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A Golden Goose of Indian Television

Television in India has been in existence for nigh on four decades. For the first 17 years, it spread haltingly and transmission was mainly in black & white. The thinkers and policy makers of the country, which had just been liberated from centuries of colonial rule, frowned upon television, looking on at it as a luxury Indians could do without. In 1955 a Cabinet decision was taken disallowing any foreign investments in print media which has since been followed religiously for nearly 45 years. Sales of TV sets, as reflected by licences issued to buyers were just 676,615 until 1977.

Television has come to the forefront only in the past 21 years and more so in the past 13. There were initially two ignition points: the first in the eighties when colour TV was introduced by state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan (DD) timed with the 1982 Asian Games which India hosted. It then proceeded to install transmitters nationwide rapidly for terrestrial broadcasting. In this period no private enterprise was allowed to set up TV stations or to transmit TV signals.

The second spark came in the early nineties with the broadcast of satellite TV by foreign programmers like CNN followed by Star TV and a little later by domestic channels such as Zee TV and Sun TV into Indian homes. Prior to this, Indian viewers had to make do with DD’s chosen fare which was dull, non-commercial in nature, directed towards only education and socio-economic development. Entertainment programmes were few and far between. And when the solitary few soaps like Hum Log (1984), and mythological dramas: Ramayan (1987-88) and Mahabharat (1988-89) were televised, millions of viewers stayed glued to their sets

When, urban Indians learnt that it was possible to watch the Gulf War on television, they rushed out and bought dishes for their homes. Others turned entrepreneurs and started offering the signal to their neighbours by flinging cable over treetops and verandahs. From the large metros satellite TV delivered via cable moved into smaller towns, spurring the purchase of TV sets and even the up gradation from black & white to colour TVs.

DD responded to this satellite TV
invasion by launching an entertainment and commercially driven channel and introduced entertainment programming on its terrestrial network. This again fuelled the purchase of sets in the hinterlands where cable TV was not available.


The initial success of the channels had a snowball effect: more foreign programmers and Indian entrepreneurs flagged off their own versions. From two channels prior to 1991, Indian viewers were exposed to more than 50 channels by 1996. Software producers emerged to cater to the programming boom almost overnight. Some talent came from the film industry, some from advertising and some from journalism.

More and more people set up networks until there was a time in 1995-96 when an estimated 60,000 cable operators existed in the country. Some of them had subscriber bases as low as 50 to as high as in the thousands. Most of the networks could relay just 6 to 14 channels as higher channel relaying capacity required heavy investments, which cable operators were loathe to make. American and European cable networks evinced interest, as well as large Indian business groups, who set up sophisticated head ends capable of delivering more than 30 channels. These multi-system operators (MSOs) started buying up local networks or franchising cable TV feeds to the smaller operators for a fee. This phenomenon led to resistance from smaller cable operators who joined forces and started functioning as MSOs. The net outcome was that the number of cable operators in the country has fallen to 30,000.

The rash of players who rushed to set up satellite channels discovered that advertising revenue was not large enough to support them. This led to a shakeout. At least half a dozen either folded up or aborted the high-flying plans they had drawn up, and started operating in a restricted manner. Some of them converted their channels into basic subscription services charging cable operators a carriage fee. Foreign cable TV MSOs discovered that the cable TV market was too disorganised for them to operate in and at least three of them decided to postpone their plans and got out of the market..

The government started taxing cable operators in a bid to generate revenue. The rates varied in the 26 states that go to form India and ranged from 35 per cent upwards. The authorities moved in to regulate the business and a Cable TV Act was passed in 1995. The apex court in the country, the Supreme Court, passed a judgement that the air waves are not the property of the Indian government and any Indian citizen wanting to use them should be allowed to do so. The government reacted by making efforts to get some regulation in place by setting up committees to suggest what the broadcasting law of India should be, as the sector was still being governed by laws which were passed in 19th century India. A broadcasting bill was drawn up in 1997 and introduced in parliament. But it was not passed into an Act. State-owned telecaster Doordarshan and radiocaster All India Radio were brought under a holding company called the Prasar Bharati under an act that had been gathering dust for seven years, the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990. The Act served to give autonomy to the broadcasters as their management was left to a supervisory board consisting of retired professionals and bureaucrats.


A committee headed by a senior Congress (I) politician Sharad Pawar and consisting of other politicians and industrialist was set up to review the contents of the Broadcasting Bill. It held discussions with industry, politicians, and consumers and a report was even drawn up. But the United Front government fell and since then the report and the Bill have been consigned to the dustbin. But before that it issued a ban on the sale of Ku-band dishes and on digital direct-to-home Ku-band broadcasting, which the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Television was threatening to start in India. ISkyB, the Murdoch DTH venture, has since been wallowing in quicksand and in recent times has even shed a lot of employees. But News Corp has been running a C-band DTH venture in the country which has around 20,000 subscribers.

In 1999, a BJP-led government has been threatening to once again allow DTH Ku-band broadcasting and it has been talking of dismantling the Prasar Bharati and once again reverting Doordarshan’s and All India Radio’s control back in the government’s hands. Some things change only to remain the same.


The year 2000 will be remembered for a single show that dominated the Indian television industry and went on to switch the fortunes of some media companies. Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Amitabh Bachchan hosted game show based on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, not only became the most-watched programme on private satellite television but also catapaulted Star Plus into leadership position.

On the back of the success of Star Plus, Rupert Murdoch built his media empire. If Subhash Chandra had tasted success all through these years since Zee launched, 2000 was a turning point in Zee’s history. Chandra’s dream of creating a media company that would march into the convergence era faced severe threat and the internal weakness of his organisation stood exposed. It was clearly Murdoch’s year. After divorcing his business from Zee, his Star Group acquired a 26 per cent stake in the Rajan Raheja-owned Hathway Cable & Datacom for an estimated $50-60 million. This marked a re-entry of Murdoch into cable after selling his 50 per cent stake in Chandra’s Siticable and gave him a presence in a cable network which had around one million subscribers.

Sony Entertainment Television, which was competing fiercely against Zee at the time, also floundered as it came under the attack from three Star Plus programmes - Bachchan’s show which gave away prize money of Rs 10 million, flanked by the Balaji Telefilms’ produced soaps Kyunki saas bhi kabhie bahu thi and Kahaani ghar ghar kii.

A Golden Goose Of Indian Television - Continued

Contributed By :  Saumendra Das, Asst. Professor, Aditya Institute Of Technology And Management; Tekkali (A.P.)

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