No. 6, Spring/Summer 2001
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Book Strategizes South Asian Satellite Broadcasting Policies

By TBS Contributing Editor Janet Fine

MUMBAI, INDIA:  The new book "Satellites over South Asia: Broadcasting Culture and the Public Interest" (Sage Publications, India), authored by David Page and William Crawley, was released in India in December 2000. It sparked an involved discussion at a Mumbai panel on the role of Indian broadcasting within the South Asian subcontinent (see box). A seminar "South Asian Broadcasting in the Satellite Age" held in New Delhi also coincided with the book's launch and the authors' visit to India.

Page and Crawley, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, which supported the IDS Research Project of Media South Asia, researched the impact of transnational broadcasting on the South Asian subcontinent. The book explores how satellite programs have created new electronic communities that transcend the boundaries of the nation-state, often thought to challenge state control, according to the authors.

Speaking to TBS from their Mumbai hotel, Crawley and Page discussed their book's charting the various changes the broadcast industry faces throughout Southeast Asia, and especially in India.

"The book evolved over two years, from l998 to 1999, in our visits to various countries in the Southeast Asian continent through Ford Foundation grants and teaching posts. It took a team of twelve research associates from the Media South Asia Project to work across the subcontinent--India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka--to document these findings," said Page, who serves as project director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and who spent eight months based in New Delhi last year.

"We chose to concentrate on rural areas and how they are affected by the development of broadcasting. There is a certain mismatch between the middle class and big business with the rural population where the satellite targets the audience and yet there is a shared structure encompassing all the communities."

In conjunction with the book, a documentary film exploring the same subject, "South Asian Media," directed by Indian television journalist and documentary filmmaker Napur Basu, was also released. The film, according to the director, is believed to be the first South Asia-wide collaboration of its kind spanning five South Asian countries on the same themes and using local crews. Television Trust for the Environment, a non-profit organization that works globally to promote the use of audio and visual media to discuss development issues, produced the documentary.

"Both the book and the film broaden understanding of the satellite revolution's significance for the development of broadcasting in South Asia and the globalization process with the economic and technological changes of the 1990s in the area," said Crawley.

"The explosion of choice in the context of shared traditions and structures of broadcasting and the social conditions for a mass audience for satellite television has developed into a globalizing process, transforming previous state TV monopolies into a competitive international television market."

More than four hundred experts were interviewed for the book, coinciding with an estimated one hundred discussion groups to further delve into the various policies of different South Asian states in response to the satellite revolution. Different South Asian states--Sri Lanka excepted, according to the authors--have concentrated more on preserving their control of broadcasting than on developing an effective regulatory framework to meet the changing situation.

"We feel that India as the largest country, now with an over one billion population, faces the largest challenge in the satellite age with its rural and regional culture being ignored by the medium, which appears driven by advertising and global reinforcement of consumerism," said Page. "The concentration of many satellite channels in the lucrative Indian middle-class market has involved a neglect, in fact, of the wider South Asian audiences. Findings showed an overall neglect of Indian regional cultures, particularly in the north, where Hindi language programming has gotten its largest audiences."

Through experts, discussions, and the author's findings on the key globalization factor of satellite broadcasting, the book stresses each South Asian government's reaction of "public interest"-hence the title of the book.

"We tried to suggest some strategies for reform of the state sector and decentralization of broadcasting as a means to give a voice to local and regional communities," said Crawley. "There is a growing need to adapt to all parts of the rural and urban communities so they can be better served by the new media, in social, educational, and entertainment development." TBS

In conjunction with the release of the book "Satellites over South Asia: Broadcasting Culture and the Public Interest," the British Council organized a discussion with the authors and various Indian television specialists, in addition to screening the documentary "South Asian Media," directed by Napur Basu.

Mukesh Sharma, chief producer of Indian government TV Doordarshan (Prasar Bharati Corporation), Mumbai, joined most of the private channels like Sony TV and B4U cable channels on the panel to debate the role of government in broadcast. Most of the cable providers and independent producers questioned which role the government should take, taking into account the 60 percent of the Indian population who only watch Doordarshan.

The Prasar Bharati Corporation has recently allocated its CEO Rajiv Shah (TBS interview 2000) to another position, and the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj said she is setting out a "cost-effective strategy to extend coverage to all parts of India, including remote and sparsely populated areas."

Almost in response to the book's conclusion, Swaraj also addressed the Seventh International Conference and Exhibition on Terrestrial and Satellite Broadcasting organized by the Broadcast Engineering Society in New Delhi, emphasizing that "the role of Prasar Bharati becomes more vital for informing people about socially relevant issues, developmental efforts, and policies of the government and issues which are vital for the country. Prasar Bharati needs to exploit the unique advantage of terrestrial broadcasting for generating and transmitting local content."

Mukesh Sharma echoed this concern over a government channel's responsibility in response to the book's conclusion around satellite globalization and its impact on public interest. The following is an excerpt of his comments advocating a stronger role as a public broadcaster for Doordarshan.

"With the advent of digital TV and an explosion in the number of satellite channels, many argue that there is no need for public service broadcasting. A recent article in the Economist went straight to the point: 'increasingly public service broadcasters will have to compete with hundreds of new television channels. The world which has allowed public service broadcasting to flourish is disappearing'.

"We are now part of a new worldwide multi-billion-dollar industry, and the marketplace is vibrant with video merchants and mega-video merchants, creating and selling all kinds of values, principles, and programs. And as fast as they make it, TV will take it. Here quantity competes with quality.

"India is no different, and the television here is going through an identity crisis. The private channels here are aping the West and Doordarshan is aping the private channels. The announcement of Prasar Bharati brings a ray of hope to the uncontrolled, directionless television growth in the country as that of a public service broadcaster.

"At a conservative estimate, India has around 50 million TV sets. A license fee of Rs 300 (approximately $6.20) per set, per annum would general a revenue of around 1,500 crore (about $300 million) annually, which is double the advertising revenue collected by Doordarshan in the year l996. This does not mean that we should do away with the advertising on Doordarshan; the license fee gives us the freedom to be more selective and discerning as a public service broadcaster.

"The easiest way to collect the license fee in a huge country like India is to follow the method used in Singapore. The authorities, by the stroke of an ordinance, decided to implement a license fee on all TV owning households. In case one did not own a TV set, merely an affidavit was required. The fee could be collected through the electric bill, either twice yearly or annually as is practiced in Mauritius. One or two percent service charges could be paid to the electricity department so as to do away with a new generation of manpower and paperwork.

"I am of the opinion that over the coming decades, public service broadcasting (in our case Prasar Bharati) will become more, not less, important. First, it will not be replaced by dozens of viable minority interest services, and it will remain a major engine of providing budgets for new rather than recycled or imported programs.

"The duty of public service television is to put quality first, and to promote pluralism because it increases the quality of programming." TBS

Copyright 2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu