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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