A tale of how television changed India

Last Updated: Saturday, August 2, 2008 - 09:47

New Delhi, Aug 02: Television has changed the contours of the Indian psyche. According to former broadcast journalist Nalin Mehta, satellite television news networks have never expanded as they have in India.

Here is the story in numbers. In less than a decade between 1998 and 2006, India has seen the rise of more than 50 round-the-clock satellite channels, broadcasting news in 11 different languages. They are part of a hamper of 300 channels that have targeted Indian homes since the 1990s.

In his book "India on Television", Mehta says the rise of satellite television has engendered a transformation in Indian political culture, the nature of the Indian state and expressions of Indian nationhood.

Much like the India`s newspaper revolution that started in the 1970s and the cassette culture of the 1980s, the availability of privately produced satellite television content since the 1990s has meant that people have discovered news ways to think about themselves and to participate in politics that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Mehta illustrates his point with pertinent examples. He cites the two-day non-stop coverage of the Prince rescue episode on Indian news channels in July 2006. The five-year-old had fallen into a 55-foot pit in Haryana. Such incidents are common across the country but in this instance, television news channels saw the promise of a good story and its ratings. Several channels juggled daily capsules to make room for the rescue operations.

India was sucked into the death pit for two days - living every minute of the rescue operation as the reality channels beamed blow-by-blow accounts of the mission. Post rescue, Prince was compared to Hindu god Krishna.

The book is well researched and etches the story of growth with numbers, accounts of memorable incidents in simple prose that is easy to relate to. The first part of the book chronicles the rise of Indian television predating the satellite TV. He divides the historiography of Indian television into the pre-satellite and the post-satellite periods.

The chapters are divided under interesting and rather defined heads - The State in the Box: Indian Television (1959-1991), One to 300: News Capitalism and Media Capital, Control and Confusion: Broadcast Policy, State Transformation (1991-2007), News With Bunty and Babli: Advertising, Ratings and Television News Economy, The Great Indian News Trick: Satellite Television and Cricket, Argumentative Television: Politics, Democracy and News, and Modi and the Camera: The politics of Television in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

The last chapter, which explores the coverage of the Gujarat riots and its impact on the society, perhaps documents the impact of television on society most effectively. In the early 2002, live television news intruded into the politics of collective violence of India and changed the rules of the games. It also opened up new opportunities for political campaigns.

Television - both as a medium and issue - dominated the fractious election campaign in Gujarat that followed the riots. In it`s electioneering, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strove to exploit the deep religious fissures opened up by the violence. This proved a very successful strategy and in 2002, the party secured its greatest victory ever in the state.

While it was very difficult to pinpoint how much of the result can be attributed to the BJP`s superior use of television alone, it can certainly be said that television coverage became a lightning conductor for existing social conditions in Gujarat. By doing so, it altered the politics of the violence and the BJP managed to better the political opportunities this created.

For every thinking man who would like to know the medium that provides him infotainment everyday, "India on Television" is a must on the bookshelf.


First Published: Saturday, August 2, 2008 - 09:47

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