There have been two major developments in the television industry in India in the last two years. In 2021, the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, were amended to include a statutory mechanism for redressal of grievances and complaints of viewers relating to content broadcast by television channels in accordance with the provisions of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. In 2022, the Union Cabinet approved the policy guidelines for the uplinking and downlinking of television channels from India. While an uplink refers to the link from a ground station up to a satellite, a downlink is the link from a satellite down to one or more ground stations or receivers. The amended Cable Television Network Rules bring in a strong institutional system for redressing grievances and make broadcasters and their self-regulating bodies accountable and responsible. The policy guidelines for uplinking and downlinking are aimed at making India the hub of uplinking as they allow Indian teleports to uplink foreign channels.
An expensive and cumbersome affair
For almost three decades after television started in India in September 1959, broadcasting was solely under the control of the state. In the early 1990s, cable television arrived in India unannounced. The government was unprepared to check transmission and broadcast through foreign satellites. Cable television networks mushroomed haphazardly, and foreign television networks invaded our culture through their programmes. In order to regulate this burgeoning cable network industry and to make registration of cable operators mandatory, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 was brought in. But it was only in 2000 that the first license to set up a teleport — an earth station facility from where TV signals can be uplinked to a geostationary satellite — was granted.
The satellite invasion began in the country in the early 1990s and the cable industry acted as a harbinger of the new media revolution. Some people in India joined hands with some Non-Resident Indians in Hong Kong to launch the country’s first private television channel, Zee TV, in October 1992. The NRIs took an idle AsiaSat satellite transponder on lease for five years to uplink programmes. In the next few years, Business India Television; Asia Television Network, which was mainly a Hindi feature film channel; and Jain TV also began operating. All these channels flew out tapes every day to Hong Kong, Singapore or Moscow for uplinking. Using the Russian satellite was cheaper than using the satellite in Hong Kong or Singapore. Broadcasting was obviously an expensive and cumbersome affair – imagine airlifting video cassettes to foreign shores for uplinking before the programmes beamed into Indian households through the cable network.
Setting up earth stations
When Indian broadcasters were allowed to uplink from Indian soil, the facility was made available through the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL). Instead of being flown to Hong Kong, Singapore or Moscow, the tapes were now being carried to the VSNL office in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), Government of India, notified the ‘Guidelines for Uplinking from India’ in July 2000 and private broadcasters got permission to set up their own earth stations and to uplink. The first license was given to TV Today Network Limited in November 2000 and the broadcaster started a 24X7 Hindi news channel, Aaj Tak, from December 31, 2000. Aaj Tak became the first Indian private television channel to uplink signals from its own earth station. In 2001, five broadcasters – Sun TV Network Limited, Entertainment Television Network Private Limited, Ushodaya Enterprises Private Limited, Essel Shyam Communications Limited and Asianet Infrastucture Private Limited – set up their earth stations with the facility to uplink.
The MIB issued uplinking and downlinking policy guidelines in 2011 for private satellite TV channels and teleports. In view of the challenges from the evolving broadcasting technology, changes in market scenarios and other operational developments in the broadcasting sector, the government decided to review and amend the policy guidelines for uplinking and downlinking of television channels. The Ministry published the draft policy guidelines on April 30, 2020, and invited comments and suggestions from stakeholders within 15 days. In view of the lockdown due to COVID-19, the time limit was extended twice. After considering the comments and suggestions, the policy guidelines for uplinking and downlinking of television channels from India were notified on November 9, 2022.
The guidelines aim to create a conducive environment in line with the principle of ease of doing business on a sound regulatory framework. But more importantly, these are aimed at making India a teleport hub for other countries. From the days when Indian broadcasters were flying tapes to foreign countries for uplinking to the times when foreign broadcasters would send their programmes to Indian teleports for uplink, there has been monumental progress in the television industry. Instead of debating the section that makes it obligatory for broadcasters to undertake public service broadcasting for a minimum of 30 minutes in a day on themes of national importance and social relevance, it is this aspect of the new policy guidelines that needs to be celebrated in India’s ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Kaal’.
Rakesh Kumar Goswami is Professor and Regional Director of Indian Institute of the Mass Communication, Jammu