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Privatizing the airwaves: the impact of globalization on broadcasting in India
Daya Kishan Thussu

Media globalization and the resultant expansion of mainly Western transnational media empires have transformed broadcasting in India. An exponential growth in the number of television channels from one state-controlled channel in 1991 to nearly 70 in 1998 (18 of which are national in reach and in Hindi or English, others are regional), within such a short span of time, has profoundly changed the electronic media landscape, as India adapts its broadcasting industries to the deregulated and privatized media environment of the late 1990s. India’s growing economy, a vast, rapidly expanding middle class (variously estimated to be between 200 and 250 million) with aspirations to a Western lifestyle, and a fast-growing advertising sector have made the Indian media market exceptionally attractive for US-dominated transnational broadcasters. With its huge numbers of potential consumers, India provides transnational media corporations with unrivalled opportunities — it is one of the fastest growing and potentially one of the biggest English language media software markets in the world. An established satellite network provides cheaper and quicker nationwide coverage of broadcasting in a continental-size country, while the diversity of cultures in India means that demand for a wide array of satellite channels, catering to different languages and tastes, is even stronger than in Europe or the USA. The impact of globalization on the Indian media should be considered in the context of the media’s evolution and the role of the press as a fourth estate in the world’s largest democracy, where the past 50 years of multi-party polity have ensured a diverse, vibrant and relatively free press. On the other hand, as in most countries of the South, electronic media in India were, until recently, for the most part, a propaganda tool for the government. Contextualizing privatization of electronic media On inheriting a free press and a state-controlled broadcasting system from the British, the new rulers of India argued that uncontrolled airwaves could destabilize the country, given its traumatic birth when the British divided and quit India in 1947. The violent legacy of Partition demanded that All India Radio (AIR), the key Media, Culture & Society © 1999 (SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi), Vol. 21: 125–131 [0163-4437(199901)21:1;125–131;006796]

it continued to control the airwaves. The main aim of the national broadcasters — AIR and Doordarshan. which many saw as ‘part of the state’s effort to build a consensual cultural narrative’ (Gupta. Following the launch of the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) in 1982. which invested heavily in developing satellite technology. were keen to join the ‘global’ audience. The new economic policy encouraged privatization. Channel V. having already been exposed to Western commercial television through the live coverage of the 1990–1 Gulf crisis by the Cable News Network (CNN). In addition. As a result. the medium was to be used as a powerful educational tool in a hugely illiterate country — at the time of Independence the literacy rate was only 18 percent. 1990). it may have more to do with the growing commercialism of the national broadcaster. now part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. although the press remained elitist in its approach and perspectives. More importantly. Culture & Society 21(1) instrument of state persuasion. 1997: 2). For transnational media corporations. 1997: 2). the media sector was transformed by the liberalization of the economy introduced in 1991. Although the government tolerated the free press. had to be very sensitive to ethnic and religious considerations (Chatterjee. the BBC World and Movie). the national television network — was to educate. making television entertainment-oriented to meet the needs of advertisers. role of print journalists contributed to the creation of an early-warning system for serious food shortages and thus a preventive mechanism against famine (Ram. it started beaming a fivechannel satellite service (Plus. often adversarial. paving the way for the entry of global media conglomerates into what used to be one of the most closed broadcasting systems in any democracy. Doordarshan became increasingly commercialized during the 1980s. making AIR little more than a propaganda service for the government of the day. television was seen as a means for disseminating state policies and public information. Introduced in 1959. However. The sky ‘invaders’ Like other Indian industries. Expanding the reach of television was a priority for the government. The Indian metropolitan elite. intensified by the increasingly neo-liberal governments of the 1980s. inform and create a feeling of national identity and help maintain national unity. the number of transmitters increased from 19 to 199 in 1987 and as a result Doordarshan was able to cover 70 percent of the population. if not propaganda. 1998: 89). While the broadcasters toed the official line and abstained from any criticism of the government. dismantling state controls and liberalizing media regulation. this educational role was gradually undermined by successive leaderships which tended to use radio to promote their own political agenda. as against the 26 percent it could reach in 1982 (Doordarshan. the privately owned and politically plural press provided the critical framework within which Indian journalism evolved. Hong Kong based STAR (Satellite Television Asian Region) TV. The relative autonomy of the print media was a significant factor in strengthening democracy in India. Doordarshan began to draw large audiences and its commercial earnings rose nearly 20-fold between 1982 and 1992 (Doordarshan. However. was the first to exploit this demand when. India is a key ‘emerging market’ with enormous possibilities for exploiting demand for their products. a decade when the expansion of the satellite network in the country enabled the beaming of ‘The National Programme’. in 1991.126 Media. The satellite channels became an instant hit with the English-fluent urban . Prime Sports. 1991). the investigative.

to without a doubt probably the most successful story in broadcasting history’ (Channel Four. Zee aims to expand its reach beyond the Hindi-speaking regions of the country — perhaps more influenced by motives of profit than any altruistic efforts towards national integration. Sony. demonstrates how national media can indigenize global products by developing derivatives of programmes broadcast on international television. in addition to Western programmes. It therefore started adding Hindi subtitles to Hollywood films. breaking new grounds in domestically-produced entertainment. BBC. Hinglish.9 percent shareholder in Zee. . such as game and chat shows. broadcast on its 24-hour channel STAR Movies and dubbing popular US soaps into Hindi. though influential and wealthy. the transnationals have had to adapt their programming strategies to suit the Indian context. and scores of Indian companies. Launched in 1992 by small-scale Indian entrepreneur Subhash Chandra Goel. Zee’s innovative programming — such as the development of an Indianized version of MTV and use of ‘Hinglish’ (a mixture of Hindi and English) — has made it very popular with its growing audience. BBC World regularly broadcasts ‘India specific’ programmes. This facilitated the network’s expansion — according . including major transnational players. urban audience. Disney and CNBC. when only 1.Thussu. News Corporation became a 49. By using English words. serials. in the words of Don Atyeo. Impact on broadcasting The implications of globalization for the Indian media are strikingly evident in the example of Zee TV. felt that its mainly US-originated programming was only reaching a tiny. unknown in India before globalization. 1995). nearly 70 cable and satellite channels were operating in India. STAR Plus began telecasting locally made programmes in English and Hindi. The channel broke even within the first year of its launch. dubs its documentaries into Hindi. music countdowns and quiz contests. Buoyed by advertising revenues. notably STAR. Privatizing the airways 127 elites because of their entertainment-led and mainly Western programming. India’s first private Hindi-language and most successful satellite channel. MTV. whose roots are in the spoken languages of north India. cable and satellite television has increased substantially since 1992. Zee’s success is based on a mixture of Hindi film and film-based programming. the advertisers saw in these channels an easy way to reach the homes of India’s affluent. but Zee was the first network to elevate this new language by using it in a more serious genre such as news. Channel Manager of STAR TV. from ‘a less than shoestring operation . CNN. including news in Hindi. This process works at different levels — in employing metropolitan broadcast language codes and conventions and in adapting programme formats. 1997: 48). aimed at a younger audience. Discovery. which started beaming to India in 1995. has been steadily gaining acceptance among urban youth across the country. making it a prize target for media conglomerates and in 1993. However.2 million homes had cable and satellite television — by 1996 the figure had reached 14.2 million (Doordarshan. Zee TV set the standards for private television in India. STAR. More importantly. The Zee network has aimed to reach the mass market by pioneering movie-based television entertainment. In the past five years Hinglish has become the standard language in serials and game and chat shows. for example. Other global players have followed the market leader in Asia by localizing their products to reach a wider market and increase advertising revenues: the Discovery channel. . In 1996. which has evolved. The Zee network. By 1998.

a sentiment which conforms with a survey of Indian journalists recently undertaken by me. catering to the 24 million strong Indian diaspora. However. Doordarshan’s response to competition With increasing competition from private channels Doordarshan’s public service role is under pressure. Zee’s strategy now is to expand its operations in the lucrative markets in Western Europe and North America. which came into force in September 1997 and led to the creation of Prasar Bharati Corporation. for example. Gill is against surrendering cultural sovereignty to transnational players such as Murdoch. Pakistan. it seems. Europe. is keen to realize the ‘social obligations’ of Doordarshan and reduce entertainment programming. Bangladesh and United Arab Emirates. and was planning to launch a 24-hour sports channel). introduced in 1997. in order to remain competitive. wants what it calls ‘calibrated’ globalization. The Broadcast Bill. Zee Cinema. currently regulated by the archaic Telegraph Act of 1885. Surrindar Singh Gill.128 Media. Because of the reach of the terrestrial broadcasting network — it now covers nearly 450 million people in 87 percent of the country (Doordarshan. the network spans more than 40 countries and offers round the clock programming on four channels — Zee TV. 1998: 77). By 1998. Having already reached approximately 23 million homes in India. keen to promote a Hinduized version of cultural nationalism. to limit foreign equity holding in broadcasting to 20 percent of the total shareholding. Zee was claiming to be ‘the world’s largest Asian television network’. In Asia. Chief Executive of this new body and a former Secretary of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. For the present. it had 19 channels. Zee network had 29 percent of audience share in cable and satellite homes. which took office in early 1998. A selfconfessed leftist. Zee TV India and Music Asia. It proposes. The BJP is reflecting a widespread belief that the foreign broadcasters are only interested in maximizing their profits at the expense of the social role of television. and to create an independent Broadcasting Authority to regulate broadcasting services. although it insists that the ban is temporary and once the rules have been laid down under the Broadcast Bill. by banning Direct to Home (DTH) reception. has let the Prasar Bharati Bill lapse in Parliament. for example. . 1998: 3). The BJP. allowing foreign involvement only in certain sectors of the economy and with adequate regulation. A more fundamental issue is the ideological shift in television culture from public to private — from public service to profit-oriented programming. the percentage of public-service programmes has declined to accommodate entertainment of a hybrid variety. covering Asia. Doordarshan ‘has accepted the new rules of the game as defined in terms of revenue maximisation and has shifted its agenda to providing entertainment rather than enlightenment’ (Gupta. in 1997. which is being constantly undermined. DTH will be allowed through bidding. promising to give autonomy to Doordarshan and AIR. the USA and Africa. 1997: 2) — the government has been supportive of Doordarshan. seeks to bring order to the broadcasting industry. It has been suggested that the bill be replaced by the 1990 Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act. Although Doordarshan’s reach has been extended and new channels added (in 1998. it now has to provide entertainment as well as education. Culture & Society 21(1) to market analysts. whom he calls ‘an international buccaneer’ and has even commissioned and financed a critical documentary about the media mogul for Doordarshan (Bamzai. Gill’s fate and that of the Prasar Bharati hang in the balance as the coalition government led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). as.

This has serious implications. the government says. owned by the Times of India group.000 in 1997 (Doordarshan. state broadcasters need to be able to generate their own revenue. Despite being limited to the major cities. TV news is particularly influential because of its widespread reach — visuals . With this in view. AIR is planning to expand its FM coverage — it has already given nine hours of FM in metropolitan cities to private operators. In the words of Om Prakash Kejariwal. including foreign interests’ (Sawant. There appears to be a growing consensus that to be autonomous.Thussu. the television wing of the Business India group. Privatizing the airways 129 However. There has been a five-fold increase in the number of transmitters in the past decade — from 200 in 1987 to 1. We will increasingly look at programmes that will sell’ (quoted in Bansal and Doctor. an essential source of information to enable citizens to function effectively. as indeed globally (Tracey. The growing commodification of information can adversely affect the publicservice dimension of the media. with market forces coming to dominate the broadcasting agenda in India.6 million in 1995 to 10. There is an unmistakable trend towards the privatization of media space. Director General of AIR: ‘Real autonomy is not possible without financial independence. agriculture and rural development’ (Government of India.B. The egalitarian potential of the mass media remains hugely unexplored in India. Apparently. economic or other.1 million in March 1998. Sawant. home to the world’s largest number of poor people. while Sony Entertainment Television. TVi. Impact of privatization on news Commercialism is also increasingly making inroads into the traditionally serious and staid Indian press. 1995). with its emphasis on entertainment-oriented news agendas. imitating the US model of commercial television. 1998). 1997: 1–2). most of these news channels thrive on infotainment. the government is still committed to a socially relevant agenda for its electronic media. 1998: 110). since news is of fundamental importance in a democracy. most acutely seen in the Times of India. ensuring news exchange with CNN. such as Times FM. 1998: 60). AIR is also now saying that foreign companies could hold up to 25 percent equity in FM radio (Bansal and Doctor. must concentrate on ‘priority areas of national concern’ like ‘eradication of illiteracy. admitted: ‘The true role of the press is relegated to the background and the press has become the handmaid of the proprietors. The need for development-oriented television is so vast that private Indian channels may chart out areas of co-operation with transnational media companies to provide such programming. which started a dedicated news and current affairs channel. a form of ‘public knowledge’ (Schudson. 1997: 4) and national broadcasters. STAR has also started a round-the-clock news and current affairs channel — STAR News. is symptomatic of how commercialism is affecting Indian newspapers (Mahalingam. healthcare. this shift of emphasis in Doordarshan must be viewed within the overall context of growing commercialization of the media in India. 1998). Justice P. Chairman of the Press Council of India. is also planning to enter the news and current affairs arena. 60 percent owned by Sony. The managerial approach to running editorial operations. advertisers and the lobbying interests — whether political. Zee considerably expanded its news and current affairs operations by launching a 24-hour news channel. In January 1998. However. 1998: 111). the FM listenership has grown from 4. has become an affiliate of CNN World Report. which is copying US-style sensational journalism. environmental protection.

and such transnational players as Visa. A study of its news that I conducted showed infotainment as an integral element in its bulletins (Thussu. at a state level. The emphasis on speed and immediacy. As well as advertising the products of TNCs and helping to create demand among the burgeoning middle classes in India who have aspirations to a ‘Western’ lifestyle. viewers may stay tuned to just get the headlines — CNN already offers a syndicated news programme called Headline News. Rather than toeing the government’s line. they seem to present the process of privatization and deregulation with an almost missionary zeal. As a corporation. Kumars. This was followed by sponsorship of the news bulletin itself. is undermining their public-service ethos. one free from government and corporate pressures. the commercialism is most evident in the way the news programmes are sponsored by Indian companies and by TNCs. 1992). it can be argued. is it possible that the electronic media are being used as a vehicle for promoting free-market capitalism that enables their corporate clients to operate? In Indian electronic media there is a trend emerging towards corporatization of public information. trendsetting and financially rugged with care and concern for all stake holders. we intend to become an integral part of the global market. In the case of Zee. creative. routinely using such favourable and value-laden phrases as ‘reform’. (http:/ /zeetelevision. Star News is sponsored by BPL. as its ‘mission statement’ proclaims: . The increasing emphasis on infotainment may contribute to the trivialization of vital public concerns and undermine the concept of a public sphere in which the media help to create a forum for public discourse and the articulation of public opinion (Habermas. they appear to follow an agenda set by the advertisers. News channels are increasingly being influenced by marketdriven journalism. that Zee news reflects such a market-friendly agenda. 1989).com) It is scarcely surprising. Will this mean that Star News might compromise its professionalism to accommodate good news about its sponsors? Would these ‘independent’ news channels feature stories which might expose corporate fraud by their sponsors? There is still a need for a different news agenda. Given the commercial pressures faced by competitive networks. crucial for the growth of news media and the evolution of a public sphere. productive. In addition. Yet the growing commercialization of national media. . As news presentation and content are increasingly driven by the ratings wars and advertisers’ demand for consumers. Castrol and Seagram. coupled with the cost of news gathering and distribution ensures that only media TNCs can provide instant coverage. the TNCs — remains central to its philosophy. the CBS evening news anchor. then. It started with sponsorship for current affairs programmes and then extended to sponsoring the national weather forecast. .130 Media. for example. 1998). nearly half the population still cannot read or write (approximately 500 million people). For example. visuals can be an extremely powerful form of persuasion. More ominously. where even after 50 years of independence. Culture & Society 21(1) transcend barriers of language — and its credibility: viewers tend to trust it. to establish the company as the creator of entertainment and infotainment products and services to feast the viewers and the advertisers. pleasing the advertisers — in most cases. and given that television can be a powerful instrument for propagating dominant ideology (White. the emphasis is increasingly on entertainment at the expense of public information. in the context of India. . Through these services. calls ‘soundbite journalism’. In the age of what Walter Cronkite. we will be profitable. with associate sponsors S.

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