TV comes to India: a talk with its top broadcast official

``In one year India has registered the biggest information explosion in the history of communication,'' according to Mr. S. S. Gill, secretary to the Indian government's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. India's director general for TV reports to Mr. Gill, as do the directors general for radio, press, and film. ``Within the past year we have brought 70 percent of the population within reach of TV signals as against 23 percent one year back. We have raised the number of TV transmitters from 41 to 180 in just one year. And they are all manufactured indigenously.'' India is also expanding its production of TV sets. According to Mr. Gill they are already producing 12- and 14-inch sets which cost about $100 per set.

But don't expect to see ``Dallas'' on Indian television.

`` `Dallas' represents a threat to Indian culture,'' said the solemn-visaged, gray-flannel-suited Mr. Gill, as he chatted with me here from his leather-upholstered chair behind an enormous desk with three telephones in his office at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. On the wall behind him were photos of Pandit Nehru and the Himalayas. ``We try to ensure that programs like `Dallas,' which are subversive of our culture and promote the Western culture of crime, violence, and sex, do not appear on Indian television.''

Despite Mr. Gill's strong anti-``Dallas'' feelings, it is still possible to see ``Dallas'' in India on bootlegged videocassette tapes in private homes or on closed-circit TV in the rooms of luxury tourist hotels. And in a land where only G- and PG-rated American films are permitted to be shown in movie houses, I saw ``10'' and ``Saturday Night Fever,'' both definitely ``adult'' films, close-circuited to the TV set in my room at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. I told this to Mr. Gill.

He feels these showings of pirated films on hotel closed circuits ``are expressions of free enterprise'' of which ``we thoroughly disapprove. . . . We are trying to curb it and have passed legislation against it.''

He also looks upon home-video VCR exposure with much disdain: ``To a limited extent the nouveau riche feel it is a status symbol and somehow manage to import dirty programs and see them on the cocktail-party circuit.''

``Doordarshan'' is the offical Indian television channel. It is a Hindi word meaning ``a view from a distance'' and, according to Mr. Gill, ``it is meant to be a literal translation of TV.''

Mr. Gill explained that, since so many Indians cannot afford their own TV sets, Doordarshan is laying much emphasis on community viewing. ``The government is giving TV sets and heavy subsidies for the purchase of TV sets by village communities.''

Observers of the Indian TV scene, myself included during a four-week stay in India, have found many of the programs dull and drab, if high-minded, with a deadly didactic approach.

Mr. Gill claims there are a total of 4.5 million TV sets in India. ``As many as 10 people watch each set, so 40 to 50 million people can be watching at any one time.''

But do that many actually watch?

``We do not have any elaborate method of rating such as there is in your country, but we have our own research units which are given specific assignments to conduct surveys and give us feedback.''

What programs do Indians watch?

``The most watched programs are Hindi films. Then there is a program based on film songs. And we have started a number of TV serials which are very popular. Also news bulletins are popular.'' The majority of the programming -- informational and educational films -- are not on the most-watched list.

Mr. Gill denies that government-approved news programs are apt to reflect only the current government's point of view. ``News programs are produced by professional newsmen,'' he insists.

But aren't they usually part of the government organization?

``Yes, but we get our news feed from various international news organizations.'' Recently, however, there have been protests from some Indian journalists who believe that the official news broadcasts are slanted to give only the government's point of view.

Trevor Fishlock, a former Times of London Indian correspondent, reported that Indian critics ``complain frequently that broadcast news is rather like that in totalitarian countries. It has a flat official tone, is read in a portentous fashion, is woodenly scripted and presented. Controversial matters are played down or left out.''

Since Doordarshan is so tightly controlled by the central government, can Mr. Gill articulate it's basic philosophy?

``In a developed country, TV is primarily a vehicle of entertainment. But in a developing country you have to contend with old perceptions and sometimes medieval prejudices. Ancient India has to make a transition to the modern Indian society with a scientific outlook, and TV has a very important role to play. So, our programs have to be socially relevant. We treat information as a very valuable resource, as an extension agency of the government to bring about social change . . . to fight against the superstitions, . . . which hamper progress toward a modern scientific industrial society. . . . So, the important agenda of our programming is modern agriculture, problems of women and children, family welfare, uplift of the poor, adult education, rural development, social welfare, labor problems. For a developing country like India, TV is a very important vehicle of social communication, designed to bring about social change and change in people's perceptions.''

Doesn't this mean the total politicization of TV?

``Every administration would like this country to be progressive, the people to have a very scientific outlook, agricultural production to go up, the industrial culture to expand. So we are not dealing with the political policies of any one particular government. In this country all the political parties are committed to a welfare state. . . . So change of government does not make any significant difference in our basic approach.''

Mr. Gill explains that he has been in government service for 33 years, in his present position for two years. ``Here government servants are permanent government servants. . . . They are not political. In my personal life I may hold some political opinions, but so far as my official functions are concerned, my own political views do not intrude into the discharge of my duties.''

Doordarshan transmission starts in the evening around 5 or 6 o'clock and continues till 11:20. There are two channels, feeding programming to about a dozen stations all over the country. Some states prepare their own local programs in local languages, says Mr. Gill, but from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. there is common programming (cultural activities, social occasions, fairs, festivals) that the entire country can watch. Along with this cultural programming is the common news bulletin, he says, 20 minutes in Hindi and and the same in English. According to Mr. Gill, about 55 to 60 percent of the people in the country understand Hindi to varying degrees, while only 4 percent understand English.

Despite it's highly nationalistic slant, some foreign programs are aired on Dardoorshan. ``Till recently we were showing `Diff'rent Strokes' and `I Love Lucy.' Now we are showing two BBC serials and `Last of the Wild.' Recently we showed the Attenborough series, `The Living Planet.''

What can Indian TV learn from world TV?

``Technical excellence. Our production values are not as good as they should be. Our producers, interviewers, presenters have to upgrade their skills.''

What can the rest of the world learn from Indian TV?

``That's for the Western TV to decide . . . whether they have anything to learn from us. Normally the attitude of the Western media is that they have everything to teach us and nothing to learn. What do you want to learn?''

What does Mr. Gill consider the greatest achievement of Indian TV so far?

``We have developed special programs with social content, which deliver our message, and I think they will have a very great impact on our people once we install community viewing on an even larger scale.

``I think in many developing countries TV is going to be used in the same manner. To my mind, every developing country should utilize such a powerful medium to serve its main national objectives. That is only reasonable.'' A Monday column

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