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Like many state TV networks, India's Doordarshan has been taking a beating from more cutting edge and advertiser-friendly satellite channels. But unlike most state TV systems, Doordarshan is fighting back.

Once a happy monopoly, Doordarshan is now facing major competition from satellite TV, and within the past two years has been particularly feeling the squeeze from two multichannel networks, Star TV and Zee TV.

Doordarshan's audience of 250 million is staggeringly higher than Star TV's 7.3 million and Zee TV's 50 million, but the upstarts' superior programming has been drawing a growing number of those middle class Indian viewers advertisers are pursuing.

And while Doordarshan's $118 million in revenues dwarfs that of Zee, which claims $18 million in India, the flow of ad dollars to Zee and others caused Doordarshan to post $2.2 million less in revenue in 1993 than earlier expected.

"Doordarshan is not indispensable," said Purshottam Nair, media director of Everest Advertising, "because now there are other options."

Recognizing that, Doordarshan has, within the last few months, set in motion a wide-ranging retaliation plan, covering everything from modernizing its programs, changing its rate card, opening up new advertising categories and revamping its channel format.

"Now they are becoming more competitive," said Irfan Khan, general manager-corporate communications at Hindustan Lever, Doordarshan's biggest client with overall TV ad spending of $18.5 million in 1993. Lever wouldn't comment on whether it had shifted advertising from Doordarshan. But it's unlikely Lever, like other big advertisers, made major shifts since for all its flaws Doordarshan presents India's only mass market broadcast outlet.

Doordarshan believes its new strategy will help it rack up a 15.2% increase in sales to $136.5 million in 1994.

The network is also discussing a joint venture with multinationals including Turner Broadcasting, Pearson, Viacom, the BBC and Walt Disney Co. Although Doordarshan wouldn't comment on the talks, it's believed they center on a Western partner leasing a channel from Doordarshan.

Doordarshan, said Peter Mukerjea, Star TV's sales director for India, is coming to "a sense of realization that ... with a changing environment they need to change as well."

Still, Raj Kamal Singh, Doordarshan's deputy director general for marketing in New Delhi, said state TV doesn't consider satellite channels like Star a threat. "We see it as competition which is healthy. It helps us to be dynamic and keeps us from vegetating."

As of last August, Doordarshan increased its number of channels from two to six, each specializing in a genre such as current affairs, music, sports and entertainment. This makes it more competitive with Star's five channels with similar dedicated programming, such as Prime Sports, MTV and the Chinese Channel. Zee telecasts only one channel.

In an attempt to hike ad revenues, up only 3.6% to $118 million in 1993 from a year earlier, Doordarshan last month began accepting ads in categories previously considered unthinkable, such as jewelry, mutual funds and foreign financial institutions, airlines, banks and travel companies.

Previously, the socialist-leaning government deemed these categories guilty of promoting consumerism.

It's unknown how much additional revenue these categories will bring in.

Doordarshan is also adding some method to its madness in setting rates. Earlier, the state network based its price on the time slot in which the desired program was telecast rather than the number of viewers watching. As of March, however, rates were based on rating point system like that of Star and Zee. Doordarshan is also now giving frequency discounts. "Earlier. their rates were `take it or leave it,"' said Hindustan Lever's Mr. Khan.

Perhaps the greatest edge will come from a joint venture. Earlier this month, Doordarshan negotiated with Turner Broadcasting to lease one of its channels to CNN. But talks haven't yet resulted in a deal and Turner went to a planned new berth on the APSTAR 2 satellite as of March 1995. Talks are continuing with others that could result in access for a Western company to India's 902 million consumers by satellite and for Doordarshan a much-needed boost in the quality of programming.

Meanwhile, Doordarshan is adding more news bulletins along with soap operas, fashion and current affairs programs and a deluge of serials based on Indian history. Lively talk shows feature topics earlier avoided and the network is showing news segments somewhat critical of Doordarshan and the government.

Some shows, in fact, have gone too far. "Teen Talk," a show with frank sexual discussion, was spurned by advertisers and cancelled because of its racy content.

"In the end, what we look at is quality [of programs] plus cost efficiency," said Helen Anchen, senior advisor media services of Lintas India.

For some advertisers, the jury is still out. "Their programs have become a little more lively and interesting and, in any case, they have the biggest reach in the country," said Lever's Mr. Khan. "But still there is a lot to be done."

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