South Asia is hooked on satellite television and what it gets is an eyeful. But there’s nobody looking out for the public interest as commercial channels swamp the airwaves.
Zaibunissa Sheikh is a mother of three in Bombay´s Colaba slum. Her husband´s alcohol habit eats into the family income, but with a cleaning job, the children´s contributions and by hawking prawns in the market, she makes 650 rupees a month. All costs, for food, clothing, keeping the children at school–everything–are taken care of with this money. Her narrow one-room house has no running water, and the family visits a community toilet nearby. Life is a grind, but there, in one comer of her room, a television blinks to life and is quickly tuned to MTV.
Zaibunissa´s household is addicted to satellite television. The connection charge is INR 110 a month. Mother and children, and the father when he is home and sober, watch BBC World´s Food and Drink (with the latest on this season´s Bordeaux wines), The Clothes Show´s couture fashion tips, re-runs of American soaps like The Bold and The Beautiful, and several channels of 24-hour, wall-to-wall Bollywood movies and film song compilations.
Up in Jomosom, in the arid rain-shadow region north of the Himalayan range in Nepal, the flat-topped mudroof houses are all decked with a year´s supply of firewood–a symbol of wealth in this semi-Tibetan society. Incongruously, satellite dish antennas peer over the rooftop woodpiles. With a micro-hydropower plant nearby providing the electricity, the locals take their pick of the same programming that is available from Dubai to Hong Kong.
On Wandoor Bay, in the remote island of South Andaman, the Indian government is so concerned about protecting islanders from outside influence that foreigners are not allowed to stay overnight–but the community recently put up its first satellite dish, and the fare draws people from across the bay. For the Chotu family, Bengali settlers in this Indian outpost, life has changed: the children, aged six to 16, are captivated by anything and everything that is beamed down as entertainment. From penal colony to couch potato, total isolation to the satellite age, each day the children soak up about four hours of cartoons, Hindi song-and-dance and sports.
Children across South Asia boogie to Western and ´Indipop´ music. Lahore kids dress like London dudes, and Colombo´s teenagers affect California accents and mannerisms. Globalisation has arrived courtesy of the geostationary orbit, and with it a new youth culture. The era of instant communications, predicted by Marshal Mc Luhan´s ‘global village’, now delivers glimpses of the other´s life, but interpreted through commercial –and overwhelmingly consumerist–broadcasting.
The Subcontinent is engaged in a pellmell dash into the satellite age. Under the umbrella coverage of the satellite, diverse regions and populations are being hit by monochromatic programming that, for the moment at least, is equally divided between Western pop culture and Hindi mainstream programming.
We are today living drastic change, and the impact will be visible within the decade, when sociologists and historians study how satellite television changed the face of South Asia. One thing they will marvel at is the incredible human capacity to adapt: villagers in remote hamlets who have not taken a ride in a car or seen a film, are suddenly confronted with gyrating figures in the box that is lit from inside. And this they seem to accept and enjoy: be it the villager from Arunachal Pradesh, the Deccan tribal or the woman behind the purdah in Baluchistan.
The immediacy of television has the ability to inflame passions (witness the role of Ramanand Sagar´s Ramayana series in the rise of Hindutva). But on the positive side it is, albeit cathartically, introducing South Asian societies to the modern world. Even so, South Asia´s television ´consumers´ have little or no say over programming. This is indication enough that there is more bad than good in the system today. The voice of the social philosopher is drowned by the VJ´s ramblings.
There is alarmist discussion in South Asia of what satellite television is doing to indigenous societies. But these concerns get scant attention from the multinational channels, and there is even less hope from government channels, which for decades have restricted themselves to packaging government news and dull development themes. Confronted with the satellite era, government corporations like ptv, Doordarshan or Rupavahini have tried to catch up to the international channels, going for more chat shows, song-and-dance programmes and serials.
With multinationals ruling the skies, satellite television has gone pan-South Asian with its footprint. Meanwhile, the print media, the world of publishing, and the government departments of information and broadcasting are firmly within nationalist boundaries and strait-jackets. Similarly, the fact that consumers are divided across so many linguistic, geographic and national boundaries means that a united challenge to satellite multinationals has not yet been contemplated.
In the late 1940s, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke prophesied that one day televisual images would be carried instantly across the globe by ‘up-linking’ from an earth station to a communications satellite which could then transmit the message to a satellite dish pointed at its signal anywhere within its vast footprint.
In the last five years, and particularly after the fireworks of the Gulf War of 1992 were carried live by CNN, South Asia has been squashed by the satellite heel. Today, Clarke himself is a South Asian citizen living in Sri Lanka. And he has contempt for television. Writing in the journal Index on Censorship, he concludes that there could be no superior civilisation in the immediate vicinity of the Solar System because if there were, then, after having watched television, the inter-galactic cops would have been here in no time, ‘sirens screaming right across the radio spectrum’.
What makes satellite television so problematic is that firstly, it is a free-for-all commercial enterprise, and secondly, there is as yet no means to demand some accountability and social responsibility from the multinational proprietors. For George Fernandes, nemesis of multinationals and recently re-elected MP from Bihar, satellite tv looks like it is part of a global conspiracy. ‘It is the latest act of Western aggression against the Third World,’ he says. However, while he was once able to ban Coca Cola from India, there is no wriggling out of the satellite footprint.
Satellite tv stands at the interface of a futuristic communications industry which US Vice President Al Gore says has great economic and social prospects. By creating a ‘network of networks, transmitted messages and images at the speed of light across every continent’, he says, the world of future media can deliver ‘sustainable development for the human family’ which will bring ‘strong democracies, better environmental management, improved health care’ to the planet.
That might be so, but for the moment, satellite communications in South Asia is nothing but a one-way street. In contrast to Mr Gore´s Utopian vision, listen to Noam Chomsky during his recent whistle-stop tour of India. The global media, Chomsky told a Bombay audience in early February, is the extension of transnational corporate tyranny. He added: ‘These are tyrannical, totalitarian institutions, mega-corporations. They are huge command economies, run from the top, relatively unaccountable, and interlinked in various ways. Their first interest is profit, but much broader than that, it is to construct an audience of a particular type. One that is addicted to a certain lifestyle with artificial wants. An audience atomised, separated from one another, fragmented enough so that they don´t enter the political arena and disturb the powerful. It´s like opening up India to international narco-traffickers.’ Satellite tv has come to symbolise many fights. Demonised or deified as a badge of what´s wrong or right economic liberalism, the debate continues to produce much heat, but certainly no enlightened media policy. Do the guardians of ´Indian values´ need to feel so alarmed by youngsters in jeans jiving to Channel V? Or are we distracted by a costume change of minimal significance, and thus missing the bigger picture?
Marshall McLuhan warned in his 1964 treatise The Medium Is the Message: ‘Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ´content´ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind…The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance.’
At the structural level, we are being robbed of the social role of television to educate and inform with interesting and entertaining programmes. Thus, we tumble towards a new information order where ruthlessly commercial imperatives are television´s substantial rationale. The dominance of Bollywood programming marks a remarkably easy capitulation to values which have little to do with cultural imperialism from the West and everything to do with how broadcast media and government policy in India are being handed over to ‘free market forces’.
Will the cultural individuality that is South Asia´s gift to the world be swamped by global junk-tv, or will there come a time when populations will truly be able to benefit from a new ‘democracy of information’? Notwithstanding the oft-repeated diatribes against ‘cultural imperialism’ of satellite tv, it cannot be banned or wished away. In anarchic South Asia, only Bhutan has banned dish antennas, and that too is but a holding operation, for satellite receivers will soon be so small that the state will not be able to police them.
At first, when there were only STAR TV, CNN and BBC, there was a lot of talk in the Indian media of cultural invasion from the skies. Since Hindi programming also began to ride the satellite bands, the debate has subsided. While there is criticism of this Hindi hegemony of the satellite transponder in other regions and countries, it has been difficult for critics to make their mark because Hindi programming responds to the market that smaller language groups do not seem to command.
Hindi programming is dominated by Zee TV, EL TV, Sony ATN and a suddenly consumer-sawy Doordarshan which is quite unrecognisable from the slothful creature of the pre-STAR era. But it is India´s South which has seen the real explosion of channels. Today, there are tv channels in each of the four major language groups: Sun TV, Raj TV and J.Jay TV in Tamil, Gemini TV and Eenadu TV in Telegu, Asianet in Malayalam, and a Kannada channel. It is at first glance a bit incongruous that India´s northern Hindi heartland has so few satellite channels, whereas the South has a plethora. But, this seems understandable when one takes into account the fact that Hindi is the link language of the North. Any Hindi channel is likely to reach a much larger audience than would local language programmes. This makes it an easy medium for the programmer as well as the advertiser.
In the highland states of the Indian Northeast, ´cultural imperialism´ refers not to American soaps, but to the Hindi-language, Delhi-centric programmes that the people of Mizoram, Nagaland or Meghalaya are forced to watch in the name of indigenous television. At a recent media workshop in Calcutta, participants from the Northeast said they actually welcomed STAR TV as a relief from Doordarshan.
The only way to save South Asia from Western and Hindi domination would be through more local programming. As STAR TV´s chief executive Gary Davey learnt at the Calcutta workshop, locally produced programmes in local languages are the key to capturing mass audiences in the future. After all, despite the criticism of satellite programming, it has hardly stayed static in the last few years. The first wave of Indian satellite channels brought Hindi hits like Filmi Chakkar and soaps like Tarn. Stage two has seen new Indian channels cultivate their different markets more precisely, and stage three could well throw up more local language programming.
It all depends, however, on whether a market can sustain a local language channel. The fact that Zee TV stopped its Bengali programming a few months ago indicates that there is as yet little advertising in localised markets to act as an incentive.
Technology and Market
In the past, broadcast frequencies were a scarce resource and television signals were distributed by earth-bound transmitters and kept within national boundaries. Satellite technology changed all that. With its northern and southern ´footprints´ STAR TV spans 53 countries of Asia.
Dozens of communications satellites in geostationary orbit now rule the Asian skies. Who owns a satellite or who is able to rent transponders depends entirely upon the size and clout of a country and government, or the size of the market back on earth. Satellites carrying tv channels to South Asia include PanAmSat 4, Insat-2C, Palapa Cl, Gorizont, Intelsat 704, AsiaSat-1 and AsiaSat-2.
The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that satellite rentals came at bargain prices, which is one factor that contributed to the satellite tv explosion in the Subcontinent. New satellites are going up all the time and new channels are being created to beam programmes to an expanding market on the ground. Digital compression technology (a method of squeezing a signal so that many more can be carried simultaneously) means that hundreds of channels could technically become available if we want them.
But the people who determine which channels succeed will increasingly be those who control the distribution network, like cable operators who receive dozens of channels but deliver a more manageable package to the home. No one wants a dozen dishes pointing at as many satellites in order to get their chosen programme mix, so the cable-wallahs will lean towards the best package on two or three ‘hot bird’ satellites. Most channels, especially newcomers, want to join the same satellite as the market leaders.
Due primarily to the technology advance, South Asian television has moved rapidly from public monopolies like Doordarshan to a handful of private corporations joined now by the indigenous channels. Currently, all of the satellite channels in India except Zee TV lose money. For the big players like STAR, cnn-I, tnt and MTV that´s fine: they have deep pockets and they can afford to crosssubsidise their Asian operations and ride out the lean period whilst they get firmly established. To meet local language needs, their strategy has been to buy tv rights to peak events or commission local programming. Or, they buy you out. STAR TV observed Zee´s success in capturing almost a quarter of advertising spent on satellite tv–so they bought a 50-percent stake in Zee.
Advertising revenue for television in India is rising, and is predicted to reach INR 1,100 crore (USD 35 million) in the current year. However, for the moment, the attention of all the competing channels is focussed on prestige, audience size and profile. Hard cash will flow later, especially when they start to encrypt signals so that homes that want to continue to receive the signal will have to pay a fee to have it decoded.
STAR TV, owned by Rupert Murdoch´s multi-billion dollar News Corporation, aims at an integrated communications domination of Asia by establishing the most popular media package (channels of sports, music, movies, local language programming and, later, current affairs) to take decisive control of the market. Mr Murdoch´s vision of a grand private monopoly is already materialising. News Corp has patented an encryption and decoding system that looks like it will become the industry standard. It is a bit like owning the railway engines, the tracks, and even deciding the timetables. That is what Mr Murdoch has in mind for South Asia, and the world.
fter buying STAR TV, Mr Murdoch declared that satellite tv is ‘a direct threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere’. But in the same way that ‘free trade’ is part slogan/part euphemism for trading relationships broadly defined in the Western interest, so ‘freedom of information’ is in no sense an equal exchange. The new push from satellite means that South Asia takes what the West gives, but the reverse is hardly true.
No sooner had he trumpeted his threat to totalitarian regimes, than Mr Murdoch received complaints from Beijing authorities about news on BBC World (part of STARTV´s package) dealing with human rights abuses in China, in particular the trade in human organs for transplants. Mr Murdoch, worried that his business ambitions in China´s vast economy might be threatened, responded by throwing BBC World off the northern beam of the STAR satellite.
The Chinese government had found a coalition partner they could do business with and were much appeased by this monumental act of censorship. What became clear, however, was that the shiny new satellite operators might spout democracy, but they are beholden to market-Leninism. Like the concentration of media ownership in the hands of one state broadcaster, the totalitarian ownership of satellite tv in the hands of a few corporations has proved itself to be inimical to the ideal of freedom of information.
By concentrating on opening up the satellite channels for a multiplicity of independent voices, South Asia can try to provide regional and local news that is not filtered through a prism in Atlanta or London, and force the opening up of societies from the decades-long grip of the government ministries of information.
Up to a point, this is already happening, and news and analyses are already being beamed down by private channels, though not in the most wholesome of ways. In South India, politicians have found a way to cement the unholy alliance of commercial and political interests, as was seen clearly in the coverage of the recent elections. J.Jay TV in Tamil Nadu, owned by then Chief Minister Jayalalitha´s relations, provided blatantly partisan reporting throughout her catastrophic campaign. The station defended itself by pointing out that the rival Sun TV, owned by political rivals, was doing the same.
Notwithstanding the biases shown by J.Jay and Sun, analysts believe that television coverage of the Indian general election was a watershed in terms of news and current affairs programming for South Asia. For the first time, viewers were allowed uncensored, un-edited, realtime coverage, and the public was able to see news being created in front of the camera. ‘Now that the public has seen what real news on television is, it will be difficult for Doordarshan to try to stuff the genie back into the bottle,’ said one newscaster.
He and other television people believe that Indian private channels will really come into their own–both in terms of independent news and quality programming– once they are allowed to uplink their programmes to a satellite from India. Because of governmental suspicions and protection of Doordarshan, uplinking can be done now only very expensively through the government. Once the government gets over its hangups, the private channels will be able to go live rather than have to transport videotapes as far afield as Manila and Moscow for uplinking.
Sushma Swaraj, Minister for Information and Broadcasting for 13 days in the short-lived BJ P government, had indicated that the demand for uplinking made by private tv station operators was ‘justified’.
There is no choice but for enlightened governments in all South Asian countries to let go of government television stations. Rather than close down the state stations or privatise them, however, they must instead be transformed into autonomous bodies, market-oriented but with a commitment to quality programming. The only way to face the challenge of new technology is to develop a new response, otherwise state broadcasters are in danger of being sidelined.
A study of how Doordarshan is evolving and the direction that it should take, for example, would be useful as India´s neighbours decide what to do with their state-owned stations. Doordarshan is one of the largest television broadcasters in the world, and in India it has a ´baseline viewership´ of 80 million, through direct satellite broadcasts as well as local repeater stations in rural areas.
For decades, Doordarshan relied on programming made up of dull development reports aimed at rural viewers, government-dictated news and current affairs, and Chitrahaar, the original medley of Hindi film song-dance sequences. When the satellite invasion arrived, Doordarshan proved more than willing to jettison its public responsibilities. In its panic, it has gone downmarket to compete to win back satellite audiences.
Like the new satellite broadcasters, Doordarshan now wants only to commission ‘programme products’ that will deliver the audiences craved by advertisers as cheaply and as uncontroversially as possible. Game shows, quizzes, movies and sports. No difficult news and, certainly, no challenging documentaries or reportage. They are expensive, may ruffle feathers, lose bureaucrats their promotions.
Its response to the satellite invasion might seem inspired in terms of the market, but Doordarshan is on the wrong track. Its current embrace of the market is incongruous for, as a government-owned entity, it must bear responsibilities that a commercial channel need not.
Paradoxically, whether broadcasting will become just another commodity (like in the US) or whether its character will be shaped by public duties and social responsibilities will depend on whether state broadcasters can reposition themselves to take the lead. The reason to go back to the state broadcasters–suitably autonomised–for at least some of tomorrow´s satellite tv programming is because private industry will not go beyond the isolated token gesture. Left to their own devices, commercial satellite operators will not deliver what South Asians need most. We will end up with a version of American television: dozens of channels offering trashy game shows, escapist or violent soaps and sensationalised news, all tightly held within the narrow cultural range that advertisers deem acceptable.
The disappointing capitulation from the ideals of public service broadcasting that we are seeing today all over the Subcontinent must be arrested. The continuing tension between democratic values, state control and the pattern of private media ownership concentrated in the hands of a few overseas players need urgent resolution in a way that television is reclaimed for public service rather than solely for entertainment.
By broadcasting to diverse constituencies, satellite programming could help reconnect a spliced subcontinent in its giant catchment area. Providing news that is independent of governmental strictures because there is no one to ban their reception, satellite channels can help promote mutual understanding of the contentious issues that have kept South Asians–particularly Indians and Pakistanis–apart for four decades. Good, culture-specific programming–for children, for example–can go a long way towards promoting education and spreading knowledge regionwide.
Progressive groups must now work with enlightened policy-makers to look regionally at what modem media should deliver for all our communities. Humanising the global ambitions of satellite transnational and insisting on the public service responsibilities of state-run stations demands a coordinated regional response.
Since, unlike the cinema and the press, satellite tv broadcasts cover the entire Subcontinent, concerned South Asians from all over must come together and raise a voice for quality programming. As a bloc, a South Asian Broadcasting Union could agree on common production guidelines and negotiate, for example, a dedicated channel of good children´s and educational programmes in regional languages, cross-subsidised by the money-spinning movie and sports channels.
The satellite revolution is an opportunity for South Asian broadcasting to evolve an ethical broadcasting culture and a coherent media policy to deliver it. With this, television can at last come of age as a public service: a medium that contributes significantly to the region rather than one that only anaesthetises audiences into a vacuous attempt to escape it. That would be television worth watching.
~ P. Rughani is a documentary director and Associate Producer of the Channel 4 television series Satellite Wars.