutional right of speech and expression and would address the concerns of the end-users, the subscribers, the common man, civil society, parents, children and others. I feel that in this day and age, a self-regulatory mechanism is the best option.

You might be aware of the fact that media and entertainment sector is suffering heavy losses due to the economic correction. Any response to stimuli?
I am aware about the fact that private advertising has come down, its a part of the business lifecycle. To help out, we have hiked DAVP advertisement rates by 10 per cent and waived off the 15 per cent agency commission also. The special relief was applicable till June 30 but on the demand of the media industry, we have extended for six more months, as stated by the Finance Minister in his Budget speech.

But how does it matter as a stimuli, when the DAVP rates are far well below commercial competitive rates.
My Ministry has asked the DAVP rate structuring committee to put their heads together and see if we can further increase the advertising rates. Private media representatives have expressed their concern that the rates are much lower than the current market rates and we are looking into the matter.

Further, we are in talks with various other government stake holders to increase the foreign direct investment (FDI) in print media, which could infuse capital without managements losing control of their companies. We have initiated a consultative process to see what can be done on this and I would like to dispel concerns that stakeholders may have.

The finance minister has imposed a 5 per cent Customs duty on imported set-top boxes? What is your take on this extra burden for DTH players?
The Ministry has receive several letters from leading DTH players about the issue of re-imposition of Customs duty on imported set-top boxes. I feel the matter requires some clarification, which will done in due course of time.

However, there are a number of local manufacturers of such boxes, who will be encouraged by the move and the domestic market will improve. I am told, the end-user prices of these boxes have declined to less than Rs 1,500 per box from over Rs 3,000 about three years ago. The DTH market is growing and so no one should feel that their business may get hurt as the demand for boxes will only grow from here.

Prasar Bharati has been functioning very poorly. Do you feel its is an non-performing asset and its dynamics shall be changed?
The Prasar Bharati matter is in court and I shall abide by the court's ruling. My personal thinking is that it is an autonomous body that has a large responsibility. However, it also has to earn and make money else it will never be autonomous in true sense.

We aim to take some corrective steps to make Doordarshan commercially viable and be more competitive with private players. I think they should pay talent at market rates and attract private advertisers through innovative solutions.

I have also written to DD and some of its channels to improve their programming content, commission new shows that are relevant today and revamp their working. I want to see results by mid-August. I am an optimist and I don't see why it is not possible to leverage the reach and popularity of the network of Doordarshan.

The NCPCR has framed guidelines for TV shows involving children, after the Maharashtra government sent notices to production houses over the conditions in which kids worked in their shows. What is your take?
I don't see why there should be a problem with kids on TV as long as their parents were okay with it and their studies were not affected. I think the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) should re-work on its list of dos and don'ts for TV shows involving children.

Many of my colleagues in Parliament have also critized for allowing a TV serial that "encouraged child marriage". I have assured them that an inquiry would be conducted.

Recently, you have asked the Films Division to improve the quality of digitisation and restoration work of priceless archival material. What is the progress in this regard?
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's 'Tryst with Destiny' speech, which stirred a nation's soul, is our national heritage. I was shown a print of Nehru's speech - made to the nation on the eve of India's independence, as part of a review of the overall working of Films Division.

But, I was unhappy with the quality of restoration. I have asked the the department not to rest on past glory and revamp its working to meet new challenges. The Films Division archives include a collection of more than 8,000 films including archival footage, newsreels, news magazines, documentaries, animation and short films. The project of archiving these films into high definition digital technology is already underway with about 7,700 titles digitised.

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