Through the Magic Window Television and Change in India

From Himal Southasian, Volume 9, Number 4 (JUNE 1996)

by Sevanti Ninan
Penguin Books India, New Delhi
ISBN 0-14-025631-8
INR 125

Since the satellites began bearing down on the Subcontinent, television has displaced many household activities, “notably sleeping”, says the author of a book on India and the tube

Sevanti Ninan, a Delhi-based journalist following the electronic media since 1986, relies on market research done for Doordarshan, India’s state broadcaster, and studies by departments of mass communications in several universities, to produce a useful and upto-date dissertation on India’s recent transformation into a television society.

Ms Ninan’s interests veer towards the use of the medium for development purposes, and for the benefit of children and women. She believes that these responsibilities have been abdicated by Doordarshan as it scrambled to confront international competition which arrived via satellite.

In the pre-satellite era, writes Ms Ninan, Doordarshan seemed intent only in expanding its reach, rather than developing good “software”, meaning programming. The result was that for decades the South and the Northeast were forced to suffer Hindi programmes, and the country as a whole had to live with a “distinct Delhi-centred

As time went on, development programming, exemplified by the SITE experiment started in 1975 (see box on facing page), “began to look like an aberration in Doordarshan’s steady progress as an instrument for propaganda and mass entertainment.” A medium meant for the illiterate and underdeveloped was hijacked by the urban middle class.

As for Prasar Bharati, the bill which was to have created an autonomous body conjoining All India Radio and Doordarshan, it was pushed through Parliament by the Janata Dal government in 1989, but the matter has stood still since. Will the bill be revived, now that a coalition government with Janata Dal as leading member has just achieved power in New Delhi? Ms Ninan would know.

Even without developmental programming, Ms Ninan concedes the benefits of satellite tv. The little screen makes momentous events real for India’s poor in a manner that the print media (which requires reading) was never able to. Indian housewives now understand politics a little better. Above all, the author sees television as a friend of the poor, providing company and entertainment to millions of households. (The upper classes were hooked after international news channels and pay channels came on.)

On the down side, impossible aspirations are being created, says Ms Ninan, and the sale of imitation cosmetics and skin whiteners is up all over India. Village belles demand hair conditioners when mustard oil used to serve just fine. “Indians treat commercials as premium entertainment. Television has created tremendous brand awareness among every class of viewer.”

Ms Ninan has grave concerns about the continuous film-based programming that children of all classes are watching. A 1990 Doordarshan survey of 18,000 families showed that children were watching everything except the programmes meant for them. Poor children watch television longer than rich children. Both categories are being exposed to overt sexuality among teenagers at a very early age, with an excess of “kissing and disrobing” Also, a whole generation of the Subcontinent’s children, whether they live in Shimla or Cochin, are being “homogenised”.

The author tracks Doordarshan’s metamorphosis from a staid government channel to a fiesty player which has now begun to speak the language of commercial broadcasters. Faced with multinational marauders, “by March 1995 Doordarshan had launched a counter-satellite invasion of neighbouring countries in South Asia.”

Indian producers became so proficient that, “by 1995 the satellite invasion was helping India make an impact on
countries and societies overseas.” Satellite television has allowed Bombay’s advertisement houses break into the
Gulf market, and today they make commercials for clients in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Ms Ninan’s research throws up many interesting tidbits. Few know, for example, that STAR TV’s acronym stands for Satellite Television for the Asia Region. Housewives all over India began to skip their afternoon naps, she reports, after Doordarshan began showing movies in its afternoon transmission and added a daily soap for good measure. Cable operators who control much of the consumer programming in India are mostly former video parlour owners who had to shift gears with the arrival of the satellite channels. Zee TV’s success was “in making film music pay for the whole channel’s keep.”

The weaknesses of this volume are few: one, that it is occasionally repetitious; two, that it gets bogged down in research details; and three, Ms Ninan does not venture to chart the course for television in India, and, by extension,
South Asia. For example, what will (or should) happen when the Indian Government allows Indian channels to uplink directly, and how will the broadcasting of non- Doordarshan news affect Indian politics? Can space be
created between dull development programming and the song-and-dance—for what in the West is called “public

Through the Magic Window, published in 1995, remains current and readable even though the world of television is in a state of flux. It should be read by all Subcontinentals who are concerned about what satellite television is doing to us.

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