Localizing the Global in India: New Imperatives for International Communication Scholarship in the Satellite Era
by Aashish Kumar
As innumerable media corporations execute decisions made in boardrooms (where “globalization” and “deregulation” are the mantras), the challenges facing international communication scholars become veritable riddles of the Sphinx. They watch in bewilderment as transborder commercial satellites pulverize the protective, monopolistic, state-controlled broadcasting regimes of erstwhile colonies of South Asia. They ponder as the antediluvian legislation pertaining to airwaves prevalent in these nations fails in its attempts to cope with what Ithiel de Sola Pool called the new “technologies of freedom” (Etheredge 1997). Imagine their plight when they see the comprador bourgeoisie collaborate, nay, fraternize with the “invaders,” waving market-friendly banners which spell out “joint venture.”
This paper is an essay in empathy, the beneficiary being the aforementioned scholars of global media. Focusing on the Indian subcontinent, the author discusses the complex set of events leading up to the current conjuncture (the term used here in its fullest Althusserian import) in the nation’s mediascape. The paper draws on literature in the field of global communication; print-media reports from the last six years; and a series of interviews with broadcast entrepreneurs, analysts, and consultants, conducted by the author in India.
It argues that the promise of global interconnectivity through new technology can fast become “technological” and “cultural imperialism” unless guided by a well-grounded understanding of global difference, national philosophies regarding the role of electronic mass media, and above all, the perils of leapfrogging developing societies into media ecologies borrowed heavily from the industrialized West. Finally, it underscores the importance of localizing the debate on globalization, allowing the concerned communities to develop and articulate broadcasting architectures most appropriate to their new role in the “global village.”
The “Wonderland” of Communication Satellites
The Gulf War of 1990-91 did more than just convey images of SCUD missiles punching their targets. It also showcased to a captive worldwide audience, the technology that made this possible. Big city hotels with rooftop dish antennas were able to relay CNN’s live reports to an aspiring, upwardly-mobile class of Indians. A class that would soon feature in India’s own war of the airwaves.
Communication satellites are not new to India. In tune with the developmental communication rhetoric of the 1960s-1970s India conducted the world’s largest techno-social experiment using a NASA satellite (Agrawal 1986, 10). The SITE project (Satellite Instructional Technology Experiment) of 1975-76 represented India’s communication philosophy: a categorical rejection of the entertainment component of electronic mass media and a commitment to realizing their potential as agencies of social change. The models developed by Daniel Lerner and Wilbur Schramm served as guidelines for many of these experiments (Singhal and Rogers 1989).
While television broadcasting under Doordarshan (from Sanskrit “distant vision”) had already begun in 1959 as experimental programs to villages around Delhi, the SITE experiment unfolded the “national” reach of the medium for the first time. Indian broadcasting entered the satellite age with the launching of the first Indian satellite, INSAT-1A (Indian National Satellite) in April, 1982.
The viewers of CNN’s live broadcast of the Gulf War in 1991 had lived through a decade of huge domestic growth in broadcasting led by a monopolistic, state-controlled Doordarshan. Plan outlays, coupled with the nation’s aggressive space research program, had assured incremental coverage of India’s remotest regions. From a mere 26% of the population in 1982, Doordarshan’s reach grew to approximately 80% by 1991 (Audience Research Unit 1996).
Interestingly, the avowed non-commercial objectives had given way to the immense revenue-earning possibilities of the medium. Doordarshan’s commercial revenue through program sponsorships on its single national network grew from a meager Rs 159 million in 1982 to a whopping Rs 3 billion in 1992 (Audience Research Unit 1996). According to Kiran Karnik (1997), Managing Director of Discovery Communications in India, commercialism “completely overtook” the professed developmental communication objectives. “At the end of the year,” he adds, “they would not say what great programs they did, what changes they brought, what social programs they did--but this was the profit that was made, this was the ad revenue earned.”
In inverse proportion, Doordarshan’s credibility as an impartial information medium had plummeted. Successive governments abused the “visibility” potential of the medium, hijacking news and public affairs programming and turning them into “a-day-in-the-life-of-your-prime minister” style coverage. Pendakur (1990) charges Indian television policy of the period with serving “its own propaganda needs as well as the demands of indigenous and transnational capitalists, along with the entertainment prerogatives of the middle/upper middle classes.” Urbanites cringed at its insincere attempts at developmental programming, while ruralites “wondered why items alien to their world...be repeated through loud and annoying jingles” (Eapen 1986).
However, lest this criticism be construed as a dismissal of all the achievements of television in India in the eighties, it is important to highlight what Doordarshan was up against. India’s prolific film-industry had created a preeminent entertainment format comprising formulaic story-lines bundled with a heavy dose of hybridized song, dance, and music. It goes entirely to Doordarshan’s credit that it made sincere attempts at delivering made-for-TV fare such as pro-social soap-operas in a climate loaded with escapist entertainment formats. continued
Information on a documentary titled “Serial for Breakfast,” produced in conjunction with this paper, by Aashish Kumar and Abha Adhiya
1999 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo