Dishing It Out: India's Battle of the Airwaves

In its efforts to regulate TV programming - as much for cultural as for political reasons - the government of India is being challenged by sellers of satellite dishes, which open to viewers a world of transmissions

DELHI, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and beyond are sprouting dish antennas like morning glories on a sunny summer day.

The television dishes are creating a communications revolution, undermining the stifling monopoly of one of the world's most tedious government networks, and putting India's urban and rural middle classes in instant touch with the Iraq war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, gourmet recipes from London, and city politics in Georgia.

Hong Kong-based Star TV, with three channels on rent to BBC World Service and other takers, has joined CNN to tempt Indian viewers with news, commentary, international films, tennis matches, soccer tournaments, and MTV.

The dishes are the work of small entrepreneurs with little capital: the ubiquitous panwallahs, purveyors of betel leaf and tobacco for after-dinner chewing; small time "engineers" who service and repair electronic equipment; neighborhood newspaper vendors.

The most economical unit for dish service is one or more square blocks of multi-story apartment houses. It may yield 500 customers who pay 100 rupees ($4) or better a month after a hook-up fee that has been steadily declining from about 500 rupees ($20). Depending on the cost of a dish, the number of boosters required and the cost of cable and its installation, the busy panwallah can recoup an investment of 150,000 rupees ($6,000) in about three years - not bad.

Not everybody is happy. Alarm bells have been going off within the government of India. With the prospect of 378 million potential viewers in the year 2000, many politicians, bureaucrats, and policy intellectuals are seeking to resist the cultural and commercial penetration that is being dished out by satellite TV. One government committee proposed to find a technology that could jam satellite broadcasts to dish antennas.

For 40 years the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has successfully resisted attempts to put All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (DD - distant viewing) in the hands of independent media professionals. This, despite the fact that India, with the largest film industry in the world and top-flight journalists and policy intellectuals galore, has ample talent to do the job.

Lack of talent and proficiency is not the issue. The issue is the reluctance of every government since the 1950s to give up a departmentally controlled government monopoly, to release broadcasting from the grip of government ministers and their political masters.

Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first prime minister, held out the hope that in time India's electronic media would be like the BBC, autonomous and professional. It has not happened. AIR and DD are still run as departments of government, with decisions about expenditure, personnel, capital investment, assignments, programming, and content micromanaged by bureaucrats and politicians innocent of the worlds of broadcast journalism, entertainment, or educational TV.

Talented and courageous IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officers assigned as minister of information and broadcasting or director of DD have, from time to time, ventured unscripted talk shows that included criticism of government policy and personalities or discussions of controversial issues, only to be unceremoniously reassigned.

Continually subject to arbitrary and often petty political intervention designed to showcase powerful politicians and protect them from harm, AIR and DD operatives play it safe. On Dec. 3, 1991, Parliament's question hour was put on DD with the expected result: members of Parliament on the phone each demanding that their speech be shown.

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two of her security guards while walking in her garden in 1984, the news of the event and her death went unreported because no one dared broadcast such important news without her approval. Rajiv Gandhi's death by body-bomb on May 21, 1991, produced a similar result. Indian listeners and viewers found out about the death of their prime ministers from the BBC.

Unlike India's privately owned and professionally written and edited newspapers and magazines, AIR and DD are insulated from consumer preferences and market forces. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ideology opposes commercialism even while covertly responding to it by relying on advertising revenues.

On Sunday mornings at 10 o'clock, considered prime time here, we sit through 15 minutes of often sophisticated ads to see 45 minutes of the latest epic mega-series, "Chanakya." DD newscasters literally read the news, their eyes more often on the page than on the camera. With neither the equipment nor the staff to cover news events live, a government that spoke loudly in favor of a "new international information order" in international forums continues to buy film footage from British and American sources .

Government's monopoly control is not of the Goebbels, big lie, minister-of-fear variety. In fact, the apprehension that the electronic media would become powerful instruments for molding public opinion and winning elections has not been realized. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's vigorous expansion of transmission facilities and relaxing of import controls to promote color-TV ownership did not deter her defeat in 1977.

Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's Congress-I Party is committed to making the media autonomous within a year of taking office, i.e., by July of this year. Will it happen, and if it does, how will it happen? Media autonomy, even competition, is among the many national debates about liberalization going on at the moment.

Those who support continued government control of the media believe cultural protectionism can ward off the alien values imbedded in the commercialism, tastelessness, and violence found in much of what the Western media has to offer. Nationalist proponents of cultural sovereignty speak of resisting cultural pollution and preserving India's distinctive civilization.

One proposal is to regulate the growth of cable TV via licensing and fees. Awaiting decision by the prime minister are recommendations to turn DD over to Prasar Bharati, an autonomous body, and rent out a second government channel to regionally and developmentally oriented public, not-for-profit corporations. Some daring people are speaking about a private second channel, but nobody has figured out where the needed funds, estimated at $1.04 billion, will come from.

Viewership is likely to bifurcate. Dish-connected, prosperous urban viewers will watch tennis from Wimbledon and world news from Atlanta and Hong Kong, while the less prosperous watch sponsored serials, Hindi films, and cricket on the "autonomous" network and regional programming on a leased-out state-owned second channel.

If the international challenge to India's cultural sovereignty is to be met successfully, Prasar Bharati and the second channel will have to provide a lot better fare than Doordarshan.

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