We Indians don’t seem to be getting enough television! Every day, we see the emergence of new channels. From one channel (Doordarshan) in the late nineties, we now have 703 that have been permitted by the ministry of information and broadcasting as of 15 June. These are in addition to 32 Doordarshan channels. Interestingly, there are almost an equal number of news (349) and non-news (356) channels in this list.
Several global and local broadcasters have been present in India for years and new companies keep entering the field. Organizations that have got broadcast permission include big business houses, political leaders, media organizations (global and Indian) and a large number of private entities. In general, the scenario is chaotic as there are a number of joint ventures and partnerships owning some of the popular channels. The Zee group, the Star (News Corp.) affiliates and the Sun network lead with 61, 42 and 33 channels, respectively.
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This Indian media story is today world-renowned. It not only attracts significant interest from media professionals, researchers and investors, but also the general public. However, what does this robust number of channels imply for the Indian broadcasting industry and its audience? Does it imply a more healthy broadcast sector or a better choice for the consumer? One would also wonder why we would need so many channels and on what basis the ministry permits these numerous channels. The numbers are also high because the ministry accepted the recommendation of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) in its July 2010 report to remove a cap on the total number of private satellite channels meant for down-linking and up-linking from India. The ministry had halted new applications over spectrum availability issues in 2009.
The ministry also lowered the required net worth of channels to Rs 5 crore from the Rs 25 crore proposed by Trai for starting non news and current affairs channels. This has been done to provide business that operate TV opportunities for small and medium-sized companies and encourage divergent sources of news and views. It’s been more than a decade now since the ministry has been giving permission to broadcasters for setting up channels and India is yet to have a monitoring system to track their numbers.
What is being broadcast and who is watching these numerous channels is also still ambiguous. Why do satellite TV stations with negligible viewership remain on air? What attracts so many applicants and players to broadcasting and why is there a push to set up even more channels? Interestingly, there is limited data in the public domain on the financial situation of these channels. The few listed companies do not show a very positive picture yet. All channels compete for the same advertising pie to survive apart from having to cope with the expensive distribution chaos. Some have closed down or been taken over in this struggle to survive.Even with all the enabling criteria for starting channels in our country, what does the citizen gain—better choice, better services or better quality programming?
Viewers like me still complain that there isn’t much to see even with these large number of channels—primarily because they all are more of the same. One channel starts a serial in a rural setting and soon similar programmes are visible across rival channels. Another starts a music competition in the format of a reality show and soon many follow across other channels, even in regional languages.
Correspondingly, most news channels all look and almost sound similar. The innovation and experimentation in meaningful content relevant to local citizens is yet to be seen on Indian television.
One clear reason for this is that as a nation we never had a clear policy or vision on what role and relevance an imported medium like television would have on our national psyche, culture or development. After numerous protests and court judgements, the ministry briefly revived discussions on the broadcast Bill and then quietly left content to self-regulation by the industry, even when the sheer numbers defy the prospect of this ever happening successfully. Besides that, even now the business and technology aspects of broadcast including permits and operations are still ambiguous and ad hoc.
The “obese” broadcasting sector is one reflection of indecisive policy and is bound to result in numerous “health” issues—not just for the broadcast industry, but also for our nation.
P.N. 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.