Doordarshan, an autonomous Indian public service broadcaster and ubiquitous program on Indian television, is the perfect example to explain Free-To-Air services. Operated by Prasar Bharati, a public service broadcaster, it plays on Indian TVs through the DD Free Dish, a DTH service that does not require viewers to pay a subscription fee or any other cost. Thus, viewers can consume the content presented on this service for free.
FTA services can be linked to the rise of television broadcasting in India. While the advent of television and Doordarshan happened during the mid-1900s in India, the DD Free Dish (formerly DD Direct Plus)—and the subsequent FTA service—came about only in 2005, demanding a one-time cost associated with hardware equipment necessary for broadcast but without a monthly subscription, unlike its counterpart and India’s first DTH service: Dish TV.
Public Service Broadcasting
One of the significant advantages of this free-to-air service was the rise of two satellite channels: the Lok Sabha TV (LSTV) and the Rajya Sabha TV (RSTV). Starting in the early 2000s, these channels telecasted live coverage of the Lower House and Upper House of the Indian Parliament, respectively. In 2021, they were merged into what came to be known as Sansad TV. Initiated by the then Speaker Somnath Chatterjee and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Rajya Sabha’s deputy chairman, the intention behind these channels was to expand public knowledge of the proceedings of the two houses and expose misdemeanours of the members on live TV.
Moreover, other DD channels also promoted value-oriented content—telecasting Independence Day celebrations at a time when privately-owned channels were sparse, cultural epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana during the 1980s and then again during the COVID-19 pandemic, and rural sports like Kho Kho and Kabaddi which were skipped by private channels due to low revenue additions. While privately owned channels eventually added these topics to their realm of content, DD was the pioneer FTA service that provided maximum dissemination for the government.
Since more channels—especially news ones like ABP News, India TV, Republic TV, etcetera—have now become free-to-air in India, it has allowed broadcasting to facilitate universal access to news and current affairs.
At times of emergency, FTA services are the most trusted operators for both the government and viewers to communicate alerts, facts, and advice. In 2021, 1.72 billion houses had access to FTA services globally, reinforcing why it is the most reliable way to disseminate emergency information. This also ensures that people do not miss out on crucial information simply because of their lower economic resources.
DD also has a canon of channels catering to specific regions in India. Thus, FTA channels allow content oriented towards i) regions, like DD Rajasthan, DD Punjab, and DD Bihar, and ii) languages, like DD Bangla, DD Oriya, and DD Urdu, giving viewers a plethora of options and avenues for region-specific information. Not just this, other FTA channels provide global news from diverse international regions—channels for Australia, France, Russia, and Europe make space for niche programs.
The proliferation of encrypted content has not reduced the value of FTA services in India; if anything, paid content has made necessary a source of value-driven, quality content for free in the country. In 2022, the DD Free Dish had 430 million subscribers. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry reported in 2022 that the obsolete analogue terrestrial transmitters used for broadcasting were being phased out and replaced by digital satellite transmission by Doordarshan. This means that soon, households will be able to do away with set-top boxes to watch FTA content provided by Doordarshan. Such developments are ushering in a new—and digitised era—for FTA services, further democratising access to information and entertainment in India.
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