Off Camera

How the absence of effective regulation has shaped Indian television broadcasting

01 December 2018

IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED INDEPENDENCE, a certain kind of puritanism entered All India Radio, out of which Doordarshan was later formed. The first information minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, had already issued a diktat against providing employment in broadcasting to those whose “private life was a public scandal.” This rule, though never applied to men, banned an entire generation of talented courtesans and artists from a promising platform.

The emergence of television in the shadow of this paternalistic developmental state was one of the factors that led to the Indian government’s dominance over television media and the latter’s preoccupation with access. Besides attempts to popularise the government’s welfare programmes, there was little thought given to the enormous possibilities offered by the media. The Chanda Committee set up by Indira Gandhi, who was then the information and broadcasting minister, concluded in a 1966 report that ministers had repeatedly treated television as an “expensive luxury” intended for the entertainment of affluent sections of society. All this was miles away from the broadcasting scene in the United States and the United Kingdom, which were capitalist affairs, with regulatory authorities in place to evenly disburse its benefits.

Another factor leading to the government’s excessive control over television media was the nineteenth-century Telegraph Act, which remained consistently out of sync with evolving technology. The Act survives even today, but it has been considerably neutralised since 1995, when the Supreme Court ruled that airwaves were public property over which the government had no monopoly. Since then, the telegraph has been redefined as any instrument capable of transmitting or receiving “signs, signals, writings, images, sounds or intelligence of any nature.” Over the years, however, its very existence in the statute books has dampened the entrepreneurial spirit that burst forth in the wake of economic liberalisation. That the enforcement of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 occurred four years after CNN aired the Gulf War, and after the rise of the cable television industry in Mumbai and other metropolitan cities, is proof of this. In addition, the Act tailed the launch of NDTV—as a production house—by a good seven years.

Various governments attempted to make the state-owned Doordarshan less bureaucratic. They set up the supposedly autonomous Prasar Bharati, a broadcasting agency, to achieve this in 1997. In reality, though, Prasar Bharati’s board members are largely appointed by the government and remain tied to the priorities and concerns of the ruling party. Under the rubric of the “Functions and Power of the Corporation,” the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act, 1990 clearly states that the “provisions of this section shall be in addition to, and not in derogation of, the provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.”

A second strand of policymaking has been a major concern with ensuring that vertical and horizontal monopolies are not formed in the media space. In 2009, the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad, compiled a first-of-its-kind report on cross-media ownership, which examined cross-media holdings and concluded that there was some evidence of consolidation and concentration. It also flagged the twin fears of cross-media and vertical consolidation, though it ruled out any immediate restriction on both. The report and its conclusion were in many ways premature, since the convergence of media platforms, such as telecommunications and the internet, is nowhere near complete, unlike the situation in more developed countries.

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.

Keywords: news media television regulation telecom regulatory authority of india TV News broadcasting Subhash Chandra NDTV