The satellite revolution has consumed South Asia. Slickly packaged images and events have weaned audiences away from the staid fare of the region’s national broadcasters. The responses to the new phenomenon has been far from uniform, and the impact too has been uneven. The consequences of television’s immense reach and the grip it has on the psyche of South Asians are of a magnitude and variety that evade statistical measurement. Some dimensions of the new technology’s impact on the region has been researched in considerable depth by David Page and William Crawley, who have tapped social responses through discussion groups in five countries, while also drawing on a host of sources. The outcome of the research is the book, Satellites over South Asia: Broadcasting Culture and the Public Interest, a rare media project that is pan-South Asian in scope. The book published by Sage, is t be launched in New Delhi on 8 December, at a South Asian gathering which will discuss issues raised in the book. Our cover feature has been adapted from the book excerpts.
In the town of Biratnagar in the Nepal tarai—where the North Indian plains confront the foothills of the Himalaya—students debated the impact of satellite TV on their lives and disagreed strongly among themselves. “Personally,” said one boy, “I don’t like Star Movies and Channel V. The life shown on these channels is far removed from the reality of our own country. Because of these channels, Nepali girls too have started wearing short skirts.” A girl replied, “I think films are much more dangerous to society.” “Nepali boys are very quick at copying. That’s why we see boys wearing earrings, bandanas on their heads and teasing girls. This is all due to films.” “Our earrings and bandanas have nothing to do with TV,” retorted another boy, “though the provocative clothes girls wear may be something they have learnt from TV.” “I would not dare to kiss a girl on the road, just because they do so on TV,” mused another male student. “But there have been changes in the way I dress and in the way I look at things.”
Ten years earlier, Biratnagar had a choice only of Indian and Nepali state television channels, and the difference now is palpable. “Nepal TV programmes are not effective and neither are they good,” said one of the same students. “In fact, every month, NTV programmes disappear from Biratnagar for days. This does not happen with the satellite channels.” Another said: “Before City-cable came to Biratnagar, we had to watch the boring programmes of Nepal TV and I can say no one actually sat completely through any of them.” “If we had only Nepal TV,” said a third, “we would have come to know of the nuclear tests of India and Pakistan really late.”
Satellite television has made a huge difference to the choice of viewing available even in relatively small towns in economically underdeveloped parts of South Asia. It has opened windows to worlds which were inaccessible before except to the well to- do, and it has provoked a lively and often heated debate about the implications for nations, communities and cultures.
The global window CNN, created an awareness of television as a new medium in international broadcasting, but it took other agents to transform the broadcasting environment in South Asia. AsiaSat-1, launched in 1990, was the first broadcasting satellite to cover the Asia Pacific region. Owned and operated by the entrepreneur Li Ka-Shing, it was available to national and private broadcasters alike across a region stretching from Turkey to Japan. But it was Li Ka-Shing’s own Hong Kong-based broadcasting company Hutchison Whampoa that provided the broadcasting catalyst for the South Asian region in the form of Star TV (Satellite Television Asia Region).
Star TV combined entertainment, movies, sports and news in the English language for a television audience across East, South and South East Asia. It offered a programme mix of chat shows, quizzes, soap operas and serials. Though made originally largely for a Western audience, these began to capture the imagination of the urban English-speaking TV audience, particularly in South Asia. The phenomenal success of Star in winning an audience in India was a surprise to Star’s own managers. India had not been a central target, but within six months, it was their largest market.
An assessment of the real impact of Star TV in India has to take account of the limitations imposed by the English language, in which all its output was screened until 1996. For middle class homes that were the first to acquire satellite dishes or cable connections in India, language was only a minorbarrier. It is argued that although only 5 percent of the Indian population may speak or understand English, even viewers who do not understand the language are attracted to American programming for its visual entertainment value. Moreover, the political and social influence, and economic weight of English-speakers to some extent offsets their proportionally small numbers in India’s total population, even within the middle class. The growing strength of other Hindi language channels, the relative success of Star’s own Hindi output, and the impact of South Indian regional language channels suggest that English language programming for India has become relatively marginalised. But the importance of the English-speaking audience in India for the profile of Star TV’s English language programmes in Asia as a whole is indisputable.
Of the AsiaSat channels beamed from Hong Kong, the Hindi language entertainment channel, Zee TV, can claim more than Star TV to have reinvented the medium for a mass Indian market. In India, the popularity of Zee TV helped the cable TV networks to expand from a cottage industry to a national media presence. The key selling point for this new channel was the one that made it specific to India and, within India, to its 400 million or more Hindi speakers. It was not just the appeal of the national language. The popular culture of Bombaybased Hindi cinema provided a readymade point of access to a mass audience beyond the Hindi-speaking heartland. TV was repackaged unashamedly as a medium of popular entertainment in which films and film-based programmes became the staple fare. The key to Zee’s success has been ‘hindigenisation’—the adaptation of a general entertainment formula to the Hindi language, unlocking the North Indian market. Zee appeared to have discovered a magic formula for a new and lucrative media industry. But as competition intensified, the magic was not easy for Zee to sustain or for others to imitate. The advertising market was growing fast, but not fast enough to sustain the number of channels dependent on it. Many of Zee’s imitators struggled with their losses or fell by the wayside. Sony was an exception. Despite a shaky start, it established a growing share of the market at the expense of Zee as well as Doordarshan.
A special feature of India’s induction into the global television broadcasting market has been the richness of the regional programme variants within India itself. But the underlying story of commercial development is very similar, with the Tamil language entertainment channel Sun TV replicating the success of Zee TV in winning a mass audience. The group acquired controlling stakes in Gemini TV, a Telugu channel, and set up the Kannada-language Udaya TV. In March 1999, it also started a new Malayalam channel, Surya TV. Among its competitors, Vijay TV, which was revamped to cater to the youth market, was never in the same commercial league. The only other private channel with a substantial following was Raj TV, which grew out of a video business owned by three Sri Lankan Tamil brothers.
In Andhra Pradesh, the initiative for regional language TV serving the Telugu speaking population grew exceptionally out of an existing and successful media enterprise— Ramoji Rao’s Eenadu group, of which EenaduTV (launched in 1995) is a part. The other Telugu language channel competing in Andhra Pradesh is Gemini TV.
The Kannada language Udaya TV was started in the same year as part of the Sun group. UdayaTV has filled a gap in regional programmes in Kannada, but its reach is poor and it has not fared well in competition with Doordarshan’s Kannada channel. Highly literate Kerala gave birth to Asianet, a channel which relied less on films and film based programmes and paid more attention to news, current affairs and documentaries.
The South Asian countries outside India were not prime movers in the satellite revolution. They were on the receiving end of programming devised primarily either for an Indian or an international audience. It was a largely passive role as Indian cultural products secured unchallenged dominance in the market. This dominance was not acquired because India was more permissive in its regulatory framework than the other countries. The main reason was the size of the potential market, indicated by the number who spoke different Indian languages and the spending power of consumers within those language communities. But the key to tapping the market and to the influence of the satellite media was the means and cost of distribution.
Cabled Bangladesh, Nepal
TV satellite channels had arrived in Bangladesh in the early 1990s as wealthy homes, attracted by the entertainment on offer, installed dish antennae to receive them. The cable industry in Bangladesh started in 1992 with a few small networks working for a single company. This company— Translinks—began as a franchisee of the Star group. After actively marketing them for some time, the company’s owner, Humayun Akhtar, gave up his rights to most of the Star channels except for ESPN/Star Sports. Akhtar claimed that the programmes were “anti-national culturally and anti-Islamic”. However, he continued to maintain active business relations with the Star group and continued to sell decoders to cable operators for the sports channels.
The company developed as a small conglomerate, establishing a stake in every aspect of the satellite TV industry from programme franchises to manufacturing satellite dishes. It had the market monopoly of satellite reception equipment and claimed to have produced 30,000 dishes in the six„ years till 1998. Importing 90 percent of the basic equipment, the company manufactured the dishes required for establishing a cable operation and acquired the rights to the most important programmes. It had a dominant position until the late 1990s, when other players with international connections entered the market.
In Bangladesh, the viability of an audience for a Bengali channel reaching over the political boundaries to Bengali speakers in India and Bangladesh was openly debated. In 1997, plans by a Bangladeshi businessman to set up a Bengali channel uplinked from Singapore collapsed in the wake of a financial scandal over one of his other ventures. In 1998, ATN launched a channel under Bangladeshi management aimed at the all-Bengali market with some success despite the poor quality of the programming. In the same year, the Bangladesh government invited tenders and awarded an exclusive license to a private company—both for a second terrestrial channel and eventually a satellite channel.
In Nepal, both the national public broadcasting service—Nepal TV—and private television distribution services owe much to the enterprise of one man, Neer Shah, the first head of Nepal TV and later chairman of Shangri-La, a film production and microwave TV distribution company. In using microwave technology to create a TV home distribution service, Shangri-La was the pioneering South Asia; similar systems subsequently operated in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The technology is well-suited to providing a service when subscribers are thin on the ground. Unlike with cable, a connection can be made immediately, but the system requires an expensive decoder and this proves a major drawback in two ways. It limits customers to those who can afford to buy the decoder. It also exposes the service to pirated decoders.
As a result, despite the advantages of microwave technology and of being the first in the field, Shah’s company has lost ground to a more recent competitor. He is Jamim Shah, a young entrepreneur who set up a cable distribution system in Kathmandu with American equipment capable of being adapted to fibre optics and to digital TV. By mid-1998, he was providing access to 22 channels to a claimed 65,000 subscribers in Kathmandu, and had formed ambitious plans to cable the main urban centres in Nepal. Though his operation was set up before the Broadcasting Act was passed, he appears to have been given an extraordinary license allowing him to establish a cable system, to re-broadcast any international channel, to broadcast his own channel in Nepal and to uplink his own programmes.
Satellite Pakistan, terrestrial Lanka
Pakistan was quick to realise and exploit the possibilities offered by direct satellite broadcasting. It did not have its own technology, but in 1992 it hired a transponder for PTV on the AsiaSat-1 satellite. This gave Pakistan the opportunity to broadcast information, propaganda and entertainment to India, to other parts of South Asia and to the Gulf, where hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis were employed. But there was no government encouragement for private entrepreneurs interested in investing in satellite channels, and in Pakistan none of these plans came to anything. Not until 1998 did the Pakistan government respond to the popularity of the Hindi channels with the launch of PTV World with a brief to meet Pakistani entertainment and cultural needs among the South Asian diaspora.
Estimates of the number of people watching television in Pakistan have until recently been largely informed guesswork. Although Pakistan, unlike India, retains a system of licensing for television sets, the number of licenses is not even an approximate guide to the number of households with sets or the number of viewers who have access to them, so official statistics are of little help. The number of television licences is only 2.5 million, whereas on the basis of surveys up to 1999, the Pakistani affiliate of Gallup International estimates between eight and 10 million sets.
It is in Pakistan’s largest metropolitancity, Karachi, that satellite television is viewed most intensively. Karachi is also the only Pakistani city with developed cable systems which can compare with those in India. Cable has spread to most of the lower middle class and working class areas. The cabling of more prosperous suburbs has lagged behind poorer localities. By 2000, cable systems had begun to spread to Lahore and Islamabad, but not on a scale to rival the appeal of direct transmissions. Until that time, the only legal satellite TV distribution system in Pakistan was a pay- TV system run by Javid Pasha’s Shaheen Pay TV Company, which is an affiliate of the Shaheen Board, a charity run by retired air force personnel. The pay-TV system uses a microwave system similar to that installed in Kathmandu. It gives excellent quality, but the decoder costs almost as much as a satellite dish and fewer channels are available.
Sri Lanka has absorbed the impact of the satellite revolution in ways different to its neighbours. The rapid extension of media competition in Sri Lanka dates from 1992, when the Maharaja group launched an entertainment channel called Maharaja TV (MTV). This was followed in 1993 by TNL, whose proprietor, Shan Wickremesinghe, had been involved in the first TV transmissions more than a decade earlier
Sri Lanka’s first pay-TV channel, Channel Nine, set up in 1998 with Australian collaboration, is not, strictly speaking, a cable network. Its nine different services are based on the same MMDS microwave technology used in Pakistan and Nepal. A second channel inaugurated towards the end of 1998 is a business investment promoted by a public company based in Canada in partnership with a Sri Lankan government agency. Another venture—Cable TV Network (Pvt) Ltd—planned to present an information and entertainment package initially of 30 channels, including Star TV, ESPN and Star Sports, with provision to add other speciality or niche channels later.
Neither cable nor satellite dishes have played a big part in the distribution of local and international television programming. The cost of dishes and the nature of urban living may have been partly responsible for Sri Lanka’s failure to develop cable systems, but the government’s diversification policy has also played a part. By the time satellite services in Tamil and Hindi had acquired popularity in India, Sri Lanka already had four or five terrestrial stations competing against each other, picking and choosingfrom satellite menus and re-broadcasting some of the programmes to Sri Lankan audiences. This made the development of cable systems less of a commercial attraction than elsewhere in South Asia. Most Sri Lankans watch satellite television on the island’s terrestrial TV networks, particularly the commercial channels; they watch foreign programmes, not foreign channels.
Among the different communities in Sri Lanka, the Tamils have benefited more than most from access to satellite programming. According to the leading commercial dish manufacturer in Sri Lanka, “most people— over 75 percent of them—who have bought and continue to buy these dishes are Muslims”. Most of Sri Lanka’s wealthy Muslim trading community speak Tamil and have bought dishes to access Indian channels. Once the cost of dishes came down, the popularity of dishes also spread to the hill country, where Tamils working in the tea industry grouped together to buy them.
All these developments have had radical implications for all the countries of the region. The decade of the 1990s has seen a massive change, both conceptual and practical, in the application of satellite communications to broadcasting. Satellite communication has transformed the immediacy of news and changed the nature and style of broadcast journalism. The monopoly of national broadcasters has come to an end, without negotiation or discussion of the international implications.
As the diversity of channels increases, foreign and culturally unfamiliar programmes have come into people’s homes. The new channels have also created opportunities for promoting regional cultures and languages. Meanwhile, the new audiences created by the new media are an irresistible market for global advertisers and their multinational corporate clients. State broadcasters have had to square public service objectives with commercial priorities. Broadcasting has been thrust into the South Asian market place.
South Asian governments have found it difficult to distinguish between their role as regulators and their role as broadcasters. The reluctance of governments to give up control of the state broadcasting media has held up progress on these regulatoryquestions. On the one hand, there seems to have been an assumption in most countries that autonomy for the state-controlled media is an essential prerequisite for establishing a new regulatory framework; on the other, the unwillingness of governments to take that step, despite promises to do so in several countries, has stymied progress in regulating the industry as a whole.
India’s experience with the Prasar Bharati Bill is the best example of liberal intentions which were never quite translated into effect. India also illustrates the tenacity of the centralized state in confronting the new media market. Despite the fact that many satellite channels are operating services in competition with those on Doordarshan, the state has refused to license terrestrial competition with the state-controlled media.
Sri Lanka, unlike India, has diversified its terrestrial media. It now has a multiplicity of TV channels and radio stations, all independent of the government media, with their own transmission facilities. But Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government ignored recommendations by high-powered committees for the establishment of an autonomous corporation regulated by a new independent Broadcasting Authority. Faced with a hostile press and lack of cross-party support for its constitutional proposals to resolve the Tamil crisis, it came to see continued control of Rupavahini and the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation as central to getting its message across
Pakistan and Bangladesh have trailed behind India and Sri Lanka in implementing liberal media policies. Pakistan’s elected governments showed no sign of licensing terrestrial competition for PTV in the 1990s and in the months before the military takeover in 1999, media diversity was actually reduced in response to the challenge of Indian satellite channels. In Bangladesh, a new terrestrial television station was licensed but on terms which, at least initially, sought to maintain government control of the news agenda.
Do restrictions of this kind make sense in a world where some viewers now have access to 50 satellite channels and newspapers enjoy freedom to print comment and opinion? Many politicians, in India and particularly in neighbouring countries, think they do. The economics of satellite competition means that India is the main market focus; very few international channels are interested enough in India’s neighbours to be generating regular news about those countries. For managers of the electronic media in Pakistan or Bangladesh, therefore, retaining a state monopoly on news and current affairs ensures that there is no real competition where it counts most—in the detailed reporting of Politics in that particular country. In India, the logic is less compelling, with Star TV providing 24-hour coverage of elections and Zee’s Alpha channels providing regional news bulletins. However, even in India, satellite TV is still an essentially urban phenomenon, except in a few states. Given the enormous importance of the rural voter in all these countries, an incumbent government retains a distinct advantage if it controls the media with the widest reach
Satellites over Southern Skies
ASIASAT-1 was the first Asia-specific satellite available for television broadcasting in the region. The choice of satellites and the availability of transponders was increasing throughout the 1990s; and with digitisation costs were falling. At the end of the decade, the principal satellites servicing South Asia for the international networks were PanAmSat4 (PASO), which carried among others the merged ABNI/CNBC business news transmission from Singapore, Sony Entertainment Television, BBC World and CNN International. The two AsiaSat satellites, AsiaSat-1 and AsiaSat-2, carried Star TV out of Hong Kong, as well as CNBC/NBC (on AsiaSat-2), the Zee group of channels and Pakistan’s second government channel, PTV 2. Intelsat 703 and 704 carried the main commercial channels for South India. APSTAR 1, launched in 1994 leased transponders to a consortium including CNN International, the leading international sports channel ESPN Asia, TNT and Cartoon Network, as well as the Discovery Channel. The same satellite carried American channels adapted for the Asian market such as Disney (Asia Pacific), the US movie channel Home Box Office (HBO Asia), and the youth music channel, MTV Asia, with its offshoots customised for Chinese and Indian youth, MTV Mandarin and MTV India.
Indianising South Asia
Driven by the huge Indian market, television channels have been guilty of ignoring India’s neighbours, who now feel marginalised, except perhaps Sri Lanka.
In some respects, reactions to international satellite programmes among India’s neighbours are not very different from those in India itself. Insofar as English- educated metropolitan elites in Karachi or Lahore, Colombo or Dhaka share the aspirations of their counterparts in Bombay or Delhi, satellite programmes find the same sort of welcome in those cities. However, the popularity of Hindi language entertainment channels has given rise to apprehensions that the culture of Bollywood is swamping other national cultures and even destroying the ideological boundaries of the nation state.
Such ideological worries have been most intensely felt in Pakistan; less so in Bangladesh or Nepal, though the popularity of satellite channels has presented a challenge to state broadcasters in those countries as well. In all three countries, those speaking for national cultures see Hindi satellite channels as carriers of an ‘Indian’ culture which threatens to break down the sense of difference which the state and state broadcasters have been trying to reinforce. Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia where these issues have not featured so prominently.
There are also striking similarities between the reactions of some of India’s regional cultures to the dominance of Hindi satellite television and those of India’s neighbours. Issues of sovereignty add to the levels of apprehension experienced in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, but everywhere there are concerns that better financed and better India-produced programmes aimed at the mass market have reduced the space for other cultures. There is concern that Indian heroes will become better known than those of Nepal or Bangladesh. There are worries that efforts to develop national languages will be undermined by the greater familiarity with Hindi and English
The coming of satellite television has posed peculiar problems for the official custodians of Pakistani culture because it has breached the ideological boundaries of the state in a much more intensive way than ever before. This is particularly the case with the Hindi language satellite channels which have found a ready audience in Pakistan because of their easy intelligibility. As Zahid Malik, editor of the Pakistan Observer, put it: “Our culture is threatened by the invasion of two cultures—the Western and the Hindu culture—and the latter is more dangerous than the former because it is Pakistan-specific…” The availability of these new channels has intensified debate within the country about what constitutes Pakistani culture, while the popularity of channels like Zee TV has shown up the inadequacies of state-controlled television.
These fears among opinion-formers in neighbouring countries have been reinforced by the failure of satellite channels to take any serious notice of what is going on in the region. “Why should Star TV only broadcast Indian news if the satellite is supposed to be a regional one?”, was a common complaint in discussion groups held in Dhaka and Jamalpur. “Zee TV and other channels have excluded us,” was another complaint. “Bangladesh TV doesn’t show any problems and Indian TV only shows Indian problems,” was a third.
Satellite TV has created a sense of marginalisation among the thinking middle class in these countries. Many commentators criticised the whole satellite TV experience as unidirectional. “Many Bangladeshi kids speak Hindi well,” says Chinmoy Mutsuddi, “but no Delhi kid knows much about Bangladesh. This is neither desirable, nor sustainable, nor beneficial for the region.” The same view was also reflected in Kathmandu, where journalist KanakMani Dixit deplored the fact that “…there is almost no Nepali news or programmes related to Nepal on satellite TV”.
Several Bangladeshis noted that Star TV had recognised the existence of Pakistan with its Postcard from Pakistan weekly programme. But no such concession had been made to Bangladeshi sensibilities. In mid- 1998, world interest in India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests was adding to this sense of neglect. In Pakistan, however, the paucity of coverage of Pakistani affairs is seen not just as a matter of neglect but as evidence that the prime purpose of the channels is one of cultural assault. “The way Indians are projecting their religion, their national identity, is an eye-opener for us,” said a multinational executive at a Karachi discussion group. “What they have sold to Pakistan,” said Khalid Hassan, then head of Shalimar Television Network, “is a highly glamourised image of India, unnatural and untrue… These channels can become links, but at the moment they are used negatively.”
Reservations about the impartiality of the satellite media increased dramatically as a result of the coverage of two important events in 1999: the Kargil conflict in Kashmir in the summer and the hijacking of an Indian airlines plane to Kandahar in December. Opinion in the south of India was divided over media coverage of the Kargil hostilities. Some discussion groups praised TV’s role in awakening a sense of patriotism. Others criticised it for “pumping patriotic messages”. Professional mediawatchers agreed that the southern Indian channels had covered the conflict in much the same way as Doordarshan, often using footage provided by the state sector for their own programmes.
According to Father Joe Andrew: “Everything became a government version of it. Even Star—not just DD—became a pro-government mouthpiece… The pain and misery was never reflected in any of the channels, be they private or public… Kargil revealed that we don’t have a free media… All the channels were pro-war, pro-government, glorification of the war and demonization of Pakistan.” Another critic said: “TV told me that I should revive my narrow patriotism, which I don’t have at all. I feel as sorry for the Pakistani who is shot, as for the Indian.”
Pakistani viewers of satellite media saw little of this heart-searching on their screens. According to Kathmandu-based journalist Kunda Dixit, “the Indian media—especially Zee news and Star— behaved much like the American networks and CNN during the Gulf War, and the Indian military used and manipulated satellite television much as the American military did in Kuwait.”
On the Pakistan side, PTV behaved no less jingoistically, though it was less successful in carrying the public with it, which led some commentators to argue that a diversified media would serve the country better. As Mir Jamil ur Rahman put it: “People are no more a captive audience. They have the choice to turn over to a dozen channels at the push of a button to test the veracity of the PTV version… Even if it was to tell the truth, the credibility gap would not narrow down. Therefore it is imperative to allow private TV channels in this country.”
The hijacking of an Indian airlines plane by Kashmiri separatists from Kathmandu via Amritsar and Lahore to Kandahar in December 1999 provoked similar concerns, both in Pakistan and Nepal. According to a cover story in Newsline, a Pakistani political journal with a track record for independent reporting: “Zee TV, Star News and Doordarshan abandoned all pretensions of the ethics of independent journalism as they waged a virtual media war against Pakistan.” Wrote Samina Abraham, “Though one might expect some journalistic legerdemain from the state-run Doordarshan, to hear the so-called independent channel Zee TV indulge in the same hyperbole came as a surprise.” The article accused the satellite media of supporting India’s efforts to get Pakistan declared a terrorist state and of broadcasting stories to implicate Pakistan in the hijack, which were subsequently proven to be groundless.
In the case of the hijacking, Nepal also came under media fire because the drama began in Kathmandu and the Indian government and media accused the Nepali government of being too sympathetic to Pakistan. Kunda Dixit says: “Zee TV has probably done more to harm Nepal-India relations at the people level than anything else in recent times… Satellite broadcasting, instead of bringing people closer is polarising them, and the reason is that Zee and Star are regional broadcasters but operate as if they were solely broadcasting to India.”
Satellite channels like Zee and Star looked initially as if they aspired to coverSouth Asia as a whole, but they are now perceived by many Pakistanis as Indian channels with Indian slants to their coverage. According to Mahommed Malik of NTM, “In the early days of Zee, there was some pretence of striking a balance, but when they realised their biggest marketing was coming from India anyway, they openly took on Indian colours because it helped with their marketing.” Malik think that Star News has made the mistake of becoming an Indian channel. “There again, Pakistan has been left out… whereas they should have started with an impartial hue…People are not stupid… the slants are there.”
Some Bangladeshi commentators, seeing the extent to which international channels have been ‘Hindigenised’ to appeal to the Hindi market, are resentful that the so-called Hindi channels have made no efforts at regionalisation to accommodate viewers in Bangladesh. Parveen Rashid of the Social Marketing Corporation (SMC) says: “The need to have the local stamp, the local colourand the local creativity is very important’. But she finds less and less of it in advertising by the multinationals. She echoes other social marketing experts in expressing her concern that India-based channels are oblivious to the existence of other cultures and believes this will have a negative impact even if no resistance is noticed.”
Official reactions to these cultural intrusions have been largely defensive: hiring satellite transponders or aspiring to do so. Both Pakistan and Nepal use commercial arguments to support their thinking—the opportunity to tap the purchasing power of their nationals in other countries—but it is also a form of diplomacy by other means. In a world threatened by homogenisation, nation states feel the need to employ the same weapons as their attackers.
Beyond these defensive reactions, there is a more fundamental problem: how to build a more genuinely South Asian media which reflects the realities of the region. In its early years, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) tried to stimulate programme exchanges between the different countries in order to make viewers more regionally aware. But the initiative was largely confined to non-topical subjects and was not taken up with much enthusiasm by the national broadcasters. An Asian news-pool, which made national news footage available by satellite for wider regional use, was more successful. However, both were designed to strengthen regional coverage on national television. They did not address the issue of regional balance on the new commercial satellite services.
Kanak Mani Dixit had no illusions about the difficulties of building an effective regional satellite media, even before the hijacking episode. He does not believe satellite channels will change until people in neighbouring countries make them more aware of their South Asian footprint. He says: “It is not enough for people to lobby in Delhi; it must be South Asia wide.” Nepal’s leading TV professional, Neer Shah, believes that public-private financial partnerships might be a means to get smaller countries onto satellite and the same techniquecould perhaps serve a wider purpose. Much depends, however, on the regional satellite channels themselves. What is clear is that unless they address the sense of marginalisation, they are helping to foster and take their regional responsibilities more seriously, they will continue to be seen as Indian rather than South Asian broadcasters.
Though Sri Lankans exhibit some similar reactions to foreign programmes as those in evidence in Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh, anxiety levels are lower and there seem to be fewer worries about their social divisiveness. The rapid expansion of terrestrial broadcasting in Sri Lanka has brought other kinds of problems, but at least in relation to the satellite media, there are none of the complaints of marginalisation that are so widespread in Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh.
The framework of broadcasting already established in Sri Lanka ensured that there was less of a sense of ‘them and us’ in Sri Lanka’s new relationship with the global and regional media.
If the satellite revolution has been less of a shock to society in Sri Lanka, it is partly because Sri Lankans watch what Sri Lankan editors have decided—for cultural or economic reasons—might be profitable or interesting to show them. There is a greater sense of ownership of the process and even channels with high proportions of foreign programming present a strong national profile.
In the new, highly competitive, mass market, many Sinhala channels are supplementing their programmes outside prime time with Indian films and serials. This is partly on grounds of cost and partly because the themes of these Indian productions are more immediately accessible to local audiences. As a commentator on the Sri Lankan media scene put it: “Western cultural interests have now been replaced by eastern cultural interests and whether India’s cultural interests or Japan’s cultural interests are always good for us, I don’t know.
A South Asian lingua franca?
The new satellite culture has challenged the linguistic orthodoxies of South Asia’s nation states by producing its own lingua franca which mixes English and Hindi in ways which reflect the everyday speech of the English educated. This new language, pioneered by Zee TV, which has come to be known as Hinglish and sometimes Zinglish, has caught on with the urban young all over North India and has become a point of controversy with others.
Repercussions beyond India’s borders have been coloured by concerns for national sovereignty. Language and culture are seen as inextricably linked and the evident popularity of Hindi satellite television is thought by some to be undermining national cultures. In Pakistan, an old debate about the role and character of Urdu as the country’s national language has been revived by Zee TV and by the respectability it has given to mixing Urdu and English. Aslam Azhar, Pakistan’s first managing director of television, ridicules this as ‘Minglish’ and sees it as part of a deterioration in standards, promoted by the Hindi satellite channels and imitated by Pakistan’s commercial producers. Others are concerned that children are picking up Hindi words from television and using them in conversation at the expense of their Urdu vocabulary. To this extent, they see satellite TV as undermining the distinctiveness of Pakistan’s lingua franca.
Iftikhar Arif, the Chairman of the National Language Board, believes some of the changes in approach to language provoked by satellite competition have improved communication. There has been a tendency to use fewer loan words from Arabic and Persian and to simplify language in order to speak more directly to viewers. Urdu in its pristine form is not only under attack from across the border; it is also changing its character and intonation within Pakistan as it is increasingly owned and spoken by Pakistan’s other language groups.
However, there are concerns that the new style is an urban phenomenon which reflects the dominance of the middle class English elite in the new media and a lack of seriousness in communicating with the rest of society, which does not know English well. Some see the new trend as a result of sloppiness—the projection of the linguistic inadequacies of convent-educated trend setters onto the population as a whole. It is a criticism made not just about Zee TV but of many of the new FM radio channels in the big cities. In Sri Lanka, according to television producer Maleec Calyaratne de Silva, “people with British, American or any other foreign accent gained preference over those with Sri Lankan accents. Entertainment and idle talk became hip over the radio while responsibility was grossly neglected. Foreign investors who were behind these institutions seemed keen to introduce foreign cultures and commercialism through their radio programmes.”
A survey of the impact of satellite television in two districts in India—Latur in Maharashtra and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh—provides ample evidence that satellite television serials are stimulating a growing interest in personal appearance and beautification. Though many of those interviewed denied they were imitating the styles of the stars, the proprietor of Amrita Beauty Parlour in Latur said her clients specifically demanded hair styles from Surabhi, Shanti and Tara as well as those of Sonia Gandhi and Princess Diana. Even in Udgeer, a smaller town in Latur district, clients of Jose Beauty Parlour, requested hairdos in the style of Renuka Shahane of the show Surabhi and the so-called ‘Tara cut’. In Udgeer, five beauty parlours are doing comfortable business. In Latur, there are more than 200 beauty parlours with state-of-the-art equipment.
Evidence from dress shops in both Latur and Varanasi suggests that there is a roaring business in dresses popularised in films, with the Mumbai wholesalers dispatching them in volume once the film has become popular. Equally marked in Varanasi is the trend among the young towards T-shirts and jeans. The proprietor of Rohit Collections, a general dress shop, said that “Benares is changing very fast… The demand is sometimes based on costumes worn by actors and actresses; sometimes it is triggered by advertisements… In the last two or three years… the turnover of my shop has increased many fold…thanks to TV ads and serials.” Staff at Grihasti, a cosmetics shop in Varanasi, reported that sales of cosmetics have increased dramatically since the early 1990s, with lipstick becoming much more fashionable.
The same programmes are also having an impact among the middle class in Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to informants in Islamabad, local designers not only watch Zee’s fashion programme Khoobsurat; they also record it for future reference. They say many local designs and colour combinations owe their inspiration to this programme. Indian channels may also be aiding a comeback for the sari, which went into an officially-enforced decline during the days of General Zia-ul-Haq. Pakistani fashion magazines have been featuring saris again and the wearing of saris and bindis has become more common on festivals and social occasions, whereas in India the opposite has happened. Satellite TV has helped to popularise the salwar kameez at the expense of the sari.
Even in smaller towns in Nepal, these influences are acknowledged. Professionals in Birgunj said: “TV programmes are really affecting the way our women perceive themselves. We can see it in the number of beauty parlours that have come up after we began getting satellite channels here. These are things that have to be considered carefully. Women’s fashion can lead to a strain in relationships for the simple reason that we can’t afford the kind of fashion shown on TV.”
In their encounter with the region, international news broadcasters were soon enough forced to reorient themselves to the needs of a South Asian, nay Indian audience.
When satellite television first came to South Asia, few concessions were made by the international channels to the varied cultural traditions of the countries within AsiaSat’s massive footprint. CNN was the first in the field as an international news channel. The BBC’s 24- hour news and information channel on the Star network gave an alternative perspective and made a start in incorporating programmes designed for the Asian region
It was some years before CNN began to focus on Asia as a market and as a theatre for news reporting. Its Asian production centre in Hong Kong was opened in 1995—ten years after the channel’s launch. By 1998, seven of its 36 news bureaus world-wide were in the Asia Pacific region—two in South East Asia (Bangkok and Jakarta) and one in South Asia (New Delhi). Despite its reputation as a global news channel, CNN was slower than other international stations in Asia in extricating itself from the North America-centred agenda of its news programmes. Four programmes on the CNN schedule were specifically tailored for Asian audiences—all of them launched after the opening of the Hong Kong production centre in 1995. None of these were specifically targeted to South Asia or to the Indian audience.
In the field of regional programming for South Asia, other broadcasters were taking the lead. The rapid growth of the East and Southeast Asian ‘tiger’ economies before the collapse of 1997 put Asian regional televisionin the forefront of media and marketingexpansion. Asian regional TV was seen as the fastest growing market place. In an area of high investment, television could be the most effective means of reaching key decision- makers. Deregulation was set to provide new opportunities for broadcasters in a previously government- dominated information environment. International cross border broadcasting would encourage trade between Asian countries and provide a flexible reaction to the accelerating process of change.
A new genre of business television programming, as developed by the Singapore-based Asian Business News International (ABNI), was a form of niche broadcasting or ‘narrow casting’ which took advantage of the global reach of satellite channels and their ability to address themselves to specific audiences within the Asian region. Within that niche there was a dual target: viewers and opinion-formers as well as potential investors. Programming specific to the region was identified as the best means to reach them both.
In the boom of the early 1990s, ABNI conceived and implemented ambitious and expensive regional news gathering aims with the help of local partners. These were scaled down in 1996-97 and the channel was merged with CNBC in February 1998. ABN1 developed a policy of commissioning business programmes from independent production companies such as India’s TV18. It carried items from ‘Pakistan Business Update’, a product of the largest independent film and TV production company in Pakistan—the Karachi-based EverReady Company. This gave the channel a distinctive South Asian flavour and was an important influence in developing international links among India’s new and expanding independent software production houses. TV18, founded by Raghav Bahl, was also the first independent Indian programme supplier to the BBC World Service.
The nature of globalisation in the 1990s underlined the importance of strategic alliances between broadcasters, or between broadcaster and distributor, and the shortlived nature of some of those agreements. CNN has been through several stages of experimentation in the South Asian region: it has operated independently and in collaboration with private and public broadcasters in the region. It opened its New Delhi bureau in 1992 with small-scale collaboration agreements. One of them, in January 1993, was an agreement with the private company New Delhi Television (NDTV) for selected news coverage to be shown on Doordarshan’s national network. From this small beginning, NDTV, headed by Prannoy Roy, has now become one of the most prominent and successful private TV news organization.
Turner International, the CNN parent company, negotiated successfully in 1995, in competition with the BBC for a partnership with Doordarshan, making CNN the first private broadcaster to be allowed on an Indian satellite—INSAT 2B. The agreement was revoked within two years, leaving CNN where it was before. In 1995, CNN initiated a 24-hour broadcast with the private company Dynavision in Sri Lanka. It also had a terrestrial re-broadcast agreement with Shalimar Television Network– a majority owned government subsidiary of the national TV broadcaster in Pakistan—and a re-broadcasting agreement with Bangladesh TV, which was suspended in 1998. Unlike other international broadcasters, CNN has been wary of subcontracting programmes to private production companies.
The BBC’s international television service has been heavily constrained financially by the terms of the BBC’s charter and its financial obligations as the British domestic public service broadcaster. Launched in Asia under a contract to Star, the BBC lost both the contract and its place on the AsiaSat carrier satellite when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp bought a controlling share of the network in 1993 and the BBC ceased to fit with the strategy for Asia of Star’s new owners. It was a demonstration of the regional and local exigencies of the new globalism that although in Europe the BBC and Murdoch had been able to reach a collaboration agreement, in Asia their plans did not match.
Like CNN, the BBC negotiated its own agreement for terrestrial links with national and private broadcasters. It lost to CNN on the elusive and short-lived prize of a rebroadcasting agreement with Doordarshan. Other South Asian countries such as Bangladesh were happy to balance their cooperation with CNN and the BBC, to some extent playing one off against the other and keeping windows open to both.
The loss of its place on the AsiaSat satellite was an inconvenience for the BBC, but by the time it took effect in March 1996 satellite transponder capacity was no longer at a premium. An important factor for an international broadcaster to India and South Asia was that cable operators should have comparable access to the satellite signal. The American PanAmSat satellite PAS-4 provided this. It put the BBC in good company, sharing a satellite with other international broadcasters interested in the South Asian audience, including CNN and the soon-tobe- merged ABNI/CNBC. But going it alone and securing advertisements on its own was not an easy option for the BBC. It could provide news services to other broadcasters but it was never in the driving seat itself. There were also problems of accountability. Though the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, created in 1996, was separated from the publicly financed domestic television services and World Service radio, the news operations were closely integrated.
The BBC’s partnership with the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Group in providing a news and information channel for the Star TV Network was a radical departure for the British public service broadcaster. At the time, for both Star and the BBC, the alliance was one of mutual advantage. The BBC gained the opportunity to launch a rival 24-hour TV news network to CNN without government funding. For Star, the BBC gave a serious news profile to the network in bringing an established broadcaster with a high international reputation to what was primarily an entertainment network.
But once Rupert Murdoch gained control, the Star-BBC alliance was short-lived. The BBC was dropped first from the northern beam of the AsiaSat satellite (which delivered the Star signal to China and East Asia) and later from the southern beam serving India and South Asia. In the first case, Chinese government objections to BBC news coverage threatened the distribution of the Star network in China, where cable distribution— and the government control that allowed it—was actively promoted by the Chinese government. In the second case, the BBC was not so much a commercial or political embarrassment (though it always had that potential as the coverage of the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by Hindu activists in December 1992 had shown), but was superfluous to Star’s own development strategy, which was to emphasise regional rather than international news.
The BBC had long realised in radio broadcasting that the attraction of an international broadcaster lay in its ability to provide not only global news but regionally focused programming. It was a lesson which Star took to heart in launching its 24-hour news channel aimed primarily at the Indian market. The very large cable and satellite audiences for Star’s comprehensive coverage of the national elections in 1996 and 1998 gave a sharp edge of topicality and interest to its regional profile, though the heavy investment involved was part of a long-term strategy and not geared to short term profitability.
In another collaboration, the BBC signed a deal to supply Hindi news programmes to Home TV, one of the less successful Indian entertainment channels, which was cancelled in early 1998 leading to the disbandment of the BBC Hindi news team which had been based in Delhi. This setback put paid for the time being to the BBC’s hopes of establishing itself in the growth area of Indian television in South Asia—regional language channels.
A plan for strategic co-operation announced in 1997 between the BBC and Discovery channel seemed a more promising partnership. These were two channels with established reputations as public service broadcasters in the widest sense. There was much common ground between a publicly funded organisation such as the BBC with a growing commercial arm and a commercial organisation such as Discovery with a programming strategy comfortably in step with public service broadcasting objectives.
As news and information acquired more prominence in the programme strategy of Star and other major channels, it also became more central to their perceived impact on South Asian societies and to government attitudes to their regulation. Much of the dynamism and effectiveness of these channels was derived from their employment of Indian production companies like NDTV. After its initial collaboration with CNN, NDTV had been contracted to provide current affairs programmes for Doordarshan as a means of upgrading the national broadcaster’s news profile, and it was after proving itself in that arena that it was subsequently commissioned to provide Star TV’s new 24-hour news service in English and Hindi. Doordarshan’s own role in outsourcing programmes and in encouraging private production companies played an important part in creating the expertise which was later to enable Star TV to make its powerful debut as an independent regional news provider.
Agendas for Change
Calling national and commercial broadcasters to account through the evolution of industry norms, decentralising the media in order to cater to specific and local requirements, and giving adequate space to public opinion in a way that strengthens civil society, are some of the ways in which public interest broadcasting can win over the allure of commerce.
The South Asian media revolution has been almost wholly unregulated. Unlike in Iran, China or Malaysia, South Asian governments have neither attempted to ban these developments nor have they provided an adequate legislative framework to deal with the new realities. They have been slow to acknowledge that the new situation requires a comprehensive rethink of broadcasting policy. National broadcasting authorities, faced with the superior entertainment on offer on channels like Zee or Sony, have presided over a massive commercialisation of their own output as a means of retaining audiences, neglecting other kinds of programmes in the process. Where Doordarshan led, other national TV stations have since followed, including even Pakistan TV, which earlier had a much more conservative cultural agenda.
However, moving towards a situation in which the electronic media are entirely commercial in their funding and approach would be a mistake for South Asia, where despite the growth of the middle class and its attractiveness to international business, there are serious problems of development, of health, education and welfare, which need to be addressed by the media. The idea that the electronic media is primarily for entertainment and that people can obtain information on other subjects elsewhere is increasingly deployed by middle class South Asians, but the region is not as media-rich as such views might imply. In fact, rural South Asia, which accounts for well over 60 percent of the population, is for the most part media-impoverished.
Of a number of possible scenarios for the future, the most likely, on present trends, would see the state sector carrying on more or less as it is at the moment, preserved as a voice for government, offering similar programming in all areas but news and current affairs management, while relying for its revenues on a shrinking mass audience beyond the reach of cable networks. The preferred scenario, however, should involve the reform of the state sector, a clearer definition of its objectives, preserving an entertainment function but reasserting the need for a range of other activities as well. These include playing a greater role in articulating a sense of community, acting as a counterpoise to the commercially driven mass media and offering diversity and innovation and a greater voice for the public at different levels of society in debating the issues of the day. The realisation of such a vision, however, would require a re-appraisal of the role of the state in the management of radio and television and a willingness to use them for more creative public purposes.
Failure to take stock and to legislate for the new situation will only leave more time for the commercialisation of state broadcasting and the longer the trend continues the greater will be the difficulty in establishing a viable public interest role for the media in future. Recent experience has demonstrated clearly the value of the market in widening media choice in particular areas of broadcasting. But the states’ responses have betrayed a lack of clear thinking, both about the future role of the state sector and about what can legitimately be required of commercial broadcasters in serving wider public needs.
Why wait for autonomy?
There are plenty of critics of the state sector who would argue that the only way it can become effective is by making it autonomous, removing it from the direct control of government and giving it the freedom to play its role more impartially and independently as an instrument of the whole society and not just of the party in power. However, given the polarised nature of politics in many South Asian countries, and the evident obstacles to the creation of autonomous institutions, it may make sense as a first step to attempt to achieve a measure of greater public accountability for national and commercial broadcasters without attempting a radical restructuring of the status quo.
This could take the form initially of consultation within the industry over the development of a national media policy to which both sectors would subscribe. Such a policy might cover such issues asquestions of taste and decency, provision of programmes for particular sectors of thecommunity, common standards for advertisingand for media training and proficiency, agreed approaches for measuring audiences, and the creation of mechanisms for responding to public criticism and suggestions. Such acceptance of self-regulation could help to resolve some of the issues which concern media professionals and their relations with the public, and could act as a charter for both public and private broadcasters in their relations with government. Whether or not government ultimately retains control of the national broadcasters, the acceptance of industry-wide norms in such fields could act as a restraint on ministerial highhandedness.
The development of such a media policy has already been mooted in Sri Lanka, where the virtually unregulated growth of the commercial sector has thrown up all sorts of problems which are not susceptible to existing methods of supervision and control. It will soon be needed in Bangladesh. In India’s case, draft proposals for a new regulatory system failed to find acceptance with the satellite sector, but a new basis of agreement is urgently needed.
Beyond such voluntary agreements, one theoretically attractive way forward would be for the state by legislation to require broadcasters—of whatever description—to provide a minimum of public interest programming and to set certain quality standards, compliance with which would be essential for the renewal of licensing arrangements.
Internationally, there is a wide range of approaches to public accountability for broadcasters. In Germany, which has a predominantly decentralised structure of public broadcasting, the courts have developed sophisticated concepts with regard to programme standards, and have had a major influence in defining legal standards and obligations. Canada imposes common obligations for national content and cultural compatibility on public and private broadcasters alike. In Latin America, community radio and TV have long been a successful part of the broadcasting scene, with governments licensing non-profit and non-partisan stations defined by their social purposes rather than the market or their political affiliation. At an international level, the objective of the Southern African Broadcasting Association (SABA)—to reflect the interests and concerns of the citizens of its member states—seems relevant to the needs of broadcasters and audiences in the South Asian region.
Though quality thresholds of different kinds have been established successfully in a number of countries, they are obviously more difficult to implement where satellite broadcasters are apparently beyond the arm of the law, as also uplinking from other countries and not operating within a national legal framework. Satellite broadcasters would seem to be in a strong bargaining position for these reasons, though they do need to have a working relationship with their main target territories and will even submit to government regulation if other objectives are met. Rupert Murdoch’s concern to establish the Star network as one friendly to India and his willingness to accept Indian government censorship as a price worth paying for the establishment of DTH shows that the Indian government would have considerable leverage in negotiating such issues, if it chose to use it.
The acceptance of a common jurisdiction is undoubtedly complicated. The draft Indian Broadcasting Bill of 1997 attempted to achieve this by requiring all satellite broadcasters to uplink from India and to accept tough, indeed what were regarded as unworkable, terms for doing so. Therefusal of international broadcasters like Starto agree to become majority-owned Indian companies brought progress to a standstill, though some of the Indian-owned channels were subsequently given permission to uplink from India to give them an advantage and to increase pressure on others. There is a good deal to play for on both sides in resolving these issues and any eventual compromise could also be extended to cover other matters of concern. One positive sign is that Zee and Sony have said they might be willing to produce more ‘public interest’ programming if other broadcasters, particularly Doordarshan, were bound by the same conditions.
Regional public opinion
Extending such agreements to India’s neighbours would be less easy. In Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal, the issues are very different anyway; their problems are withthe Indian focus of the satellite channels as much as with the subject matter. Their governments might be willing to participate in South Asia-wide discussions about questions of taste and decency—and the widening of that discussion could in itself contribute to the pressures on satellite channels— but persuading satellite channels aiming at the Indian market that they should do more to cover India’s neighbours and be more sensitive to uses of their channels as extensions of Indian foreign policy would be more difficult, as coverage of the Kargil hostilities showed.
South Asian public opinion has no effective means of making itself felt at the moment, though there is scope for the creation of new networks for this purpose. Satellite channels are unlikely to invest in reflecting wider regional realities until advertisers can deliver their goods more easily across South Asian borders. In South Asia itself, it is the Indian market which dictates the programme content. For India’s neighbours— and the viewers in those countries— the most effective response to the new media environment, therefore, lies in putting their own houses in order.
In all South Asian countries, broadcasting is a ‘central subject’ and national control extends right down to the output of individual radio stations in remote parts of the country. It is an extraordinary fact that no provincial or regional government in South Asia has had any right to license radio or television stations. Traditionally, the political case against decentralisation has been argued in terms of the fragility of the nation state. Fears that substantial ethnic minorities like the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Punjabis in India or the Sindhis in Pakistan, will misuse decentralised powers to demand separate statehood have resulted in tight control from the Centre, which has arguably exacerbated already difficult situations. These are also important issues in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, where national broadcasting policies have been challenged by the working of the satellite TV market, the massive popularity of Zee TV and the spread of a new kind of ‘hindigenised’ South Asian popular culture. In Pakistan, which has its own problems of finding a balance between centre and regions, PTV has attempted to combat Indian cultural influences by improving programmes in the national language—a counter-strategy which has actually reinforced existing centralising trends.
India’s neighbours arguing the case for the decentralisation of broadcasting may seem like missing the main point. However, the experience of South India would seem to validate a different view: that decentralisation is in fact a means of strengthening national cultural defences rather than weakening them. In a globalizing medial world, India’s very largemarket has dictated its own localising terms, resulting in the Indianisation of many international satellite channels. However, what is localisation for India is a new form of globalisation for Pakistan or Nepal, which would probably be more effectively countered by encouraging localization in these countries than by any kind of head-on confrontation.
A first line of defence, as Sri Lanka has found, is to license more terrestrial competition for the state broadcaster. This is the path which Bangladesh has also followed, with the establishment of its first commercial terrestrial channel. The advantage of such an option is that it makes the state broadcaster more competitive, sharpens its entertainment programmes and gives it a mass orientation—all services which have been provided by the satellite channels for Doordarshan and PTV—while at the same time appealing to a complete domestic television universe, which the satellite channels cannot do.
Such a strategy, however, will not serve the public interest in areas where the market is reducing choice rather than extending it. These areas include the provision of services for minorities, for special interests, for the reflection of ‘high’ or ‘folk’ culture, and the use of television or radio to serve smaller communities, for development, information or entertainment. Creating space to serve these needs requires a new willingness by the state to accept media decentralization in principle and to fund it where necessary. This is an important challenge for South Asian nation states and one which they seem instinctively ill-prepared to tackle. Decentralisation is not just about language: it is also about greater participation. It is about encouraging democracy where it can be most effective in giving voice to public opinion and in holding politicians and others to account
Radio could play an important part in this process of transformation. In most South Asian countries, national broadcasters already have at their disposal a network of radio stations providing services in different languages. All that would be necessary to activate them would be a new vision of what they could achieve. Cable television also has the potential to contribute to the growth of a vibrant decentralised media; indeed it has already done so in some parts of India and Pakistan. As cable itself witnesses a process of consolidation, with channel owners using the technology of encryption or digitisation as a means of extracting more revenue for themselves, the state has a chance to intervene to preserve some space for the local operator and the local service
The Internet poses a completely different level of problem for the mechanics of control. It has given individuals and organisations the capacity to develop their own radio and television services, something which is already taking place in a limited way and will undoubtedly expand significantly in the future. In the developing world, the Internet is currently regarded rightly as a rich person’s accessory but it may not be long before Internet and e-mail connections are available throughout rural areas too.
The satellite revolution in South Asia has played an important role in extending the bounds of civil society and the forumfor public debate. If the new satellite media have contributed to the development of civil society, they have done so largely on the terms of the commercial entrepreneurs. Public feedback on these developments has been largely confined to the columns of asmall number of newspapers and the activitiesof non-government organisations. Television programmes have generated huge volumes of correspondence, sometimes on a scale which producers have found impossible to process, but there are few organisations representing the viewer and listener in a more systematic way.
It is not sufficient to argue that the state has an important role to play in safeguarding the public interest. In the interests of the development of civil society, equal stress also needs to be placed on the development and reflection of public opinion on media issues. There is much to learn from the experiences of other South Asian countries, though as yet regional awareness is surprisingly low, except among a handful of media and development professionals. It is too early yet to talk of regional public opinion, but beyond the need to develop a more critical public opinion in individual countries, the regional character of the new media also requires a regional public response. With many South Asians now watching the same programmes, those who produce them, often with only Indian audiences in mind, need to be made aware of the wider public and their reactions.
The need to protect children as a vulnerable group from exposure to unsuitable programming is a responsibility which government and broadcasting authorities take seriously all over the world. Many broadcasters operate watershed policies which keep programmes with adult story lines or excessive violence off the air until children are supposed to be in bed. But such policies are only partially effective, even with active parenting.
With the vast majority of households in South Asia only having one TV set, children spend most of their time watching programmes made for adults. But there is also a shortage of programmes for children, particularly on the satellite channels. The only frequently mentioned children’s programme was Shaktimaan on Doordarshan, with a central character modelled on Superman. In Sri Lanka, there is a detectable demand for more children’s programmes. Labourers in Matara regarded many programmes shown during the day as unsuitable for children. Matara home makers argued that “more programmes that are exemplary to both children and adults should be presented”.
Another area of concern and one which is more difficult to monitor and control is the targeting of children in advertising. The exploitation of ‘pester power’ is becoming increasingly sophisticated and according to some marketing companies has now spread ‘from sweets and snack foods’—often linked to film or television characters aimed at the under 12s—to CDs, computer software, and even cars and holidays.
Parents are under pressure from their children to buy things. A group of working class women in Pune said they were influenced by advertisements, particularly for cosmetics and toiletries, with their children wanting them to try all sorts of new products. A Muslim broom maker in Millatnagar near Ahmedabad said of her son: “If he wants, then he wants. There is no stopping him.”
In Pakistan, articulate teenagers from a slum area of Rawalpindi proved to be very familiar with satellite TV programmes. Most of these teenage boys and girls worked part time or full time; some went to the local government school. Several of them saw satellite TV as a strong aspirational influence. “They show such goodies that we immediately want to acquire them,” said Samina, aged 14. “The only question is where to get the money from…” Bashir, aged 12, said: “I have learnt that America and England are the best places to be if you can get a job there. Then you can have access to all the things like Wrangler jeans, Nike shoes and of course Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds.”
Satellites over South Asia
by David Page and William Crawley
Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi. November 2000
INR 250 (paperback)
ISBN 0 7619 9482 3