As innumerable media corporations execute decisions made in boardrooms (where "globalization" and "deregulation" are the mantras), the challenges facing international communication scholars become veritable riddles of the Sphinx. They watch in bewilderment as transborder commercial satellites pulverize the protective, monopolistic, state-controlled broadcasting regimes of erstwhile colonies of South Asia. They ponder as the antediluvian legislation pertaining to airwaves prevalent in these nations fails in its attempts to cope with what Ithiel de Sola Pool called the new "technologies of freedom" (Etheredge 1997). Imagine their plight when they see the comprador bourgeoisie collaborate, nay, fraternize with the "invaders," waving market-friendly banners which spell out "joint venture."
This paper is an essay in empathy, the beneficiary being the aforementioned scholars of global media. Focusing on the Indian subcontinent, the author discusses the complex set of events leading up to the current conjuncture (the term used here in its fullest Althusserian import) in the nation's mediascape. The paper draws on literature in the field of global communication; print-media reports from the last six years; and a series of interviews with broadcast entrepreneurs, analysts, and consultants, conducted by the author in India.
It argues that the promise of global interconnectivity through new technology can fast become "technological" and "cultural imperialism" unless guided by a well-grounded understanding of global difference, national philosophies regarding the role of electronic mass media, and above all, the perils of leapfrogging developing societies into media ecologies borrowed heavily from the industrialized West. Finally, it underscores the importance of localizing the debate on globalization, allowing the concerned communities to develop and articulate broadcasting architectures most appropriate to their new role in the "global village."
The "Wonderland" of Communication Satellites
|There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!" (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before see a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "Down the Rabbit Hole"
The Gulf War of 1990-91 did more than just convey images of SCUD missiles punching their targets. It also showcased to a captive worldwide audience, the technology that made this possible. Big city hotels with rooftop dish antennas were able to relay CNN's live reports to an aspiring, upwardly-mobile class of Indians. A class that would soon feature in India's own war of the airwaves.
Communication satellites are not new to India. In tune with the developmental communication rhetoric of the 1960s-1970s India conducted the world's largest techno-social experiment using a NASA satellite (Agrawal 1986, 10). The SITE project (Satellite Instructional Technology Experiment) of 1975-76 represented India's communication philosophy: a categorical rejection of the entertainment component of electronic mass media and a commitment to realizing their potential as agencies of social change. The models developed by Daniel Lerner and Wilbur Schramm served as guidelines for many of these experiments (Singhal and Rogers 1989).
While television broadcasting under Doordarshan (from Sanskrit "distant vision") had already begun in 1959 as experimental programs to villages around Delhi, the SITE experiment unfolded the "national" reach of the medium for the first time. Indian broadcasting entered the satellite age with the launching of the first Indian satellite, INSAT-1A (Indian National Satellite) in April, 1982.
The viewers of CNN's live broadcast of the Gulf War in 1991 had lived through a decade of huge domestic growth in broadcasting led by a monopolistic, state-controlled Doordarshan. Plan outlays, coupled with the nation's aggressive space research program, had assured incremental coverage of India's remotest regions. From a mere 26% of the population in 1982, Doordarshan's reach grew to approximately 80% by 1991 (Audience Research Unit 1996).
Interestingly, the avowed non-commercial objectives had given way to the immense revenue-earning possibilities of the medium. Doordarshan's commercial revenue through program sponsorships on its single national network grew from a meager Rs 159 million in 1982 to a whopping Rs 3 billion in 1992 (Audience Research Unit 1996). According to Kiran Karnik (1997), Managing Director of Discovery Communications in India, commercialism "completely overtook" the professed developmental communication objectives. "At the end of the year," he adds, "they would not say what great programs they did, what changes they brought, what social programs they did--but this was the profit that was made, this was the ad revenue earned."
In inverse proportion, Doordarshan's credibility as an impartial information medium had plummeted. Successive governments abused the "visibility" potential of the medium, hijacking news and public affairs programming and turning them into "a-day-in-the-life-of-your-prime minister" style coverage. Pendakur (1990) charges Indian television policy of the period with serving "its own propaganda needs as well as the demands of indigenous and transnational capitalists, along with the entertainment prerogatives of the middle/upper middle classes." Urbanites cringed at its insincere attempts at developmental programming, while ruralites "wondered why items alien to their world...be repeated through loud and annoying jingles." (Eapen 1986).
However, lest this criticism be construed as a dismissal of all the achievements of television in India in the eighties, it is important to highlight what Doordarshan was up against. India's prolific film-industry had created a preeminent entertainment format comprising formulaic story-lines bundled with a heavy dose of hybridized song, dance, and music. It goes entirely to Doordarshan's credit that it made sincere attempts at delivering made-for-TV fare such as pro-social soap-operas in a climate loaded with escapist entertainment formats.
The growth of satellite-fed cable
|Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words "EAT ME" were beautifully marked in currants. "Well, I'll eat it," said Alice, "and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key...."
-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "Down the Rabbit Hole"
Three months after CNN's historic broadcast, Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Li Ka-shing launched the preview channel of his pan-Asian satellite network STAR (Satellite Television Asian Region). The company started as a 50-50 joint venture between Li and a Hong Kong conglomerate Hutchinson Whampoa. It was beaming from a communication satellite Asiasat-1, whose footprint covered 38 countries from Egypt to Japan and the Soviet Far East to Indonesia (Tanzer 1991). Potential viewership of STAR was estimated to be 2.7 billion people living in the above-mentioned countries.
The five channels initially offered by STAR—Prime Sports, MTV Asia, the Chinese Channel, BBC World Service Television, and STAR Plus—were piped into urban homes in India by underground, illegal cable operators. "It came so fast," says Pronnoy Roy (1997) of India's premier news and current affairs producer New Delhi Television. "It spread all over the country through small entrepreneurial cable operators in a disorganized fashion, which was the best way it could have happened. "Amid cries of "alien invasion" and large-scale policy-paralysis, fly-by-night cable operators were capitalizing on the "hotbird" frenzy. By June 1992, a mere twelve or so months after its launch, viewership in India had gone from zero to 1.28 million households (Rahman 1992). In July 1993, News Corp's Rupert Murdoch acquired 64% stake in STAR-TV, affirming the keen interest of global media companies in India's broadcasting future.
The chaotic growth of cable is a telling comment on India's rudimentary regulatory framework. The only Act governing "wireless communication" dated back a century to the colonial government's Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1885 which prohibited "both the transmission and reception of all forms of wireless signals on Indian soil without the consent of the Government of India" (Swami 1997). Clearly lacking the political will and the administrative machinery to arrest the errant "cablewallahs," the government offered them legitimacy in the form of The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995. The act was narrow in its scope, requiring cable operators to register and assume responsibility for providing content under the guidelines of the "program code" and "advertising code" included in the act. Also embedded in the act was a must-carry provision, asking cable operators to "retransmit at least two Doordarshan satellite channels of his choice" (emphasis mine).
As is evident from the "must-carry" provision, Doordarshan was not prepared to relegate itself to simply being the referee. It had responded to the alarms of "cultural invasion" by launching its own line of cable and satellite channels. By 1995, it was offering a full-blown "Entertainment Channel" (the Metro or DD2), it had added a third "Infotainment Channel" (DD3) and beefed up its regional offerings with 13 regional language channels (India has 15 recognized languages). It had floated a Movie Channel and was also eyeing the Indian diaspora with a limited duration broadcast on DD-International Channel.
For a monolithic organization mired in red-tape bureaucracy, Doordarshan had responded remarkably well to competition. Its reach, as Pronnoy Roy (1997) of NDTV stated, was "at its peak...275 million people, while the best satellite channel can reach about 75 million...only one in every four TV households have satellite and cable." Given these figures, the image of a beleaguered state-broadcaster fighting off the foreign scare is difficult to conjure. A more serious challenge to its monopoly, according to the author, was represented by (a) the rapid growth of the domestic private broadcast industry in news and entertainment, and (b) the increasing awareness among foreign broadcasters of the need to Indianize their program offerings.
Murdoch's investment in STAR was an endorsement of economic projections which placed Asia among the fastest growing economies of the world. Asian cities, wrote The Economist (1993), were "fast becoming a chain of sequentially exploding firecrackers of demand for one consumer good after another. "It was difficult not to be lured by the promise of playing to an audience that would comprise 60% of the world's population by 2000. English was widely spoken in the area, and the number of television channels per home averaged 2.4" (Tanzer 1991). STAR burst onto the market with its American software libraries and became a household name in urban India.
"But will 3 billion Asians buy Homer Simpson?" queried a 1993 Time magazine article. India was answering with a decisive "no." When the foreign channels broke into the Indian household by offering an alternative to state-controlled monopoly, they also stirred up the imagination of a culture-industry that was sitting pretty atop a 750 movies-a-year production base (Young 1996). Within two years of its launch, as reported by the Far Eastern Economic Review, ratings for STAR's traditional attractions, Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful, were looking "pale compared with Hindi hits" (Karp 1994). Zarina Mehta (1997), a producer at United Television, summed up the situation succinctly: "Mahabharat has 60% of the Indian audience, (while) Santa Barbara is half a percent. Sometimes it reaches even 0 percent. I rest my case."
Says Siddharth Ray (1997) of SPA, referring to a half-hearted attempt to dub English programs into Indian languages: "...this audience was not prepared to watch a blonde with a scarf who speaks Hindi." A slew of Indian channels stole a leaf from Murdoch's book and undertook the challenge of beaming into their own country through the back door shown by STAR.
The latter part of the revolution was, thus, dominated by Indian channels and software houses, programming mainly in Indian languages. Zee, launched in October 1992, led the field with its unique line-up of Hindi soaps, dramas, game-shows, and made-for-TV movies. By early-1994, Zee's prime-time audience share in three metropolitan cities was up to 37%, compared to 39% combined share of Doordarshan National Network and Metro Channel, and a meager 8% combined share of the STAR platform (Karp 1994). SUN-TV (Tamil, one of the 15 recognized Indian languages) and Asianet (Malyalam, another recognized language) were making equally significant inroads into Doordarshan's Southern Indian stronghold. Others such as Sony Entertainment Television, ATN, Home-TV, and EL-TV completed the roster of domestic satellite players making STAR's opening market strategy unworkable.
The response of international channels like STAR and MTV was predictable and swift. The new "foolproof formula," an Indian weekly reported, "was Indian concepts plus Indian execution equals neat Indian profits" (Chatterjee 1996). By early 1997, STAR-TV, under the "home-grown expertise" of former Doordarshan chief Rathikant Basu, had started a daily "Hindi-band" on Star-Plus between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., bookended by a news bulletin in Hindi and English (produced locally in India).
MTV Asia, re-entering the market after its 1994 breaking with STAR, decided to split its unified South Asian beam, creating MTV Mandarin and a dedicated Indian channel MTV India (Hiro 1997). Its biggest competitor was Channel V, STAR's hybridized music channel providing an eclectic mix of Indian film music, a fast-growing Indi-pop segment, and international hits. Speaking of a Channel V Indian top-ten show, Jules Fuller (1997), General Manager India, Channel V, said: "When we started out it was all international music, now we find at least half the chart, sometimes all the chart is Indian pop." Between Channel V, MTV, and Music Asia (another Zee offering), the realigned objective was to cater to an indigenous market for music. Although traditionally dominated by Indian film music, the market for Indian pop was projected to rise from 6% in 1995 to 21% by 2000 due in no small part to the selling window provided by the three above-mentioned channels (Agarwal 1996).
In an article written for the 1996 NATAS International Council Almanac, the author had argued against the "oversimplistic characterization of transborder satellite programming as "cultural invasion."" The active "local" cultural production in India, he stated, is more than likely to survive the initial onslaught of foreign programming (Kumar 1996).
Taking that argument further, not only has the local production base been revitalized, but international programmers have also been forced to approach the Indian viewer on different terms. Murdoch's 50% stake in the most popular Indian satellite channel ZEE, an 80-20 tie-up between United Television (a Mumbai-based private production house) and 20th Century Fox, are only a few examples of the recognition of the talent-base and creative potential within India. As Shashank Ghosh (1997), creative director at Channel V, succinctly stated: "I refer to the global players as technology, and to Channel V as appropriate technology."
Ambivalence in the new universe of choice
|"I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly," Alice replied very politely, "for I can't understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing."
"It isn't," said the Caterpillar.
"Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice; "but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't you?"-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "Advice from a Caterpillar"
The 250 million strong Indian middle class voted with its "zappers" to signal approval of the new age of information choices. Clearly, satellite technology had rendered domestic strategies of delinking or cultural disassociation from global capitalist media an unviable option. However, as the dust settled in the wake of the welcome-wagon, many were left wondering: is there really much to choose from in this new universe of choice? Was satellite television merely replacing state control with market control? Media advocacy groups, critiquing the homogenous content of the multi-channel universe, were raising serious concerns about the ability of a market-driven media culture to represent the "milieu of the complex social classes" that constitute India (Sivadas 1997). In the following paragraphs, the author will discuss the various divisions in the ongoing debate over the democratization of the airwaves in India.
India's policymakers are struggling with formulating a media-policy in a climate dominated by reactive, damage-control measures. In an article titled "Cultural onslaught: mass media, globalization and the state," Sashi Kumar (1997), president of Asianet Communication, raises a cautionary voice against the prevailing ambivalence towards the haphazard growth of the electronic media in India. Information technology, he says, travels almost instantaneously from the industrialized West to the developing world. However, "as we demur and remain tentative and reactive in our response to technology...the liberating potential of the information technology goes unrealized by default."
The term "reactive" largely summarizes the state's response to non-government satellite broadcasting. The "Statement of Objects and Reasons" accompanying the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Bill stated that the availability of foreign television signals has been perceived as "cultural invasion" in many quarters since their programs are "predominantly Western and totally alien to our culture" (Smallwood 1996). This stance has served successive coalition-based governments to cloak the official strategy vis-a-vis satellite television.
Ironically, the Indian government used the "culture" of the marketplace to dispel the "cultural invader." Media terminology such as "TRPs" (Television Rating Points), "profit centers," "SEC (socio-economic categories) Groupings," "DART" (Doordarshan Audience Research Television) has become the mainstay of the market-driven directors in Mandi House (home of Doordarshan). The state's response has been no less ambivalent than the stark contradictions between its official proclamations and actual practices. The following extract from the Press Information Bureau's annual publication pays lip-service to the electronic media: "It plays a vital role in creating awareness among the masses about policies and programs for development and helps in motivating them to be active partners in the nation building endeavor..." (PIB 1995).
The domestic broadcast industry has largely been positive in its view. Respondent after respondent interviewed by the author hailed the information revolution set off by satellite technology. The creation of new opportunities for Indian talent; the market-intelligence brought in by the foreign players; the introduction of higher technical standards; creation of a free-information society; the prospect of starting a reverse flow of Indian programming towards overseas markets—these were some benefits that the industry feels have clearly sprung from the satellite fountainhead.
Some, like Kiran Karnik of Discovery Communications, think it is a mixed-blessing. According to Karnik, satellite television has accelerated a kind of "consumerist... 'me-first" hedonistic kind of culture" which actually began with the turn-of-the-decade policy of economic liberalization. A byproduct of this, he adds, and perhaps the "strongest input that has come to us from abroad," is an "immediate gratification type of culture" which has important consequence in terms of "the future orientation of India itself" (Karnik 1997).
The new opportunities have resulted in a shifting cultural focus too. Amrita Shah (1997), editor of Elle Magazine India, feels that the advent of youth-targeted channels has altered how the young are perceived in society. "I think in India," she says, "we did not take young people very seriously for many years. We've always worshipped the old, the traditional. Thanks to MTV, thanks to Channel V, there is definitely...a platform given to young people."
Akhila Sivadas (1997), coordinator of the New Delhi-based Media Advocacy Group, sees a discernible change in the representation of women on satellite channels. Targeting an urban, upwardly mobile market segment, these channels "were not only able to show women as being equals, they were also able to adopt the language of hegemony...that women could even dominate the situation." However, these images, rooted as they are "in the everyday experiences of the upper classes" are unable to deepen "insights about the process of exploitation" to a cross-section of women.
Other fora, like the New Delhi-based Forum for Independent Film and Video, seek "an alternative structure of broadcasting" which can exist outside "the point of view of the state on the one hand, and a purely commercial logic on the other." Referring to similar models of Public Broadcast Service, the forum cites three essential values for the proposed broadcasting system: Autonomy, Access, and Plurality (FIFV 1996).
Who shall be the umpire?
|"I wish you wouldn't squeeze so," said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to her. "I can hardly breathe."
"I can't help it," said Alice very meekly. "I'm growing."
"You've no right to grow here," said the Dormouse.
"Don't talk nonsense," said Alice more boldly. "You know you're growing too."
"Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace," said the Dormouse, "not in that ridiculous fashion." And he got up very sulkily and crossed over to the other side of the court.-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "Who Stole the Tarts?"
In a landmark judgment (Union of India vs. Cricket Association of Bengal, 1995) echoing the 1934 Communication Act in the United States, Supreme Court judges ruled that "airwaves constitute public property and must be utilized for advancing public good" (Chatterjee 1997). A ringing endorsement of the "rights of the listeners and the viewers," the judgment threw open the gates for a larger debate on the democratization of electronic media.
The Indian Supreme Court categorically stated that "diversity of opinions, views, ideas and ideologies...cannot be provided by a medium controlled by a monopoly...whether the monopoly is of the state or any other individual, group or organization" (FIFV 1996). Further, it stated that the "broadcasting media should be under the control of the public as distinct from the government" (emphasis mine). In one stroke, the judgment called for autonomy for India's state-controlled media, and the setting up of an independent referee to regulate all broadcasters.
The Indian judiciary had set the stage for the legislative arm to put the country's broadcasting industry within a broad philosophical framework pertaining to free speech and diversity of views. Instead, the Union cabinet chose to continue along its reactive vein, obsessed with regulating technology. Out of the laborious deliberations of the parliamentary subcommittee emerged a draft document dominated by issues such as "mandatory uplinking," "foreign equity," "prohibition of exclusive rights for live broadcasting," "DTH licensing," and "cross-media restrictions" (IPAN 1997a).
The Broadcast Bill, currently in the stage of its legislative passage, proposes sweeping restrictions on foreign players. One of its foremost aims is to set up a Broadcasting Authority of India and make it the apex regulatory body in the country. The BAI, it is proposed, would issue licenses only to companies in which foreign equity did not exceed 49%. Licenses would be given for terrestrial and satellite radio and TV, DTH (direct-to-home) TV, and cable.
The foreign equity cap meant that channels like STAR, Sony, MTV, Discovery and other channels with dominant foreign holdings had to find Indian partners and "hand over majority control (51%) to them" (Agarwal 1997). Foreign satellite broadcasting could continue unlicensed so long as it (a) remained free-to-air (b) carried limited-duration advertising or (c) carried sports or international news and current affairs programming only (IPAN 1997a).
Further, with the bill becoming an act in its proposed form, all licensed channels would have to uplink from India. Given the fact that the legislation came in the sixth year of satellite broadcasting, companies that had locked themselves into arrangements with nearby countries like Hong Kong and Singapore would now have to invest in brand-new uplinking facilities from India. Remarked Kiran Karnik (1997) of Discovery Communication: "this is an economic issue really, it's not a matter of great policy or philosophy." Siddharth Ray (1997) offering a dissenting view, opined that "in the long term, if you are going to make money out of this market, the market has a right to demand some investment...." An upside of the proposal is the possibility of live-event coverage and live news broadcasts for satellite channels.
Severe restrictions have been proposed in the granting of inter-category broadcasting licenses, rendering STAR's DTH plans redundant, as it could no longer be a free-to-air satellite provider and a DTH player. There are cross-media curbs proposed, barring newspapers with more than 20% interest in a broadcasting concern from applying for a license.
While the attempt to arrive at some form of regulation has been lauded by most, widespread criticism has greeted the Broadcast Bill in its proposed form. Raging debate over key provisions relating to limits on foreign equity, uplinking requirements and inter-category limitations have clouded the larger issues set forth in the Supreme Court judgment. According to Raghav Behl (1997), managing director of the leading production house TV-18: "The Broadcast Bill is a document which has been much maligned. It is a document that has gotten lost in agendas that have very little to do with broadcasting."
Others have questioned the locus standi of the Indian government in the regulatory process. "At the moment," says Karnik of Discovery Communications, "the government or the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is both referee and player, which is quite crazy." Ideally, he adds, the government should have legislated itself out of the refereeing process by issuing broad guidelines, setting up the Broadcast Authority of India, and letting it shape the regulatory framework independent of the government.
Along with prompting the formulation of the Broadcast Bill, the Supreme Court judgment had also forced the government to resurrect a 1990 act relating to autonomy for state-controlled electronic media (Doordarshan and All India Radio). Through the efforts of a liberal Information and Broadcasting minister the act was finally notified in the Gazette (all acts of the parliament must be notified in the Gazette before attaining full stature as acts) on June 22, 1997, seven years after it was passed by the Parliament (IPAN 1997). The act would place the erstwhile government-controlled TV and radio under a Broadcasting Corporation of India to be governed by an independent board.
Together, the Broadcast Bill and the Prasar Bharati Act constitute India's response to the growing demands for regulation and autonomy. In order to understand the anomalies within this response, it is important to understand the fractured political alliances within the Indian government. Since the last mid-term elections held in 1995, in which no party emerged with a clear majority to form the government, a pragmatic coalition of left and centrist parties has governed India. Certain sections of the coalition have expressed grudging to unconditional support for private broadcasting (whether domestic or foreign). However, the Left has held that "public good...would be scarcely served by private broadcasting (which) would be bound to be motivated by profit" (Swami 1997). The "Murdochites," charges Sashi Kumar, "cleverly confuse globalization with economic liberalization," often disguising their support for the latter as "advocacy of a free information regime" (Kumar 1997).
The dream of the "global village"
|So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality--the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds, the rattling teacups would change to tinkling sheep-bells, and the Queen's shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd boy, and the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all the other queer noises, would change (she knew) to the confused clamor of the busy farmyard, while the lowing of the cattle in the distance would take the place of the Mock Turtle's heavy sobs.
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "Alice's Evidence"
India stands at the crossroads of choice-making in the new universe of technologies. Having erupted from a single-channel, government-controlled monopoly of the airwaves into a thirty-channel cornucopia over a two-year period, it must now become a savvy regulator of its spectrum. From among the hordes of opinion-wielders, lobbyists, and power-brokers it must discern the ones most appropriate for its unique and complex citizenry. The task is no easy one for a young democracy with an unstable political center. Objectives are defined, redefined, and finally rendered unrecognizable by successive changes of government, shifting coalitions, or confusing diktats from the powers-that-be. All this while, the expanding global powers lobby for loosening controls and opening the market, practicing advocacy-by-proxy for the choice-deprived Indian consumer.
What are the cultural imperatives unique to the understanding and shaping of India's broadcasting future? For one, according to the author, a contextual assessment of the peculiar "information needs" and "information sensibilities" should moderate all pronouncements favoring a "consumer-take-all" approach. The critique of the proposed "global information society" can only benefit from a ground-up approach which favors the information "user" as opposed to the "provider."
Media conglomerates are putting their versions of "audience research" in place, as is evidenced by the setting up of a joint-venture between Indian Market Research Bureau and A C Nielsen for a "people meter based rating system" (IPAN 1997). To what extent this unquestioned transposition of quantitative measurement systems will be able to assess the "information" vacuum in the Indian home remains to be seen.
In discussions of a burgeoning urban middle-class of 250 million, the profile of a nation with 48% illiteracy; three-quarters of the population living in rural areas; and agriculture providing the main mode of sustenance for 65% of the population is neglected (figures from Statistical Outline of India, 1996-97). The selective use of statistics to drive the agenda for an "information revolution" serves the purposes of the global merchant. The challenge before the international communication scholar is to enrich the understanding of the culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse information industry in countries like India.
The electronic media in countries like the United States have fulfilled market functions from their very inception. While progressive deregulation has now placed the broadcasting industry at the confluence of traditionally discrete spheres of telecommunication and computer-aided communication, there has been a concomitant deepening of concern for the user. Witness the creation of the V-chip, the new ratings system for networks and cable, and the plethora of filtering software to aid parents in shielding the young from pornography and other inappropriate content available on the World Wide Web. The enrichment of the individual user's information resources enabling him/her to identify "usable," "unusable," or "useless" information has evolved alongside the industry responsible for providing that content.
Addressing the Pre-Conference Symposium on Southern Country Interests organized by the International Institute of Communication, David Nostbakken (1994), executive director of WETV, offered a skeptical prognosis: "So before we accept that technologies of information and communication will bring positive change, we need to consider the social, cultural, and political context into which the technologies are being introduced. Then, we must determine the kinds of actions that help to translate the improvements in communicative capacities and facilities into actual improvements in living conditions."
"When the delivery systems of the future are constructed and bandwidth becomes a commodity," wrote an analyst of European television, "power will shift to those who can create enticing things to fill it" (Jacoby 1994). In the preceding pages the author has described the creation of just such a delivery system in India. As legislators, global conglomerates, and domestic media entrepreneurs struggle with evolving a regulatory framework which will allow a new democracy of the airwaves, the communication scholar must address the challenge of localizing the search for the user of information. As the profile of this user is defined and refined, so shall the power of meaningful content in the new information age become decisive. After all, as Thoreau pointed out in Walden, the consequences of doing otherwise are appalling: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new, but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."