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

Article excerpt

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. …


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