VOL I
December 2000

ISSN 1473-219X

 

 

 





Indian Media from colonial to global?

Daya Kishan Thussu
University of North London

Introduction

India is one of the few countries from the global south to emerge as a significant actor in the international media market. This is because of the particular historical context of the evolution of the media industries in India from the time of British colonialism, through more than half a century of i
ndependence. This paper examines the development of one of the most extensive press and broadcasting systems in the world's largest democracy. It explores the opportunities that globalisation has presented for cultural industries in India as a consequence of gradual deregulation and privatisation of broadcasting in the 1990s, and looks at how the Indian cultural industries, often in partnership with transnational corporations, have expanded beyond the borders of the country to reach a regional and, increasingly, a global audience.

The paper also analyses the factors behind the emergence of India as an independent player in the international media market. Indian cultural exports, notably films, are very popular among the 25 million strong Indian diaspora and immigrant populations from other South Asian countries spread across the globe are increasingly being watched by non-Indians. This contraflow in cultural products is exemplified by the extraordinary growth of Zee TV, India's first domestic, Hindi-language, private television channel, which, from its modest beginnings in 1992, has today become an indigenous multimedia corporation
with interests in television, satellite telecommunications and the internet. Finally, this paper explores whether this phenomenon heralds the emergence of a new actor in global communication, countering US cultural hegemony, or whether, given the reality of a market-driven international television, Zee is yet another entertainment and infotainment-led network which promotes corporate capitalism.


The colonial period

British colonialism brought newspaper publishing to India, beginning with the Bengal Gazette in 1780, founded by James Augustus Hicky, a disgruntled employee of the East India Company, who described the journal as 'a weekly political and commercial paper open to all parties, but influenced by none'. (Rau, 1974: 10) As newspapers became widely available they acted as a harbinger of modernity, contributing to the construction of a national identity. Despite very low literacy and strict press laws introduced by successive British colonial administrations, the press played a key role in the nationalist movement, even if its pioneers came from a small westernised, educated elite. Such was Ram Mohan Roy, a versatile Bengali intellectual who established the nationalist press in India in the early 1820s by starting three reformist publications
the Brahmanical Magazine, in English, the Sambad Kaumudi in Bengali, and the Mirat-ul-Akhbar in Persian. (Rau, 1974: 22) At the same time, at the other end of the country, Fardoonji Murzban launched the Bombay Samachar in 1822, which is still in existence as a Gujarati daily.

Roy's contemporary, Lord William Bentinck, a relatively liberal Governor General, supported Indian efforts at reforms and, as a result, by 1830 there were 33 English language and 16 Indian language publications in operation. In subsequent decades many more nationalist newspapers and magazines appeared. Among the more notable publications were Rast Goftar edited by Dadabhai Naoroji, the founder of the Indian National Congress and Shome Prakash in Bengali founded in 1858 by Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. The influence of Indian-language newspapers had grown so much by 1870 that they were perceived as a threat by the colonial administrations, which led to the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, aimed at silencing any attempts by the Indian language press to criticise the government. Mass illiteracy, poverty and repressive press laws were serious handicaps to the development of the press. Yet the availability and expansion of printing technology to Indian languages radically changed the face of journalism. Within a century of the publication of the Bengal Gazette, more than 140 newspapers in Indian languages were in operation, articulating a nascent nationalism. (Desai, 1976)

As nationalism evolved so did the idea that the freedom of the press was a basic right to be cherished and fought for. Indian industrialists started their own newspapers with a clear anti-colonial stance. Most nationalist leaders were involved in activist, campaigning journalism, none more than Mahatma Gandhi, who realised the importance of the written word and used Gujarati, his mother-tongue, as well as English, to spread the message of freedom. Writing in Young India in 1920, he defended the right of newspapers to protest against press laws:

The stoppage of the circulation of potent ideas that may destroy the Government or compel repentance will be the least among the weapons in its armoury. We must therefore devise methods of circulating our ideas unless and until the whole Press becomes fearless, defies consequences and publishes ideas, even when it is in disagreement with them, just for the purpose of securing its freedom. (Gandhi, 1970: 59)

Radio, which began regular broadcasting in 1927 (though All India Radio was founded as a public broadcasting service in 1936), remained in the hands of the colonial powers who used the airwaves to legitimise the Raj. By 1941, about 4,000 newspapers and magazines were in print in 17 languages and the underlying theme was the end of colonial rule. Towards the end of the British Raj, the press could be broadly divided into three categories: the establishment papers such as The Statesman and the Times of India, the nationalist press's Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Hindu, and the Indian language publications such as Anand Bazaar Patrika in Bengali, Kesari in Marathi, Sandesh and Bombay Samachar in Gujarati, Matribhumi in Malayalam and Aaj in Hindi. (Desai, 1976)


The media at independence

Even after independence, the legacy of anti-colonialism continued to influence Indian media. India inherited from the British the combination of a private press and a Government-controlled broadcasting system. Given the diversity of the press, it was critically aware and, by and large, acted as a fourth estate in a fledgling democracy, while the electronic media was used for what came to be known as 'nation-building.' In a vast, geographically and culturally diverse country with 16 official languages and more than 800 dialects, and great disparity in the levels of development, national media had a crucial role to play to develop a sense of Indianness.

All India Radio (AIR), was seen as the key instrument for national development in a largely illiterate country, and the leadership was keen to develop this as a means of mass persuasion. As elsewhere in the developing world, Indian leaders found it difficult to relinquish political control over broadcasting, the most potent instrument of mass persuasion and propaganda. It was also argued that an uncontrolled broadcasting system could destabilise the country, given its traumatic birth, which saw one million people killed and more than 15 million displaced, the result of the partition as the British divided and quit India in 1947. The violent legacy of the partition dictated that the national media had to be very sensitive to ethnic, cultural and religious considerations. The journalists' task was to help in overcoming the immediate crisis of political instability that followed independence and to foster the long-term process of modernisation and nation-building, reflecting the dominant ideology of the newly emergent and activist state.

Just a year after independence, India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, told the constituent assembly which was drafting India's constitution, 'my own view of the set up for broadcasting is that we should approximate as far as possible to the British model, the BBC; that is to say, it would be better if we had a semi-autonomous corporation. Now I think that is not immediately feasible'. (Chatterjee, 1991: 182) Consequently, the public broadcasting monopoly became little more than a propaganda service for Government. Like other public-sector departments, it was over-bureaucratised and its performance was dull. How far it succeeded in serving any developmental purposes is also open to debate.

The introduction of television in 1959 as a pilot UNESCO-sponsored educational project reflected the initial attitude to the medium as an educational tool and a means for disseminating state policies and public information. The state television channel (Doordarshan) was part of AIR until 1976, when it became a separate department under the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. The aim of the national broadcasters was to educate, inform and create a feeling of national identity and help maintain national unity. Doordarshan followed the AIR broadcasting code, which prohibited, among other things, criticism of friendly countries, attacks on religions or communities, incitement to violence, or material affecting the integrity of the nation.

Other sections of the electronic media were also employed by the state for propaganda purposes. Newsreels produced by the Indian Film Division, a wing of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, were used to promote government policies. As a study by the Press Institute of India observed: '[newsreels] are not only controlled by the Government but their theme and content are also dictated by it. Since films have a tremendous educational and propaganda value, it is mandatory for all cinema houses to show newsreels...' (Bhattacharjee, 1972: 21) In addition, the Government could indirectly influence the private print media, through control of newsprint and advertising and subsidising pro-government newspapers and news agencies.

Despite such direct and indirect interference by the Government, the relative autonomy of the private print media contributed greatly to the evolution of democracy in India. As democracy took root, various political parties and groupings representing the whole ideological spectrum started up their own newspapers and magazines. Even among the mainstream press, ideological leanings reflecting political and cultural affiliations could be detected in the tone, tenor and treatment of stories.

During Nehru's tenure as Prime Minister (1947-1964), Indian media seemed to follow the democratic agenda. Most newspapers, even those owing allegiance to extreme political parties, believed that the multi-party system of Government had taken a firm root in the country and a free press was integral to its success. Unlike most other developing countries, the Government in India tolerated criticism on the editorial pages of national press. This tolerance gave Indian journalists most coming from an urban middle-class milieu high professional standards and a space to engage in critical debates on socio-political and economic issues. More importantly, the proactive and investigative, often adversarial, role of journalists, contributed to the evolution of an early-warning system for serious food shortages and thus a preventive mechanism against famine an annual scourge during the British Raj. (Ram, 1990)

Nehru had a genuine interest in promoting national consensus through the mass media. However, the political manipulations of Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister from 1967 to 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984, strained this consensus. Especially during the emergency of 1975-77 when censorship was rife, journalists were detained and the national broadcasting organisations reduced to becoming the mouthpiece of the ruling party and its leader. Despite blatant misuse of the electronic media, Indira Gandhi lost the 1977 election to the Janata Party a loose grouping of right-wing and centrist parties. The coming to power for the first time of a non-Congress coalition had a positive impact on the growth of Indian media, partly because it catapulted several regional leaders into the national limelight, thereby promoting the regional press.

The Janata government promised autonomy for the electronic media and appointed a 12-member working group (known as the Verghese Committee) to develop a policy framework for the broadcast media. The result of their deliberations, published in 1978 (the Prasar Bharati Bill), recommended the establishment of an independent National Broadcasting Trust, Akash Bharati, to run both Doordarshan and AIR. However, more than two decades after the introduction of the bill, the official broadcasting media remain under strict Government control. What has changed, however, is its revenue-generating structure, as Doordarshan rapidly commercialised, a process intensified by the increasingly neo-liberal governments of the 1980s. As a result, television became much more entertainment-oriented: its soaps originally borrowing from the success of telenovelas in Brazil and Mexico (a mix of education, information and entertainment using education entertainers) were altered to meet the needs of advertisers. (Rajagopal, 1993)


Indian media in the age of globalisation

The commercialisation of the electronic media was given a boost as globalisation hit India, bringing about the transformation of Indian television in the early 1990s, accelerated by the combined impact of new communication technologies and the opening up of global markets. Economic liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation contributed to the expansion of Indian media corporations, facilitated by joint ventures with international media conglomerates. Such developments revolutionised broadcasting in what used to be a heavily protected media market, certainly the most regulated among the world's democracies. Gradual deregulation and privatisation of television has transformed the media landscape, evident in the exponential growth in the number of television channels from Doordarshan the sole state-controlled channel in 1991 to more than 70 in 2000. Out of these, 19 are in Hindi or English and therefore national in reach, while others cater to regional audiences in their own languages.

The privatisation of broadcasting made many western transnational media players enter the 'emerging market' of India potentially one of the world's biggest English-language television markets. With a huge middle class estimated between 200-300 million with aspirations to a western lifestyle and a well-developed national satellite network linking the vast country, their task does not appear to be too demanding. Sectors of the Indian economy, such as information technology, have demonstrated exceptional growth in the past decade. This has stimulated changes in the broadcasting industry, benefiting also from a fast-growing advertising sector, making the Indian television market attractive for transnational broadcasters.

The entry of global media conglomerates into India opened up a new visual world for Indian audiences, first through the live coverage of the 1990-91 Gulf crisis by the Cable News Network (CNN) and later through Hong Kong based Star (Satellite Television Asian Region) TV, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Star's five-channel satellite service in English (Plus, Prime Sports, Channel V, the BBC World and Movie), originated in 1991, became a major hit with the English-fluent urban elite and the advertisers, who saw in these channels a way to reach India's affluent middle class.

Buoyed by advertising revenues, cable and satellite television increased substantially from 1992, when only 1.2 million homes received it. By 1999, India had 24 million cable TV homes, receiving programmes from major transnational players notably, CNN, Disney, CNBC, MTV, Star, Sony Entertainment Television and BBC and from scores of Indian channels. After an initial infatuation with western English-language programming, noted for its liberal attitudes to sexual subjects, hitherto a taboo on Indian airwaves, it became apparent that the Indian audience preferred television in their own languages, prompting global media companies to adapt their programming strategies to suit the local marketplace. Star started the process of hybridisation when it realised that its mainly US-originated programming was being viewed by only a very small urban elite. It therefore started adding Hindi sub-titles to Hollywood films and dubbing popular US soaps into Hindi. In 1996, Star's India specific channel, Star Plus, began telecasting locally made programmes in English and Hindi.

The sheer logic of market pressure localising the products to reach a wider consumer base and increase advertising revenues, was at the heart of this localisation strategy:

Instead of positioning itself as covert imposition of Western culture, characteristic of the 19th-and 20th- century imperialism, globalization appears to undercut Western authority through the cosmopolitan culture it promises for the Indian upper middle class and a stress on the local. (Pendakur and Kapur, 1997: 201)

Western-owned or inspired television encouraged mixing of English and Hindi and the evolution of a hybrid media language 'Hinglish'. The emergence of a mixed media idiom, characterised by the growth of Hinglish, has dominated cultural production in the India of the 1990s. Hinglish has been identified by the burgeoning mass media as the language of the youth of a 'liberalised' and 'modern' India. While a form of Hinglish had been in existence in urban north India for decades, it was popularised by Zee TV, India's first domestic, Hindi-language private television channel, launched in 1992.


Globalisation of Indian media

The emergence of networks such as Zee raises interesting questions. It is indisputable that the proliferation of satellite and cable television channels, made possible with digital technology and growing availability of communication satellites, has contributed to the increasing diversity of the global cultural landscape. The role of television in the construction of social and cultural identities is more problematic in the age of globalisation than in the era of a single national broadcaster and a shared public space, such as characterised television in most countries in the post-war years. Though national broadcasters continue to be important in most countries and still receive the highest audience shares, the availability of a multiplicity of television channels has complicated the national discourse. In the multi-channel era, a viewer can have simultaneous access to a variety of local, regional, national, and international channels, thus being able to engage in different levels of mediated discourses.

A clearer analysis of the complex process of international cultural flow reveals that the traffic is not just one way, from north to south, even though it is overly weighted in the favour of the former. Evidence shows that new transborder television networks are appearing, with some flow from the periphery to the metropolitan centres of the media and communication corporations. The extension of satellite footprints and the growth of DTH broadcasting have enabled networks such as Zee to operate in an increasingly global environment, feeding into and developing what has been called as the emergent 'diasporic public spheres'. (Appadurai, 1996)

The deregulation of broadcasting, which has been a catalyst for the extension of private television networks, has also made it possible for private satellite broadcasters to aim beyond the borders of the country where they are based unlike state broadcasters who have traditionally seen their role in terms of the nation state. Apart from the major powers, whose broadcasting has had an international dimension, most public broadcasters, particularly in the South, saw their audience as a domestic one. By contrast the private channels, primarily interested in markets and advertising revenues, had a more liberal media agenda. This basic difference between state-centric and market-oriented broadcasting has been a key factor in the expansion of many southern broadcasters into the lucrative northern markets, aiming to reach the diasporic communities. Being part of global conglomerates has given them the technical and managerial support to operate as a transnational channel.

Globalisation and the advent of satellite television ensured that the migrant communities of South Asians in the Middle East, Europe and North America became a new target as audiences and consumers. (Jacka and Ray, 1996) Zee was among the first to recognise the potential of overseas markets for its programming. In its zeal to rope in pan-Indian audiences scattered throughout the world, Zee developed a new idiom which by virtue of sheer reach of the medium contributed to making Indian television available internationally. After Star TV purchased 50 per cent of Asia Today (the Hong Kong-based broadcaster of Zee TV) in 1993, it became Zee's partner in India, facilitating Zee network's expansion both within India and beyond. Following their 1992 launch in the Middle East, Zee TV entered the lucrative British market in 1995, when it bought TV Asia, already established in the UK. By 2000, Zee was available on the Sky network and claimed to have one million subscribers in the UK and continental Europe. It became one of the first channels to go digital in the UK, offering programming in Hindi and four other South Asian languages: Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati and Punjabi. Having acquired a base in the UK, Zee expanded into mainland Europe and is also very popular in Africa, where it has a joint venture with a South Africa-based platform operator, MultiChoice.

Today, Zee claims to be 'the world's largest Asian television network,' covering Asia, Europe, US and Africa, and catering to the Indian diaspora. In Asia, where it boasts a total viewership of 180 million, the network spans more than 43 countries and offers round-the-clock programming on four channels - Zee TV, Zee Cinema, Zee TV India and Music Asia. Having reached more than 23 million homes in the Indian sub-continent and United Arab Emirates, Zee's strategy is to expand its operations in the lucrative North American market.

After Star started making programmes in Hindi, it became a direct competitor for Zee, creating business rivalry between the two operations of News Corporation in India. In September 1999, in an unprecedented action, Zee bought back Star's 50 per cent share in the company, ending years of acrimony and establishing Zee as a major media player in its own right. Taking a cue from its former business partner Murdoch, Zee has also invested heavily in making sure that the company owns communication hardware as well as programming. With this in view, in 1999 Zee announced the construction of Agrani, the regional satellite project which, when operational in 2002, will provide direct-to-home satellite TV and long distance telephony to consumers in South Asia. This was followed by Zee acquiring a 25 per cent share in the British satellite telecommunication company ICO (International Communications Ltd) which is to have a network of satellites beaming voice and data signals around the world. Such control will make Zee a major global player. Its success is reflected in the network's financial gains in 1999 it recorded revenues of $100 million, rising about 30 per cent annually. By 2000, Zee's media and communication empire included cable and satellite channels in four continents, along with interests in film production, publishing, cable distribution and satellite telephones. Other India-based channels are also increasingly looking to international markets. Star TV now supplies programming to an ethnic American pay channel, EABC, and to Channel East in Britain, while Sony Entertainment Television is available in 126 countries. (Power and Mazumdar, 2000)

In recent years India has witnessed extraordinary growth and overseas success in computer software and cinema exports, making it a global force to be reckoned with. (Power and Mazumdar, 2000) A recent report on the Indian entertainment business prepared for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimates that the Indian entertainment industry, currently valued at Rs 154 billion, will grow to nearly Rs 600 billion by 2005. According to the report, Indian film exports, worth Rs 4.5 billion in 1999, are estimated to rise to nearly Rs 120 billion by 2005; the Indian music market, currently pegged at Rs 12.5 billion, is projected to touch Rs 22 billion, and TV software revenues are expected to soar from the present Rs 12 billion to Rs 90 billion in 2005. (Shedde, 2000)

Among the non-western film-producing countries, India is one of the few that have made their presence felt in the international market place. India's 50 billion-rupee Hindi film industry makes more films each year than Hollywood in the decade 1989-98 India produced 787 feature films compared with 591 in the US (Screen Digest, October 1999). Hindi films are especially very popular in the Arab world, in central Asia and among many African countries. This made it imperative for producers to invest in sub-titling to widen the reach of Indian films. The changing global broadcasting environment and the availability of digital television and online delivery systems will ensure that Indian films will be available to new audiences. (Power and Mazumdar, 2000)

Until recently, the film industry has not received official encouragement as a major foreign exchange earner. This is set to change with the Indian Government giving films the status of an 'industry'. In 1999, the Government passed a law exempting export earnings from films from tax. Plans are afoot for joint ventures between India film producers and Hollywood giants as they discover the Indian version of the tinsel world. These will receive a boost with the decision of the Government, announced in February 2000, to allow foreign companies to invest in the Indian film industry. Now major Hollywood companies such as Columbia Tristar, Paramount and Universal Pictures are flirting with co-productions in India. Already overseas rights contribute nearly 40 per cent to a film's return
given the money power of the so-called Non-Resident Indian (NRI), especially based in the two major markets (the UK and the US), the industry is likely to grow further.

The unprecedented expansion of television in the 1990s has also been a boost for the movie industry, as many dedicated film-based pay-channels have emerged. In June 2000, the first international Indian film awards, billed as the 'Bollywood Oscars' ceremony from London's Millennium Dome, was broadcast to more than 122 countries reaching 600 million viewers. It brought together along with Indian film and music stars US Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, Chinese star Jackie Chan and Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue. (The Times of India, 2000)

However, the increasingly international orientation of television seems to have excluded the majority of India's people (the poor, especially those living in the countryside) who are remarkably absent from programmes on channels such as Zee. According to a 1998 survey, less than two per cent of Zee viewers live in rural areas. (Satellite & Cable TV, 1999) A socially relevant television agenda, therefore, does not fit well with the private television networks, who appear to be interested only in the demographically desirable urban middle class or the NRIs, with the disposable income to purchase the products advertised on such channels. The 'mission statement' of Zee is unambiguous: ' ...to establish the company as the creator of entertainment and infotainment products and services to feast the viewers and the advertisers. Through these services, we intend to become an integral part of the global market. As a corporation, we will be profitable, productive, creative, trendsetting and financially rugged with care and concern for all stake holders'. (Zee Network website)

Given these constraints a development-oriented television remains largely under-explored, primarily because it does not interest advertisers. It is ironic that the country that pioneered the use of space technology for education, with the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) of 1975-76, which brought TV to the poorest villages in the most inaccessible areas, and where 40 per cent of the population is still illiterate
according to the United Nations, 30 per cent of all Indian children aged six to 14 years, about 59 million children, do not attend school has ignored the educational potential of television. (UNDP, 2000)

Though Doordarshan receives substantial support from the Government, which has extended its reach and added new channels (in 2000, it had 21 channels), it is under pressure to provide entertainment as well as education. One result of such competition is the ideological shift in television culture from public-service to profit-oriented programming. The growing commodification of information and the trend towards western-inspired entertainment can adversely affect the public-service role of television, whose egalitarian potential remains hugely under-explored in India. (Thussu, 1998)

As television is driven by the ratings wars and advertisers' demand for consumers, and given that visuals can be a powerful instrument for propagating dominant ideology, the electronic media can play a key role in the creation of a marketplace in which their corporate clients can consolidate and expand. Rather than toeing the Government line, as used to be the case with state broadcasters, are networks such as Zee instead promoting a corporate worldview?

Internationally, despite a counterflow of cultural products, as exemplified by networks such as Zee, US-led western media domination has not diminished. There is a temptation to valorise such a flow, suggesting it may having the potential to develop counter-hegemonic channels at a global level. Indeed, as seen in the case of Zee, the network has been modelled after transnational corporations as a market-driven organisation for whom the most important consideration is to make a profit. Therefore, it can be safely said that the emergence of regional players contributing to a 'decentred' media and cultural imperialism is not likely to have a significant impact on western hegemony within global media cultures.

 

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