After 50 years of TV in India, the medium today is an amalgam of multiple styles and influences.
The term for TV in Hindi is Doordarshan. The anniversary that is currently bringing the national broadcaster a lot of attention is that of the medium, not the organisation, which did not come into existence till 1976. While half a century of television in India is substantially about Doordarshan, it is by no means entirely so, nor has a single broadcasting culture emerged.
The advent of TV was with school broadcasting in 1959, confined to Delhi; there was farm broadcasting in 1967 inspired by Vikram Sarabhai, there was also Chitrahaar, produced by the TV division of Akashvani. Before Doordarshan was born, there was SITE, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment which added its own dimension to the emerging television experience, exposing villages in six States to the idiot box for the first time.
For something like 15 years from 1976 onwards, Doordarshan held sway, rather notionally, since there really weren’t that many TV sets being bought, after the first spurt of colour TV sales for the Asiad in 1982. And then in the decade of the nineties emerged the other broadcasting strands which have shaped our composite television culture.
Thumbing through old clippings helps to restore a touch of realism to the fond nostaligia that has been peddled for the last couple of weeks, both on Doordarshan and off it. Many influences have shaped television as it is today: the early video magazines, available from 1989, the first cable telecasts which began in 1991, the advent of Zee TV exactly a year later, and Doordarshan’s fluctuating responses to all of these. Information and broadcasting ministers and director generals of DD loom large, as do revenue earning worries, the euphemism “public broadcaster” that is being used to describe government-owned TV, for much of its 50 years, is just that — a fond euphemism!
In October 1992, the month that Zee was born, Doordarshan’s then director general and his bosses in the ministry invited “prime advertisers” to offer suggestions on what sort of programming it should be doing. Rather unprecented, that. The previous month the new DG had given a press conference at which he said, “Our main aim is to earn more revenue.” Meanwhile Zee made its entry, with Hindi films, old DD serials, and game shows. Around the same time, Harshad Mehta was making news on the video magazines Eyewitness and Newstrack. And MTV was airing music videos of a kind not seen before on Indian television. When Babri Masjid fell a couple of months later, censored copies of Newstrack became the most coveted TV viewing while Doordarshan showed nothing.
By January 1993 it was no long possible to associate channels with a specific kind of programming. That month Star TV telecast the Republic Day parade, shortly after Zee launched budget programmes on its channel. In early 1993 Doordarshan launched a Metro Hour, as a precursor to the new Metro channel, replete with song and dance, with a young woman called Ekta Kapoor, clowning as she presented Superhit Muquabla!
A month later Doordarshan launched Classroom 2000, a mid morning interactive school programme on its main channel, the public broadcaster’s valiant effort to maintain a double act. Around the same time movie songs decreed too lewd for Doordarshan were surfacing on the Metro channel. By mid 1994 field research was showing that women, middle and working class households were worrying about what film songs on TV were doing to their children. And Mamata Banerjee was standing up in Parliament to say that Doordarshan was becoming a porn show.
Meanwhile Rajat Sharma had become a current affairs star with Aap ki Adalat, putting Bombay Deputy Municipal Commissioner G.R. Khairnar on air, abusing Sharad Pawar, and featuring Pawar the week after, shrugging it all off with a smile. In October 1994 Doordarshan began three hours of MTV on what was by now called Channel 2! A few years down the line MTV would embrace Bollywood with vigour and completely submerge its earlier identity. You might say then that cross pollination began fairly early into the decade of competition, and then became the norm.
Pre Prasar Bharati, in 1989 and in 1996, Doordarshan helped the government of the day fight elections. K.K. Tewary and T.N. Seshan were breathing down the AIR and DD news division’s neck in 1986, in 1996 P.V. Narasimha Rao tried the music video route to re-election. Neither approach helped. With the advent of Prasar Bharati in 1997, Doordarshan gave us government-sponsored autonomy for a while. Jaipal Reddy, the then I and B minister, could not have imagined back then that a day would come when the CEO of Prasar Bharati would declare himself autonomous of his Chairman, and not necessarily in the service of the public! But in 2009 that too has come to pass.
Over half a century then, India has evolved a broadcasting culture which is an amalgam of varied television cultures. It is about public television aping private channels, about Films Division influencing Doordarshan’s TV idiom, about Bollywood meeting MTV, Mexican soaps meeting Mumbai’s serial factory, mythologicals meeting Bollywood, and Fox News meeting Aaj Tak to spawn hybrid clones. And then there is the South: you only have to tune in to ETV, or Sun Music or one of Kerala’s brightly coloured channels to realise that their visual culture has a different ethos, part classical, part gaudy.
To call this inheritance “golden” as Doordarshan has been doing, is a trifle excessive. But nor can we complain that the last twenty five years have been dull.