New Delhi: The 14-inch television set at Gorakh Nath’s makeshift paan shop in Mughal Sarai, a busy railway junction in eastern Uttar Pradesh, is getting him a lot more customers these days—people who buy paan and then stay on to watch some TV while chewing the betel leaf concoction.

“Earlier, people came to see a cricket match or a film," Nath, 32, said. “Of late, with increasing interest in politics, people are coming to watch studio discussions, political speeches and other poll-related news."

The paan shop owner’s observation is backed by broadcasters. On 8 December, the day the counting of votes was taken up in four key states after the recent assembly elections, the market share of news channels jumped to 18% from an average of 5.5%, according to estimates by broadcasters.

The viewers thronging Nath’s kiosk also reaffirm the growing importance of the electronic media in setting the political debate in a country where the increasing penetration of television in the countryside is serving as a force multiplier for news broadcasters ahead of next year’s general election.

In the year ended last 31 March, close to 16.4 million television sets were sold in rural India. Of these, about 5.6 million were liquid-crystal display TVs, according to the Consumer Electronics and Appliances Manufacturers Association (CEAMA).

If the trend continues, by March of 2014, the number of television sets sold in rural India—which accounts for two-thirds of the country’s population—this financial year will be 17 million, according to CEAMA estimates.

The increased importance of broadcasting media can also be attributed to the burgeoning satellite TV connections in the country. According to TAM Media Research, an audience measurement company, the number of cable and satellite TV-owning households in the country ballooned from 90 million to 126 million between 2009 and 2012.

This number is expected to reach nearly 150 million by 2014, a study done by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and KPMG this year estimated.

The expanding footprint of direct-to-home (DTH) networks also helped media penetrate deeper into rural markets. Dish TV India Ltd has 11 million connections, of which nearly half are in rural India. Similarly, half of Tata Sky’s 11.5 million subscribers are in rural India. Overall, DTH connections in the country have gone up from about 13 million in 2009 to more than 54 million in 2013.

“I believe one thing that DTH has been responsible for doing is giving the viewer different viewpoints because of the number of news channels that we are able to transmit," says Harit Nagpal, chief executive officer (CEO) of Tata Sky. “National as well as regional channels are available to the viewer now, if he chooses."

Television news editors agree that there is a discernible increase in the importance that broadcasters will play in next year’s general election.

“While election results are not decided on TV, its importance as a tool of creating the environment has grown," said Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of IBN18 Network.

Sardesai said both Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, in their own ways cultivated a larger-than-life image that they amplified through the television medium in the recent state election campaigns.

“Both made intelligent use of the media and understood the way to effectively convey their messages," he said.

It paid off. The AAP is set to form the first non-Congress, non-BJP state government in Delhi; the BJP returned to power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and wrested Rajasthan from the Congress.

Hal Varian, chief economist at Google Inc., attested to the importance of television on a recent visit to New Delhi. “TV is still very important to a country’s emotional politics," he said.

The importance of conveying the emotional import of a message is even more relevant in large mass events such as elections, says Biswajit Das, head of the Centre for Media, Culture and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi.

“TV in India has found its voice only in the form of spectacle and that too a public spectacle", said Das.

This reflected, for instance, in the anti-corruption campaign over the past two years as well as the clampdown on the protests that followed last year’s gang-rape and murder of a student in Delhi.

“It was a spectacle that was amplified by TV and severely damaged the credibility of the government," Das said.

In his view, there’s a broader sociological wave that is changing the manner in which television is being appropriated by the masses.

“In smaller towns and rural areas, there is also profound aspiration that is being unlocked due to TV; this is also having an impact on the concept of the kind of leader that they want to see running the country as well as on television," Das said.

It is far more important for politicians to be television-friendly now and it is apparent in the way that they are approaching the medium, says sociologist Dipankar Gupta.

He pointed to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s propensity to roll up his sleeves and Modi’s boisterous speeches as evidence of how politicians were changing their communication strategies while being aware of the idiosyncrasies of the visual medium. “If you read the speeches side by side, it is quite possible that the less animated one may read better. But it matters how energetic one appears on TV," he said.

To be sure, politicians and political parties have been using television to get their messages through or engage in propaganda for some years.

“If one were to take the longer arc, such a phenomenon has already been occurring in south India", said Sevanti Ninan, founder-editor of online media watchdog The Hoot and a Mint columnist.

Politicians are not barred from owning TV channels, but telecom and media sector regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has recommended that religious and political bodies as well as governments and government departments should not be allowed to own television channels. The government is yet to take a call on Trai proposals.

In the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, several major television channels are backed by political parties that use them to air their political messages. In Tamil Nadu, film-actor-turned-politician Vijaykanth launched Captain TV in 2010 while the family of Dravida Munetra Khazagam patriarch M. Karunanidhi launched Kalaignar TV in 2007.

Media analysts claim that the growing influence of the medium is driving more and more politicians and business interests to owning a channel.

“Business wise, it makes no sense to open another channel. Yet we are seeing dozens of new channels being created," said a media analyst on condition of anonymity.

The numbers reflect the trend. According to the ministry of information and broadcasting, India has 410 regional and national news channels, with the majority having been launched in the last five years.

“These days politicians are alert enough to realize that if someone watches Sahara TV in rural UP (Uttar Pradesh), they will go to a panel on it, rather than going and hanging around one of the New Delhi television channels," said a politician, requesting anonymity. “They don't want to miss out on even an inch of airtime in front of their rural voters", he added.

Of course, at non-election time, it’s the entertainment channels and not the news broadcasters that are most watched by television households. According to TAM Media Research, of the total viewership, 20% is around entertainment channels—a fact that politicians are yet to exploit.

The global experience of the way television and politics intertwine suggests that this may be possible here. “I think you will see politicians beginning to sell their messages and ideas on general entertainment channels soon," says P.N. Vasanti, director of the Center for Media Studies in New Delhi. Vasanti added that if for nothing else, politicians will use highly watched prime time slots to gain greater familiarity with the public. “Familiarity always helps and politicians shouldn’t be too far from the public for too long," she said.

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