In the last 10 years, the broadcasting sector in India has seen the advent of several 24x7 news channels. From a handful of news bulletins a few decades ago, we now have numerous news channels and regular bulletins on general channels. News is the second most popular genre (after general entertainment) on television.
That rise in popularity has been accompanied, and perhaps caused, by a vast increase in scope: News channels now cover events and issues across broad swathes of public and private life, and the strong competition caused by a growing number of channels has contributed to this.
These channels represent and epitomize the world; but they also change our perceptions about it. Today, it is nearly impossible to think about the progress of Indian culture — social, political and economic — without including the role of everyday media as an integral part of this history. It is also difficult to ignore that role while considering the changes brought about by globalization— both on and by Indian culture. While history may be conceived in both broadly social and intensely personal terms, television has transformed the ways in which individuals understand and position themselves in relation to either of these definitions.
In this scenario, television news channels’ recordings of events and other related production materials have become primary sources for the study of history and culture, and their relevance to scholars and researchers has increased.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
To be sure, this growing popularity of television news has also meant that newspapers have had to rethink their mode of coverage and reportage of important issues and happenings. But the “live” and “breaking” news appeal of news channels has emerged as a key differentiator between the two forms.
Significant events in modern Indian history—such as the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 or the Kargil war in 1999 or India’s first scientific mission to the moon in 2008—can hardly be imagined without the television images that transmitted them to Indian (and other) homes.
At the same time, it is important to note that mere television coverage of an event constitutes a record for posterity. Television becomes the guarantor of history, even as it invokes history to validate and justify its own presence at an event.
Television also routinely correlates the live nature and historicity of an event through equivalence, reason, reference and identity, especially in the areas of news, and public affairs or documentary programmes. In the context of news coverage, especially events that warrant live coverage, it is not unusual to hear the images presented being referred to as “historic”.
Realizing this importance of visual footage to contextualize “historic” events, Prasar Bharati has renamed its Archives division Media Assets. The division’s main role is to archive the broadcast content for future reuse, and disseminate it through various channels, including product marketing.
For reuse purposes, most broadcasters maintain their own libraries and archives. The law mandates all broadcasters need to preserve records of at least the past 90 days of broadcast. Other than this mandatory storage of news coverage, little is known about the current systems and modalities of storage and archival practices of broadcasters. While footage is available at a price for broadcast purposes, there is no known way of accessing earlier coverage for non-broadcast purposes such as research.
Finally, the moving images on our televisions mean several things: a form of entertainment, art, historical record, cultural artifact, commercial commodity and force for social change.
Recently, Prof. Mridula Mukherjee, a noted historian and the director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), posed an important question to media researchers and analysts at the CMS Media Lab. As a premier archive and library maintaining critical records and involved in the preservation of historically relevant information, NMML has been keen to explore the possibility of preserving, storing and accessing television news coverage. Mukherjee’s concern was that a limited access to current television archives may mean that future historians and scholars would have to rely on incomplete evidence when they assess the achievements and failures of our society.
The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks are a vivid example of how television news recorded the event and also played an important role in the crisis. While we may still get to see some of these horrifying visuals on our television screens, the complete footage may never be accessible to scholars and historians for objective study and understanding.
The significance of this aspect of the broadcasting system in our country is yet to be recognized. Of course, there are technical, commercial and legal issues involved in sharing and accessing past footage. But there are established models and experiences to deal with the technical and economical issues, while the legal aspects relating to copyright may need to evolve to fit our media landscape.
As television images increasingly shape our civilization, historians will soon rely on them as much as on the printed word to understand 21st century culture. Broadcasters as well as policymakers should take note of this crucial historical role of television news.
PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies
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