Many Providers, Little Diversity
Television in India is loud and vibrant, yet the colourful packaging often hides a lack of objectivity and independence. Political parties and corporate houses have an enormous influence on channels.
By Martin Jahrfeld
Television began in India in 1959 as an educational project supported by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the Ford Foundation!For most people from the West, the first encounter with India is usually a challenge. The noise, the colours, the throngs of people... what is often triggered is commonly known as a culture shock. The experience of the streets and public spaces in the subcontinent is also true of Indian television. The programmes are often just as loud and frenzied as everyday life in India: on screens split into as many as six sections, irate talk-show guests bellow at each other, news programmes are accompanied by flashes of permanently breaking news, and a steady stream of new Bollywood soaps portray the infinite complexity of emotional and family life in India.
The pace and volume make you forget that television as mass media is a relatively recent development in India. It tended to play either a secondary role in day-to-day life or no role at all, as in several villages that lacked electricity. As late as 1976, the government-owned channel with a network of eight television stations barely reached more than 45 million people – and that too only in black and white. The switch to colour did not happen until 1982 when India hosted the Asian Games in Delhi and Indians were able to see their sports idols in colour for the first time!
The multitude of service providers is not so much proof of media pluralism as manifestation of the growing influence of political parties and corporate houses."
However, to see this dynamic market expansion as an expression of an increasingly diverse landscape of opinions and information in India is not a true reflection of the situation. The multitude of service providers is not so much proof of media pluralism as manifestation of the growing influence of political parties and corporate houses. Syed Nazakat, founder and chairperson of DataLEADS, sums up the situation as follows: ‘India is one of the biggest media markets in the world. Yet the concentration of media ownership proves that the country’s media is owned and controlled by a handful of individuals.'
This is to be observed not only in the case of the large channels that broadcast across the country, but also in the case of service providers in provincial towns, who are often also dominated by regional parties and their respective donors. Regional parties have always played a powerful role in Indian politics, which is why they are badly in need of a mouthpiece of their own in the form of their own channel. Things are not very different with the countrywide TV channels. Most of them are closely linked to the leading parties.
The hope that India’s TV channels, in their role as media, can have a corrective effect and can counterbalance the negative political developments in the country seems unlikely, given the circumstances. Several TV stations are part of larger business conglomerates that not only invest in media, but also have a presence in key sectors such as construction or finance. Conflict of interest and influence on journalists are therefore often preprogrammed. That regulations and cartel laws are largely absent in India works in favour of this set-up. Wide-ranging regulations that could be effective in protecting pluralism and independence are also lacking.
Sector observers expect journalism as well as media and opinion diversity in the country to be boosted less by television and more by new online projects such as The Wire or The Quint that stand out because of their courageous research: ‘Companies organised as cooperatives like this are bringing fresh wind to the Indian media market. Because online journalism requires little investment, new and attractive forms of citizen journalism may emerge,’ believes Ahsanul Haq Chisti, media scientist at Savitribhai Phule Pune University in Pune.