Indian Television has a rich and varied history. From black and white, subdued broadcasts 40 years ago to the colourful, sometimes flamboyant soaps and sitcoms of today, it has grown by leaps and bounds. What used to be considered a luxury most people can live without has now become such an essential part of our lives.
The first experiment with television broadcasting in India involved a makeshift studio at Akashvani Bhavan in New Delhi, a low-power transmitter and 21 television sets, most of which were installed in the homes of various bureaucrats and ministers. These sets were gifts from a western European government. From these humble beginnings, television has reached a stage where every household, from a CEO’s to an auto-rikshaw driver’s, has a colour telelvision.
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Currently, there are about 160 satellite channels broadcasting in India, earning revenues of more than Rs. 79 bn from advertising alone. If one were to add all the other avenues of earning revenue, such as cable advertising, DTH subscriptions, etc, the industry becomes one worth Rs. 185 bn. This figure is also a very conservative one, proving the massive scope for the television and entertainment industry in India.
Satellite television has evolved greatly over the years. From a meagre 16% coverage by area (21% coverage by population) in 1980, it extended to 66% coverage by area (83% coverage by population) in 1995. These statistics are only higher 15 years on.
The first breakthrough for television in India came in 1982, when the state allowed colour televisions to be bought and sold, to coincide with the Asian Games, which were hosted in India. Due to the immense load predicted on transmitter capacity, the state also allowed private companies to install the extra transmitters. This allowed the private sector to venture forth into this industry. Secondly, when global satellite TV channels such as CNN and ESPN were allowed to broadcast in the nineties, people’s perceptions about content and coverage were revised. They became aware of the variety of programming available, and as a result, awareness and interest was sparked.
Once the floodgates were opened, more and more foreign channels penetrated the Indian market. From two generic channels in the 80s, the 90s paved the way to over 50 of them. This led to a boom in the cable TV provider segment and the rise of MSOs and cable TV cartels.
Currently, the world of televisions has seen another revolution : direct-to-home (DTH) and the rise of set-top boxes. Companies such as Tata-Sky, Reliance, Airtel, DD, etc. have come out with digital television experiences that have broken the back of the cable-wallahs. A small, one time deposit of Rs. 5000 is all that is needed to experience the kind of television quality that was longed for in the time of over tapped cables (as cable operators repeatedly tapped the same cable source for multiple connections, the signal got progressively worse). Another wonderful addition to the experience was the fact that the consumer could finally pick and choose which channels he/she wanted to watch, instead of having to leave that to the whims and fancies of the cable operator. TV viewership has boomed since 2005 or so, when the DTH services first set up shop.
In terms of type of content viewed, the evolution is even more striking. In the days of Doordarshan’s two channel hegemony, the only shows watched were the limited content Prasar Bharati beamed. Entertainment programmes were few and far between. And when the solitary few soaps like Hum Log (1984), and mythological dramas: Ramayan (1987-88) and Mahabharat (1988-89) were televised, millions of viewers stayed glued to their sets. However, as happens in most cases, viewership declined with time. The need for further variety in content was deeply felt.
As mentioned earlier, the opening up of foreign content in the nineties paved the way for a HUGE variety of programming. Not only was it possible to watch news that was relevant to the rest of the world, it also became possible for any viewer to watch entertainment shows that were staple in other countries. Sport also grew out of the hegemony of cricket, and football, athletics, racing, etc. gained viewership. The Indian consumer had finally come of age.
Preferred Content :
Presently, Indian viewership is extremely fragmented and unpredictable. A formula that works today could be absolutely worthless tomorrow. This unpredictability is every content generator’s nightmare. There are no past trends that can be trusted. As such, the content variety has shot up immensely.
Indian viewers still love their soaps. The same stories that they grew up watching, those of families broken and reunited, love killing and giving life, crime paying and then collecting, are still a winning formula. What needs to change are the faces, and the way those messages are delivered. While old soaps such as Sansaar or Shanti would show these stories calmly and with far fewer effects, current day soaps are rife with glitter, pizzazz, sound effects and emotions. Everything in today’s soaps happens at the speed of light. The stories have caught up with the times and reflect the pace of life as it stands today.
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A new fad in the industry is the Reality show. These are shows that involve real people, not actors, who perform for the entertainment of millions. From talent competitions to dare-devilry, the permutations for these shows are endless, and most have been explored by now. An import from the west, reality television has achieved new highs in India. Not only has this form of programming broken all records for viewership, clever marketing and commercial tie-ups have also brought in a very large amount of money in the form of mobile services revenue. Telecom operators frequently tie up with the producers of the show to provide value added services. The audience, on whose participation this entire genre depends, will vote and decide the fate of the candidates on the show by dialling/sending a text message. This call/text is charged at a premium, thus making both the producers of the show and the telecom operator a hefty sum of money.
Sports have not been left untouched, either. Cricket still remains the fan favourite, but the influx of channels such as ESPN and Star Sports has opened the Indian viewer’s eyes to more exotic fare. Now, football viewership is on the rise. Clubs such as Manchester United, AC Milan and Chelsea have started making their presence felt, not only in the living rooms of the urban youth, but also in the football academies in tier 2 cities. Formula One racing is also racing up the popularity charts, with people now being able to differentiate between a diffuser and a spoiler. The inaugural Indian Grand Prix, to be held in 2011, is testament to the growing popularity of this sport. Other examples, such as tennis, athletics, etc. are also to be made.
Another interesting trend is the rise of sexually loaded content in contemporary Indian television. Item numbers in movies, channels dedicated to showing fashion shows of underwear models and even advertisements point to this rising trend. While the world shrinks, cultures once perceived to be too foreign or too alien to ours have started becoming acceptable. Sex on TV has long been debated over, but the reality is that it is nothing more than a relic of a flattening world. What was once the property of seedy businessmen in video rental stores has become commonplace. Whether this is good or bad is for the viewer to decide. The censorship board, too, has a role to play in this debate.
What lies in store :
The future for Indian television appears bright indeed. There is a very large, untapped market for it in rural India. Also, per capita viewership in India is only about half that of the United States. What is uncertain, however, is the medium of viewership. Current cable technology is extremely outdated, and newer satellite TV technology is still suffering from teething issues. With the rise of broadband internet, experts believe IPTV is the future. Or, in a humorous twist, it is also possible that satellite TV can be used to offer broadband internet connectivity. The possibilities are endless.
Most viewers will, however, be watching their TV mainly via cable, terrestrial and direct to home television delivered via satellite. Cable TV infrastructure will have improved. Addressability also will have made its mark and consumers will be surfing their television sets for emails and for information. Free-to-air television will, however, continue to rule the roost but tiering will have made its mark and people will be buying their pay per view programmes and choosing the channels they want watch unlike today when everything is thrown at them with a shovel.