Tube diktats

JV Vilanilam | Updated: Sep 7 2008, 05:40am hrs

Not only TV sets, but many of the modern gadgets and luxury items considered common necessities in rich developed countries from the early part of the last century were not available in India either during the British period of its history or the early years of Independence. Even good roads or buses were not available in India except in metropolitan cities.

Things have changed from 1990 onwards, with the advent of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. Whereas the country had only 58 licensed TV sets in 1964, the year of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehrus death, India is the third largest TV market in the world today. And of an estimated total of 112 million (11.2 crores) of TV households among a total population of over 1000 million (100 crores), 60% have satellite connection, according to NRS Key Findings. The number of brands advertised on news channels quadrupled from 913 to 4,779 during 2000-2005. In short, Indian TV presents a magic picture of expansion, luxury and affluence.

Nalin Mehta has made an authoritative, well-documented and scholarly study of this great TV expansion as part of his PhD dissertation at the La Trobe University in Australia under the guidance of a famous authority on the Indian media scene, professor Robin Jeffrey. He has communicated his findings effectively in about 300 pages of text and nearly 100 pages of documentation. The book traces the history of outstanding TV channels in India Zee, NDTV, Aaj Tak, STAR and Asianet with little known facts about the financial and technical aspects of their growth, based on interviews with key figures and personal knowledge gained by the authors work in some of these media organisations.

The saga of the mega growth of TV in India and the growth of New Delhi and Mumbai into big media centres comparable to Hong Kong and Singapore is also told in a delightful manner without losing sight of the mediums sociological, political, economic and cultural impacts on the life of Indians, urban as well as rural. Between 1992 and 2006, over 50 24-hour news networks have operated in 11 of the 15 major Indian languages and the number of channels and languages is likely to increase in the coming years.

There is, of course, much more to be achieved. Hindi, spoken and undersood by 40% of the population is a big unifying force but every one of the 15 major languages happens not to be a minor force. And English exerts its influence over administrators and decision makers including powerful politicians. The author stresses repeatedly that satellite and cable TV has risen as the number one influence on the Indian polity.

The formats of programming on the satellite channels in India and their influence: on the upper and middle classes, the advantages of the talk show format; political satires; reality shows; the ascent of TV politicians; citizen journalism; the argumentative quality of the Indian psyche; the increasing role of SMS; digitisation and all the major technical sophistication of TV and the manipulation of the medium by astute politicians such as Narendra Modi are brought out clearly. How TV became a lightning conductor for existing social conditions in Gujarat and influenced the results of the Gujarat elections despite the shameful communal riots of the 2002 riots is also discussed.

In 308 pages, the book has highlighted the important role of satellite TV news with striking examples from historical and contemporary, national and international, events. The book does not ignore the reality that nearly 50% of Indian media users do not yet have access to satellite and cable, and more importantly, half of the Indian population does not have a TV set. These naked truths are brought to the readers attention in an eight-page long Epilogue. The role of advertising in TV expansion is discussed, but the author could have dealt with the types of products advertised more often and how they are influencing the TV viewers, particularly women and childrens habits of consumption.

The author is to be congratulated for discussing his ideas on the basis of authentic history and verifiable contemporary documentation. I wish more such books on the media are published, giving details of certain oft-repeated sociological events of overall importance the Khairlanji and Haryana dalit-bashing and the tragic sari distribution melas organised by self-promoting politicians such as the ones in Lucknow or Chennai a few years ago. Events similar to these are too frequent to be treated as isolated incidents and they are picked up more by the print media than the electronic ones. They should not escape 24x7 media and scholarly attention. However, the author deserves approbation for the much needed contemporary account of the Great Indian TV Circus that has exceeded all expectations in a decades time.

One of the best books since the publication of Michael Richards and David Frenchs Televivion; Eastern Perspective, 1993, the first book in the era of globalisation dealing with the cultural aspects of TV in the major regions of the East.

The reviewer is a former Vice-Chancellor, University of Kerala