Book Excerpt: How The Television Boom Took Hold In India
Excerpted from ‘Words, Sounds, Images- A History of Media and Entertainment in India’, with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India.
Doordarshan took a giant leap in the 1980s. In 1982, to coincide with the Asian Games in New Delhi, it started its colour transmission with a national network of colour and satellite link-up via Indian National Satellite System (INSAT) transponders. This was the decade when a new transmitter was added almost every other day to the ever-expanding Doordarshan network. There were fifteen million TV homes by the end of the decade, but the viewership was higher—touching a hundred million viewers during peak times when programmes like Ramayana and Mahabharat were aired. While the initial expansion of TV in India happened during Mrs Indira Gandhi’s time, it was after Rajiv Gandhi took over as the prime minister that the true power of TV was unleashed. In the 1980s, Doordarshan news—read by the likes of Tejeshwar Singh, Neethi Ravindran, Rini Simon, Sunit Tandon, Minu Talwar, Salma Sultan, Raman, Shobhana Jagdeesh and Shammi Narang—was a staid but dignified exercise. The lady newsreaders almost always wore a sari and the men a suit. They read the news without much drama, in prosaic English or Hindi. Both domestic and global events started featuring visual coverage and phone-ins by correspondents were introduced. Gradually ‘hot switching’ between live reports from different centres became a regular feature.
The credibility of televised news was high and given the poor literacy levels in India, it was watched eagerly by all who had access to a TV set.
Important regional centres usually did two bulletins a day in their local languages, with emphasis on local and regional news. Most centres now had electronic news gathering (ENG) units for on-location coverage of important events. Sometimes major International events would be covered live. Of course, as expected of a state broadcaster, news bulletins would feature inaugurations and ribbon-cutting ceremonies featuring the prime minister, ministers and other important persons, often live.
Flush with the overwhelming response to Doordarshan’s reach and impact during Indira Gandhi’s government, in July 1983 the central government announced a Rs 680-million special project for a massive expansion of television transmitters. This was aimed at bringing 70 percent of the population under the television umbrella within the year 1984. Under this plan, the installation of 13 high-power transmitters (HPT) of 10 kW each and 112 low-power transmitters (LPT) of 100W each, was undertaken. All towns with a population of a hundred thousand or more were covered by these transmitters. Broadcast and production infrastructure and new studios were added or built in all large cities. By the end of 1982, there were about 2.1 million television sets with an estimated viewership of over 15 million. By the end of the decade, this number would grow to over 15 million sets and viewership of 75 million and rising by the day.
On 6 December 1982, Mrs Gandhi’s government set up a working group to enquire into and report on the requirements of software by Doordarshan. The group, headed by Dr P.C. Joshi, director of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, was asked to map the future of television in India. The committee recommended that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting should be reorganized and a separate board on the lines of the Railway Board should be created, in which only people with professional experience should be appointed. As expected, the report was quietly buried in bureaucratic red tape and the mandarins of Shastri Bhawan (where the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s office was located) and Mandi House (where the Doordarshan headquarters was) carried on merrily. Politicians always see radio and TV as effective media for communicating government policy and the ideology of the party in power. News consists of what matters to them. This was the case with Doordarshan too, and unfortunately it’s still the case.
The rapid deployment of the INSAT series of communications satellites by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) helped Doordarshan spread its wings and soar.
As more and more transponders became available, it was possible to reach out to even the remotest parts of India by erecting low-power transmitters. In 1986, the metros got a second channel, offering viewers a choice to view alternate programming. Sound multiplexing technology made it possible for the simultaneous broadcast of pre-dubbed entertainment programmes in different audio tracks. This was a critical improvement in a multi-lingual country like India. I produced my first programme for Doordarshan in 1984. I shot India’s first music video featuring Nazia Hassan and Zoheb Hassan singing songs from Biddu’s album Young Tarang, and this was one of the first sponsored programmes on Doordarshan. There were other similar early attempts at occasional sponsored programmes in 1994 like the quiz show Surf Mashoor Mahal, produced by Ronnie Screwvala, sponsored by Hindustan Lever and anchored by director Raman Kumar. However, it was only later that year, when India’s first soap opera Hum Log was telecast, that privately produced television programming on TV became a reality. A mention must be made of Vasant Sathe, the information and broadcasting minister; S.S. Gill, the secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting; and Doordarshan officials like Harish Khanna, Shailendra Shankar and Shashi Kapoor who played an important role in shaping the destiny of the channel.
Doordarshan’s staple in the early days were the Sunday feature film, bi-weekly compilations of film songs—Chitrahar, Chayageet and Rangoli— daily news bulletins in English and Hindi, and some imported shows. After India’s victory in the cricket World Cup in England in 1983, cricket became an even bigger passion of the masses and live commentary of matches drew huge viewership. In 1985, Gill and Doordarshan officials met film producers in Mumbai and asked them to produce programmes for Doordarshan in lieu of free commercial time. This was a momentous decision as several bigwigs like B.R. Chopra, Ramanand Sagar, G.P. Sippy, Mrinal Sen, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Lekh Tandon, Basu Chatterjee, Shyam Benegal and the younger filmmakers like Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah, Ketan Mehta, Vinod Pande, Sridhar Kshirsagar, Prakash Jha, Shankar Nag, Prem Kishen, Dheeraj Kumar, Praveen Nischol, Neerja Guleri, Sudhir Mishra and I responded eagerly. Others like the TV host Manju Singh and media professionals like Shobha Doctor, Ronnie Screwvala, Roger Periera and A.G. Krishnamurthy too jumped on the fiction bandwagon.
Ramayana and Mahabharat had a cataclysmic effect on the nation, as thousands would sit glued to their TV sets to watch these weekly shows.
The whole country would virtually come to a standstill during the broadcast.
Attracting a near-impossible 90 percent viewership, these shows were commercial blockbusters, earning millions in advertisement revenue. Buniyaad—Ramesh Sippy was the director and I was the executive producer—set a new benchmark of quality programming as it became a must-watch show aired twice a week. Other important shows were the first sitcoms, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi directed by Kundan Shah and Manjul Sinha, produced by S.S. Oberoi and Khandaan, an Indian take on the popular American shows Dallas and Dynasty directed by Sridhar Kshirsagar. In 1988, economist and psephologist Prannoy Roy and his journalist wife Radhika started a weekly show of international events, The World This Week. Interestingly, Doordarshan was also very popular in India’s neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan.
Amit Khanna is a writer, filmmaker, and media guru.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.