Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Media In India

The ancient Indian tale of six blind men touching an elephant and then arguing about what it looks like is an apt metaphor about the media system in India. The sheer diversity that is India prevents any hasty analysis of its social and cultural practices. As part of this diverse social milieu, the media are characterized by a wide array of variations in their structure, values and practices. At the risk of generalization, what follows is a brief overview of the Indian media.

With a population exceeding a billion, scores of ethic communities, five major religions, and a history that dates back to antiquity, India’s present is as complex as its past. Charged with making sense of this complexity in the world’s largest democracy is a vibrant free press, a relatively controlled but rapidly expanding broadcast and electronic media, and surging Internet.

India’s print media industry, which continues to grow amid the global trend of declining readership, ranks fifth in the world.[1] There are now 44,000 publications in 100 different languages and dialects catering to 127 million readers. The vernacular papers account for 85 per cent of these publications. Although the English-speaking community constitutes only a small minority, the English press, historically more influential than the vernaculars, is the third largest in the world, directed at readers among the urban elite and upper echelon of the society. The press and the radio reach 33 percent of the population, television reaches 47 percent, cinema 18 percent, and cable and satellite television 9 percent. There are now 22 terrestrial and 100 satellite channels, with 8 devoted to news, reaching 70 million households, and 70,000 cable operators catering to 35 million subscribers, making India the third largest cable market after the U.S. and China.

Though the country is becoming the second largest English press (after the United States), the English speaking community constitutes only a small minority in a population of a billion. The vernacular papers in Hindi and regional languages have emerged as more influential and popular in the last few decades. Television in India remains largely a medium of entertainment, and its popularity among the population, almost half of whom are illiterate, continues to soar. Like in many other developing countries with high illiteracy rates and poor technological infrastructure, the Internet is not as ubiquitous as television, but Internet users in large metropolises are projected to reach 100 million by 2008. Private ISPs continue to proliferate since the government ended state-monopoly in the sector in 1998. But as of 2001, the Internet reaches only 0.37 percent of population despite India’s rising stature as a software power.

The vibrant press enjoys extensive political freedom, although Freedom House’s combined scores for both print and broadcast have often been “partly free.”[2] With the exception of a state of emergency during 1975-77, India’s press has not come under direct state control since independence of the country in 1947 after 200 years of British rule. In the early years following independence, the media regarded their job as a public mission, and voluntarily remained subservient to the government. However, in the subsequent decades the symbiotic relationship between politics and the press has taken several turns, from close allies to ferocious foes.

Television and the new media have further democratized communication, but it is only the print media that have contributed to political participation and exchange of ideas.[3] Principally, the press is at par with most developed nations, and it faces many of the same problems, such as increasing trend toward conglomeration, concentration, commercialization, sensationalism and the challenges of balancing the long-held responsibility of sustaining national unity of a culturally and linguistically diverse country with the expanding business interests. What distinguishes Indian mediascape is the digital divide between the urban haves and the rural have-nots. More than 35 percent of the population lives under poverty line. The reforms initiated in 1991 by the government have brought a sea change in the Indian media as it has in other businesses. The media’s known subservience to state socialism rooted in Gandhian and Nehruvian autarky is fast eroding. India is breaking away from its long-held tradition of austerity and has entered the global market of competition and consumerism.

A liberalization policy, though inconsistent, has resulted in the opening of the media sector to private and foreign investments. The government still owns Doordarshan, the Pan-Indian Terrestrial TV and All India Radio (AIR). They serve its propaganda purposes. AIR held exclusive monopoly on the country's airwaves since it was founded in 1936. But in March 2001 the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting finally began to loosen its stronghold on the country's airwaves and auctioned full-fledged commercial radio broadcasting licenses to private operators.[4] Across the country 180 frequencies were offered in 40 cities. But these frequencies are bared from airing news. Private businesses and family groups have long owned the print media, and Internet remains a Wild West.

Television and the cable industry have already been opened to foreign investment, mainly from Ruport Murdoch’s News Corp. Other global conglomerates the likes of AOL Time Warner, and Yahoo! have entered the field or are in the process of negotiating deals. Targeting the Indian market, CNN has launched a South Asia channel. But nowhere has there been so much debate than in the print media about foreign ownership. The government is determined to open non-daily print media to foreign investors, despite heated resistance in the print sector from large monopolistic conglomerates like the Times of India and Hindustan Times, ironically, the champions of liberalization.[5] Lacking financial resources to consolidate their operations, the vernacular press has been generally supportive of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) but critics continue to insist that FDI in print, a time-tested stable medium of communication and opinion, could have adverse effects on Indian culture and its national interest. The government’s approach has been cautious. In an effort to appease the major newspapers, FDI is limited just to 26 percent. The equity limit on foreign ownership in satellite broadcasting is relatively high, at 49 percent.

The government appears to be convinced that partial foreign ownership will have practically little effect in programming and content of the media in India. Indeed, according to a UNESCO report, in 1990 only 8 percent of the content in Indian media was exported from abroad, one of the lowest in the world.[6] However, Indian channels are quick to copy western genres and programs and adapt them to local tastes. For instance, Star TV’s “Kaun Banega Karorpati” that shattered rating records in 2001, is the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Star’s main rivals Sony and Zee have taken on other American themes such as reality shows. Even MTV India, one of the most popular channels, has adapted to local tastes, with more than 85 percent of its content drawn from popular Hindi soundtracks, and local pop.[7] The bottom line is that Indian media programming is mostly restricted by mass appeal of genuinely local tastes. Television programs are mostly reruns or copycats of popular local dramas, Hindi soundtracks, and formulaic, sentimental and stereotypical Indian films. Indeed, Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry in the Southern city of Mumbai, has reasons to be alarmed by nationally popular television programs.

India appears to be defying the America-centric idea of globalization or cultural imperialism. To its own surprise, the effects of foreign investment and technological innovations in the media have been just the reverse. The consolidation of Indian channels such as Zee, and the expansion of state-owned Doordarshan has not only forced foreign channels to adapt to local programming, it has also given rise to a new idea of Indian media imperialism in the region.[8] The Indian media, especially the satellite channels, reach the global Indian diasporas of 20 million, and the Hindi speaking populations in the subcontinent. The neighboring countries of Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan routinely confront images and sound bites that their big neighbor would hardly welcome from the West. Especially, every escalation in the continuing India-Pakistan tensions spurts Pakistani charges of Indian info war, media jingoism, distortion, and bias.

Parallel to “Indianization” is a strong trend of localization. Particularly, in the southern states, regional language channels such as Eenadu, Sun, Udaya, and Surya TV are more popular than any national or foreign channel. To target these niche markets and to tap huge business potential, foreign channels such as Star, BBC and others are strategizing to launch regional channels.[9]

But with political freedom and the rapid growth of the media industry there has also been an increase in the concern for quality and media ethics.[10] Critics have noted a disproportionate representation of minorities, unfair professional practices, proliferating obscenity and upper caste and class bias in print, as well as broadcast media. Print media content, though largely mediocre, is rapidly leaning towards shallow commercialism. Market imperatives have taken precedence over editorial independence and even the venerable The Hindu, which resembled the inornate Wall Street Journal, is turning gaudy in the race for tabloidization. Media is increasingly turning into utilitarian products, segmenting communities to diversified niches. In recent years, cases of plagiarism, deception, and fabrication have come to the fore. In September 1999, V.N. Narayanan, a well-respected editor of Hindustan Times shocked media professionals when rival Pioneer exposed his verbatim plagiarism from a British columnist. The editor resigned. In mid-2001,, a muckracking site, created controversy when it revealed it had used prostitutes and a hidden-camera in its exposé of corruption in defense procurement.[11]

Unlike in the U.S., the government possesses vast regulatory apparatus, consisting of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Prasar Bharati, a broadcast monitoring institution, and the Press Council. However, given the political appointments, private media find these institutions as ethically unbinding. Yet the government has the power to censor security-related information through Official Secrecy Act. Materials inciting communal, ethnic and religious hatred, depicting pornography or obscenity are also subject to governmental censor, though without prior restraint. However, there is a jurisdictional hurdle in controlling content in hundreds of freely available satellite channels linked up from abroad. Self-instituted codes of ethics in the post-liberalization, profit-driven media may make it difficult to balance industry interests with that of the mass consumers.

In sum, India’s vast heterogeneous media is in a state of transition. The liberalization of economy has enabled the media to consolidate in distinct clusters, local, national, and marginally global. The affluent consumers have a wide array of choices in terms of information and entertainment. Yet the average Indian citizen is out of touch with most of these modern media and continues to live in the acoustic, oral environment, struggling to make sense of the world around, analogous to the men with the proverbial elephant.

[1] The constantly changing figures, cited throughout this monograph, are taken from various sources published recently. See Gunaratne, Shelton (ed.), Handbook of Media In Asia, London: Sage, 2000, See chapter on India. Also see Kudaisya, Gyanesh. “India’s new Mantra: The Internet.” Current History, April 2001, 100(645):162; Landler, Mark. “A glut of cable TV in India,” The New York Times, March 23, 2001 pC1; Page, David (2001), Satellites Over South Asia: Broadcasting, Culture and the Public Interest. New Delhi: Sage.
[2] Guida, Kristen. “Press Freedom In 2001.” Freedom House. Online at (Accessed on 26 January, 2002).

[3] Dutta-Ray, Sunanda K (2000). “Country Report: India.” Media and Democracy In Asia: An AMIC Compilation. Singapore: Asian Media Information and Communication Center,  p. 46-65.

[4]  “India Tunes In.” Asiaweek, August 13, 2001 p.183.

[5] Shahin, Sultan, “India's print media make their own headlines.” Asia Times, Jan 19, 2002. Online at (Accessed on 26 January, 2002).

[6] UNESCO. “Television Transnationalization: Europe and Asia,” UNESCO Reports and Papers No. 109. Paris: UNESCO, 1994.

[7]  “Most Asian Video Nets Focus On Music.” Billboard, February 17, 2001, 113 (7):1.

[8] Sonwalkar, Prasun. “India: The Makings of Little Cultural/Media Imperialism,” Gazette, 63(6): 505-519.

[9] Sehgal, Ramesh. “Star TV eyes big investment in India.” Multichannel, Oct 2, 2000, 21(40): 46. See also Nag, Ashok. “BBC World unspools its digital service.” Variety, Jan 7, 2002, 385 (7):42.

[10] Goenka, Vivek. “Journalism in India: A Changing Perspective,” Editor & Publisher, June 22, 1996, 129 (25):68.

[11] Joseph, Manu. “A Sticky Wicket for” Wired. May 12, 2001. Online at,1283,43677,00.html (Accessed on January 25, 2001).

Citation: Dharma Adhikari, “Media in India,” In Art Silverblatt and Nikolai Zlobin (eds.), International Communications- A Media Literacy Approach, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 2004, pp. 179-184.