The Indianization of Indian Television

by: John Sinclair / University of Melbourne

It is now almost a decade and a half since international satellite services were first seen via cable to the home in India, inaugurating an era of the profusion of private channels in a society that had previously only known a government-controlled national broadcasting network, Doordarshan.

The old Doordarshan (‘DD’) was notorious for its worthy but dull programming, and for being very much an instrument of the government of the day. It was also very conservative of traditional values, especially where sexuality and bodily display were concerned – not even a kiss could be seen on screen.

In such a climate, small-scale cable operators found there was a ready demand for international satellite services, notably CNN with the onset of the first Gulf War, then the entertainment channels STAR TV in 1991, and especially, the Indian channel Zee TV in 1992. While the advent of The Bold and the Beautiful and Baywatch on STAR provoked a public debate about ‘cultural invasion’, the greatest impact of the subsequent opening up of the television market has been to stimulate the growth of Indian channels, in which Zee has been the leading light. Zee TV is the most popular of the Indian-owned cable services. It is vertically integrated with Zee Telefilms, which produces programs for the Zee television channels. Zee also has a cable distribution arm, Siticable, which is India’s largest MSO. At the international level, Zee has developed services for diasporic Indian communities in the UK, US, Africa, and the Pacific. Within India, as well as an education channel, Channel ZED, and four music and film channels in Hindi, there are channels in other South Asian languages (Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati, Telugu, and Punjabi), and also English.

Rise of the region

In fact, one of the most unexpected effects of the liberalization of television in India is how it has contributed to the rapid growth of channels in languages other than Hindi. Although sometimes referred to as ‘minority’ languages in comparison to India’s 337 million Hindi speakers, or ‘regional’ or ‘local’ rather than ‘national’ languages, several of them have tens of millions of speakers, such as Bengali with almost 70 million, or Tamil with 53 million. Significantly, most of the services are available not just in the region where each of the languages is spoken, but on a national, and sometimes (as with Zee and DD-India) an international basis. They are thus able to serve the diasporic populations inhabiting the geolinguistic regions they cover on a global basis.

Of the satellite-to-cable (‘C&S’) channels transmitting in the regional languages, Sun TV has been at the forefront with its service in Tamil, one of the distinct languages and cultures of southern India. Instigated by a Chennai-based family with close links to the former ruling party of Tamil Nadu State, SunTV is now one of a diversified network of channels in the languages of the south. There is also Asianet, the Malayalam service out of the state of Kerala, and Eenadu, broadcasting at first in the native Telegu language of the neighbouring state of Karnataka, and more recently in a whole range of regional languages. STAR TV has also staked out an interest in southern Indian television with its acquisition last year of Vijay Television, which produces programs for a Tamil channel of that name.

Bollywood repels ‘cultural invasion’

Fifteen years after the debate began, the cultural invasion has been attenuated, for in spite of its commercial, global gloss, Indian television is unmistakeably ‘Indian’. Most strikingly, the staple popular genre on television is the Indian film, with its characteristic music and dance. As well, some of the most popular panel and game shows are based on film music. This has meant that the proliferation of channels has also been a stimulus for the Indian film industry – not just ‘Bollywood’, the Mumbai-based Hindi industry, now so well-known in the West, but also those in some regional languages, especially Tamil. To that extent, film retains its historical pre-eminence as the powerhouse of mass-mediated popular culture, both in India, and for Indians abroad.

However, the Indian-ness of Indian television is not an eternal essence, but a contingent and contested social construction of a public culture between the local and the global, a process which Salman Rushdie called ‘chutneyfication’. Two trends are worth noting – the growing hybridization of media languages, and the popularity of channel and programming formats which have been indigenized from foreign models. Several writers have pointed to the emergence of a peculiar fusion of Hindi with English words: ‘Hinglish’. This is a media language drawn from the everyday language of the urban middle classes and of the diaspora. There is a corresponding trend towards ‘Tinglish’ in Tamil broadcasting, and possibly in the other regional languages.

In terms of channel formats, MTV is an illustrative case. Itself a global channel in multilocal formats, there are ten variants of MTV in Asia, mostly on a nation-specific basis, including MTV India. India also sustains successful indigenized versions of its own, notably Zee’s Music Asia channel and STAR’s Channel [V]. As for program formats, the most remarkable success of recent years has been Kuan Benega Crorepati (KBC) on the STAR Plus channel, based on the legally acquired format of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Part of its indigenization was its connection to Indian film, in that the host was one of the nation’s most popular ever film actors, Amitabh Bachchan, a kind of Indian Sean Connery.

Commercially, KBC was a milestone success for STAR Plus, which earns nearly 40% of STAR’s revenue in India, but which only turned a profit for the first time in 1999, following KBC’s triumph. STAR Plus subsequently moved from bilingual (English and Hindi) to all-Hindi programming in an effort to catch up with Zee and Sony. By 2002, STAR reported that it had become more profitable than Zee, and it has greatly strengthened its competitive position against Zee since.

DD dominates

However, it’s important to understand that for all the changes brought by C&S to the new television landscape in India, DD remains the dominant broadcaster over all. DD is still the only terrestrial broadcaster, and until recently, enjoyed government protection under a regulation which gave it the exclusive right to uplink its satellite signal from Indian soil. As well, DD is guaranteed wide distribution over C&S under regulatory provisions which mandate that all cable operators ‘must carry’ three DD channels.

The most decisive factor for the continued development of the relatively mass market for cable television is advertising revenue, which is much more significant for the C&S industry than are subscription fees. Advertising now constitutes 70% of C&S industry income. Even with the profusion of channels, the revenue pool has increased, given continued growth in the number of C&S homes, as well as a much more commercial ethos now established for television within the general context of the liberalization of the economy as a whole. According to a trade source, from around 15% in the last days of DD’s monopoly, television now absorbs 41% of the estimated total advertising expenditure in India. However, although DD’s share of advertising revenue has been in a long decline, this is happening more slowly than its competitors would want, and it still gathers the majority of revenue. Thus, the abundance of channels available is deceptive, since DD, along with Zee, STAR, Sony and Sun, account for about 90% of television advertising revenue between them, making it difficult for the minor players to become viable.

So, the opening up of televisual culture in India over the last fifteen years has not brought about the overrunning of local cultures implied by the rhetoric of ‘cultural invasion’. On the contrary, it has permitted growth in the regional language channels, and competition for audiences has clearly been won by those channels which have developed programs based on Indian popular culture, particularly film and film music, and which have been able to convincingly indigenize the global formats of commercial television channels and programming. The question is no longer one of local versus global, but just how they are made to work together to produce new forms of commercial culture.

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6 comments

  • What is the role of the national film industry in television?

    There are so many interesting aspects that I would like to address about the process of Indianization of Indian television, such as the vast varies of huge linguistics markets available within the country that inside and overseas ensures audiences for their industry’s products; or their phenomenon of hybridization in language and culture, or the Indianization of western formats into Indians ones; and the still preeminent position of broadcast television as a source cultural identity or national security. But what calls my attention is the still tide and complex cultural relationship between national film industries with their national television industries within a broader audiovisual landscape. India, such as Mexico, Brazil or Egypt among other countries has been deemed as examples of successful television exporters and they have count to rethink the “Dependency Theory” that gained popularity in the 70’s and 80’s. Studies have shown that for television viewing audiences tend to prefer national or local programming or programming that is made in the same language or within the same culture. Nevertheless the presence of US in television is still the most pervasive presence beside the respective national television mainly due to Hollywood cultural products. But the later presence can be diminished in TV, when the country is a source of a rich film industry that produces the figures, images, stories that enrich the national culture. The successful Indianization of the Indian television seems to be backed by an already happening event that is the larger success of their film industry. The interrelation of both media seems to support a larger audiovisual dimension in which the images of the national culture can prevailed over any “imagined cultural invasion” from the Western. I you see the example of Mexico the larger Spanish television exporter and producer in the world, you may need to remember that Mexican television started to be successful in some degree because of the already well know Mexican Cinema from the 40s mostly in Latin America. This position has changed within the years and today the weak position of Mexican film industry has open widely the door to the fiction products coming from the US into Mexican television. Even though authorities in Mexico feel well protected about the strong roots of Mexican television and culture, Mexico is failing in the domain in which India has been successful: film production. Weird enough failing in the film industry can take a great toll to the television industries making very different scenarios for the nascent vigorous new Indian television compared with its Mexican counterpart. Let see what happens.

  • how the other half watches, if at all

    As john points out, india is such a wonderful example of a country whose popular culture has been invigorated by the emergence of satellite competitors to the state broadcasting monopoly. not only have new services proliferated but doordarshan itself has been transformed as it battles to maintain its pre-eminent position with viewers and advertisers. it has been so successful at both that enhanced revenue streams have further stimulated innovation, dramatically multiplying the cultural resources available to the indian audiences and artists. this has furthermore stimulated new infusions of capital and fostered the establishment of truly impressive new production facilities, such as romoji film city.

    despite these salutary effects, we still know little about how television figures into the lives of those on the margins, that vast share of the indian population that seems to be of diminishing concern to television executives, both at commercial channels and at doordarshan. can anyone point me to some interesting findings regarding how the ‘other half’ is faring in this era of dramatic transformation? i’m not looking for analysis that is nostalgic for the the old doordarshan monopoly nor am i in search of arguments that recycle tired dichotomies between consumers and citizens. i am rather genuinely curious to know about the uses of television among those who are on the margins of the consumer class that the television revolution is currently targeting.

  • Christopher Rusch

    The Indian C&S industry, growing too fast?

    John Sinclair clearly notes the transition India’s television industry has made in the last decade, from the government controlled broadcasts of Doordarshan to the expansive C&S market today. India has managed to create a commercial television industry serviceable to over a billion people in less than 15 years, retaining programming reflective of its cultures while avoiding the epidemic of “Americanized” pop-culture programming prevalent in countries like Mexico.

    However, with an ever-growing industry of networks vying for the advertising attention of consumers come the risks of overwhelming an audience with too much content. Take, for instance, the competition taking place in national network news. India today has over 9 news-oriented channels including Aaj Tak, Star News, Zee News, NDTV India, Sahara Samay, ETV, NDTV 24×7, CNBC-TV18 and Headlines Today, broadcasting in over 11 languages. With such competition, quality is often sacrificed in favor of getting the ‘big story’ out before rivals. Much like the vastly criticized cable industry in America, where content has diversified to the point whole networks can now narrow-cast solely to shoppers, cooks, sports-fanatics, and pet-lovers; India is in danger of turning its fledgling C&S industry into that of a vast wasteland – a saleable commodity to the mindless consumer.

  • The tragedy of DD

    John Sinclair’s piece was very informative and interesting to read. But having personally viewed a lot of Indian television I just wanted to say a few things to add to John’s piece.

    Before 1991 and the advent of networks like ZEE and STAR, Doordarshan was the lone network for Indian viewers. I agree that the programming is often considered dull but there are some specific reasons why Indian viewers think this way. The television provides us with the combined entertainment value of audio and video and the problem with DD lies in the quality of the broadcasting. The video is often in dull colors, grainy and a shaky image. The sound quality is often bad and it is hard to understand what characters on the screen are saying. It is no fun to watch something that is so unclear. This is the primary reason that DD became boring to viewers. There is no doubt that if you pay attention many of the shows are very educational and are essential to the society. It’s just that people, especially children don’t want to watch TV to learn lessons. That’s what they go to school for, TV is entertainment and not another class.

    ZEE TV and other new channels gave viewers what they were looking for in television – entertainment. A bright clear picture, with audible sound and interesting programs like the film song programs and soap operas was offered by these channels. People want to kick back and relax after a hard day’s work and these new channels programming played on that entertainment aspect very well to gain popularity at a rapid pace.

    I disagree with John when he says that new networks tended to regional needs of people. I know for a fact that DD has had channels in different channels in the past. It is true that there are many more different language channels today, but I clearly remember seeing DD Marathi and DD Gujarati before ZEE TV came onto the scene. It may have been a very small beginning but it was certainly there. It did nothing to help the image of DD however, because the problems in the broadcasting quality were still present and remain so even today.

  • Indian TV

    Although the television industry in India has boomed in the last decade, I disagree with Christopher in that it is now servicable to the nation’s billion-plus population. In actuality, the majority of the country’s inhabitants live below the poverty line and are not exposed to such media, and advertising tends to follow the growing middle class consumers, especially middle-aged women. When viewing a channel such as ZEE TV, it is obvious how many more ads there are directed towards the female consumer than any other group.

    ZEE TV was introduced in my household in 1999 via the Dish Network. Intended for my mother and grandmother, I would witness, or hear, such programs for many hours on a daily basis. Although I was never a fan of such content, nor the idealism that is inappropriately reflected by the entire Indian population, its appeal was truly impressive. Whether showing cooking recipes for chicken massala or musical game shows, this channel would always capture my family’s undivided attention. Only 2 years later, they acquired four more channels, ensuring that I’d never have the opportunity to watch tv at home again. Now there were newer programs, in multiple langauges, even the minority language that my family spoke. The effects of Indian TV were obvious, from the subcontinent to my home, even to my family’s business. My grandmother would now dismiss her daytime soap operas on ABC and tune in to a more appropriate Hindi serial. The women in my household were happy; I soon learned that my entire extended family had, or were in the process of acquiring such channels. Sky is the limit for its growth around the world to the millions of Indian speakers living abroad

  • India’s television industry has made in the last decade, from the government controlled broadcasts of Doordarshan to the expansive C&S market today

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