Television: An extension of our times
A new age of information and communication technology is propelling the world in unclear directions. With technical advancements increasing media accessibility, it is time to debate media objectivity in the light of global incidents, says N. SHASHI KUMAR in the first of a three-part article.
It was the broadcast of the Gulf War that gave a fillip to the Cable and Satellite television industry.
WE are, on one hand, told that we have stepped out of the industrial age into the era of the information or communications revolution. On the other, we are warned that all talk of such an abrupt transition is, at best, simplistic and, at worst, a devious ploy to undo the scientific, materialistic underpinnings of history. Be that as it may, what does seem apparent is that information and communications technology (ICT) is in the driver's seat, even if the direction it is taking the world is not clear. It is also fairly evident that the industrial revolution was patently unequal, as much in its process as in its result, providing the tools of mechanised production to an industrialising north and denying it to a resource-exploited, often colonized, south, thereby creating the much-talked-about yawning gap between the two. The instruments of the information and communications revolution were, in contrast, accessible to the developing countries close on the heels of their prototyping in the developed world. The technologies of the cinema, broadcast and the computer came to us almost on par with the west, raising fond hopes of a historic opportunity to bridge the north-south divide.
The Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) technology too was available to India and South Asia almost simultaneously as in the west in the mid-1980s. It was the CNN offering of the Gulf war 1991 a war whose conduct and coverage tended to merge in popular consciousness as a grand militaristic video game that gave a fillip to Cable and Satellite (C&S) in the region. The initiative came from below, from the small-time cable operator whose grey-market entrepreneurship set he cabling rolling. If there was no law yet that enabled or regulated Cable and Satellite TV, there was no law against it either. The only piece of legislation that had some bearing on the situation was the century-old Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, which forbade transmission of wireless signals except by, or with the explicit permission of, a State agency. But the Act was silent on the reception of wireless signals. Cashing in on that silence, the cable wallah as he came to be called, quickly strung cables across rows of houses, set up a ramshackle head-end and control room some where in between, and brought images of the war to his subscribers who, until then, were on an almost exclusive diet of terrestrial, state-run, Doordarshan programming. It must, however, be pointed out that this ground swell of a cable revolution came at a time when the state-run television itself was breaking out of its paternalistic-pedagogic mould and allowing independent producers reasonable space and say in what came to be identified as the glasnost and perestroika phase of Doordarshan perhaps its finest moments just before it was swamped by a host of independent satellite channels.
If the modest neighbourhood cable operator showed the way, he was soon to lose out to a second wave of organised cable networks, who acquired a foral "right of way" for cabling from local governments or authorities, built large head-end farms that housed several dishes and catered to hundreds, and soon thousands, of homes from each such facility. The big players, some of them global and already in the channels business in the region, were soon on the cable scene and, through a series of buy-outs, mergers and forced strategic alliances, established their monopolistic sway over distribution. Through it all, and well until the recent move towards a Convergence Act, which conceals more than it reveals, the state remained a bemused spectator, alternately marvelling at the freewheeling growth of this new sector and ruing the absence of any regulation. Even in the early 1990s, agents of established and aspiring multi national corporations (MNC) in the mass media were active in new and emerging markets with an eager eye for acquisitions and alliances. With Europe and North America saturated, and much of the rest of the world having stringently regulated information regimes or insufficient purchasing power to sustain a mass media free market, they zeroed in on Asia and particularly India, where a "free sky" policy prevailed by default, as the preferred investment destination. Indigenous capital and intitiative in the region were soon striking deals with the visitors. The very first channels to have a larger South Asian presence, Zee and Star TV, were quickly drawn into the Murdoch orbit. Zee's Subhash Chandra worked out a favourable, if complicated, arrangement with Murdoch's News Corp, with a buy back option on shares which he exercised in 1999. The Hong Kong Chinese entrepreneur Li-Ka Shing, who launched the pan-regional AsiaSat broadcasting satellite platform, and, on it, the channel Star TV (Satellite Television Asian Region), was to hand it over on a golden platter to Murdoch.
The trajectory that propels the mass media into an MNC business also pre-determines its content. Wrested from its region-specific or "national" moorings, the cultural product tends to become fairly homogenised, standardised fare. While invoking the alibis of free market demand and competition, an inexorable supply side process is set in motion. Indeed, "Murdochism," in this generic sense, is a throw back to "Fordism" which was the hallmark of American industrialism. Henry Ford's car factory at Detroit exemplified the latter phase of the industrial revolution just as Manchester and textile manufacture typified the earlier period. The assembly line production method, period-specific planning and organisational principles introduced here were to become a pervasive model of 20th Century industrialism, so much so that even Stalin relied on the Fordist model in the industralisation of the Soviet Union, even if Charlie Chaplin's brilliant caricature of it, as the worker programmed to fix nuts and bolts on the frenetic assembly line in "Modern Times", exposed its dehumanising character. Ford's cryptic offer that "any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants as long as it is back" sums up the notion, rather than real, choice in such a dispensation.
(To be continued)
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