Television for Development

Disseminating information is critical to any developing economy, for rapid and sustained growth. For example, in an agriculture-based economy like ours, information on new techniques and technology in irrigation, new goods and services, modern living patterns, etc. would need wide propagation. Basically, the process of educating the workforce and general population would largely depend on such information transfer. This need of the system is largely met by mass media – and within that category, by television. With both audio and visual capability, television has a profound effect on the masses – particularly the illiterate segment – making it ideal to convey information and news.

Television has been part of state-led reconstruction attempts for national development since the 1970s, albeit with no explicit policies. After the pressure to privatise and deregulate media in the 1980s, TV for development has increasingly consisted of advertiser-supported ‘entertainment education’. TV for development was central to public discourses during the post-colonial nation-building project. It has now re-emerged as a subject of national and international importance in the context of breath-taking leaps in communication technology.

The present paper focuses on the early development of TV in India and its rise as a state-owned project; major turning points in its history and its role in the dynamics of social change during its formative years. Using the early success of Indian TV as an agent in development, it attempts to construct an argument in favour of development-oriented television programming, especially in the era of commercialised satellite television.


-To trace a history of the development of television broadcasting in India, and consequently the use of television for development in India

-To identify the relationship between television communication and development, and to suggest measures for improving the efficacy of television as a proponent of, and an instrument in inclusive development

Literature review

Television in India is by no means a recent phenomenon. Yet, there are few detailed studies about the impact of television in India, and even less that focus on entertainment programming instead of educational programming. Mitra’s study of the relationship between television and popular culture (1993) based on his analysis of public responses to the widely popular television series Mahabharat, which was aired on Doordarshan during the late 80s and was watched by over 90 percent of television viewers across the country, brings important observations about Indian television to the fore. After discussing theoretical issues related to the formulation of culture in India, he first attempts a genre analysis and source-analytical study of television programs aired on the national network. He seeks to identify and trace the development of various genres of programs aired on Doordarshan and then place Mahabharat in relation to other programs in order to assess its impact. He says: “At present, Doordarshan offers a wide range of texts to its audience. However, this variety is not unlimited and it is possible to identify similar and opposing textual and signifying practices on Doordarshan that can be used to classify the variety of texts into ordered groups. These groups not only represent the limits and boundaries of textual practices but also the processes by which these tendencies develop” (Mitra 1993: 76). Thus, he stresses that in the realm of genre analysis, the focus is on two aspects of representational practices: the question oforder and classification, and the question of process – the way in which genres develop and are legitimised. In other words, genres not only assist in understanding how the texts on television are related to each other, but also elaborate the ways in which these relationships develop and evolve. The position of any text within a genre is implicated by its internal characteristics as well as the relations of the text with other texts that surround it. Using gender analysis, he thus traces how Doordarshan borrowed many of the representational strategies from TV programming in other countries and how television producers in India were quick to appropriate the various signifying strategies associated with each genre. His study identifies ‘religious soap operas’ as a predominant genre on Doordarshan, of which he takes Mahabharat as a representative sample for deeper analysis. His study concludes the television serials such as Mahabharat promote an articulation of the nation where the practices of the dominant social bloc are represented as national practices. In this context, he is able to identify a North Indian-Hindu-Hindi hegemony that constructs and propagates a national identity that suppresses the plurality in the Indian landscape and culture, through the medium of state-controlled television. He links it with the Hindu reawakening that gained momentum in the early 90s, where the notion of a non-secular Hindu state became increasingly predominant. He says: “Doordarshan, through Mahabharat and Ramayan, has been able to circulate the primacy of this precise struggle between dharma and adharma as the struggle between Hindus and non-Hindus to recapture the lost glory of the Hindu bharat of the Pandavas and Ram” (Mitra 1993: 179). He sees the existence of contradictions between the various texts of Doordarshan as a positive sign. The struggles over language, region, religion and gender that are textually reproduced in the diversity of texts aired by Doordarshan open up the possibility of dissent and ideological struggle where the hegemony of the leading bloc can be questioned, both in popular culture and its representation on Doordarshan. Mitra’s pointing out of the internal contradictions in Doordarshan’s programming is his most useful analysis in the study of Indian television, since it clearly indicates the existence of a ‘space for struggle’ and also checks the tendency to generalise and treat television programming as a homogenous enterprise.

Mitra’s study brackets out audience analysis and is almost exclusively based on content analysis, which leaves some of its basic premises and assumptions open to question. This drawback is one of the main reasons why textual studies have been criticised by a multitude of ethnographers and social scientists. Janice Radway (1984) has urged the textual critic to descend from the ‘ivory tower’ of academic criticism and enter the everyday life of the audience and reexamine the variety of ways in which television is articulated with the everyday practices of the viewer. It is in this context that Johnson’s study of the impact of television in the two Maharashtrian villages of Danawli and Raj Puri (2000) gains importance. Johnson, though American by birth, spent 13 years of his childhood in the Maharashtrian town of Panchgani, where he learned the local language (Marathi) and then returned as a McGill University doctoral student to carry out his research in the two Maharashtrian villages. He thus had the unique advantage of being an outsider (a foreigner) as well as an insider (like a native) with knowledge of the local culture and society. This combination allows him to observe and comment upon many nuances of people’s attitudes and behaviour. He is able to make note of many small details of behaviour and mannerisms which a native might ignore due to familiarity; at the same time he is able to capture meanings of attitudes and behaviour which are likely to be missed by a foreigner unfamiliar with the local language and culture. Danawli, the main village studied by him, was electrified in 1970, and the first television set appeared in 1985. By 1995, twenty-five of the 104 households had television sets. The village did not have cable facility at the time of the research. The television had become an object of desire and status in the village, and several households were budgeting to by one. It had also become an essential part of the dowry in village weddings. Thus, it had entered village life discreetly and changed it significantly. Johnson argues that to correctly understand and interpret these changes, it is important to first study the complex social structure of village life. Hartmann et al. (1989) argue that many research projects have as their starting point pre-conceived assumptions about the importance of media, and the media are placed at the center of the equation even prior to the onset of research. The presumption is that the media are important, which produces findings that support that statement. Johnson’s work is significantly different in this regard. He takes a step back in research, and allows the data to speak for itself, props up the answers to create questions, making way for opinions and assumptions to emerge from the field and the people he is trying to understand. He argues that village life is not static or simple; rather it is complex and variable. He attempts to understand and describe the dynamics of village social life before placing television within that context. He gives a detailed account of the life of the villagers before the coming of the television set, and then takes up five representative households which own TVs and spends one week with each of them for observation. In addition, he selects a sample of 50 men, 50 women, and 50 children from households without TVs for in-depth interviews. Johnson’s preference for a qualitative approach yields useful results, including valuable insights into changes in village life. He observes that prior to television, information was a source of power in the village, reinforcing the economic and political authority of the elite. With television, there is now greater equality among villagers in acquiring useful information. Life in the village is now not organised according to the sun’s position, but according to the schedule of TV programs. People adjust their work so as not to miss their favourite programs. Men even share household chores to enable women to watch TV. Consumerism and the desire for urban goods and lifestyle have increased significantly. There is also an increasing lack of respect for elders among the village youth, which the elders attribute to the evil effects of television. Johnson also observes that there is now a palpable gap between verbal statements and actual behaviour in the village. Thanks to television, the villagers have learned to be ‘politically correct’.

Both Mitra’s and Johnson’s studies establish that television is a major participant in the process of social change. It has been a major influence on gender, caste and family relations – both in urban as well as rural India. Although the former focuses on content analysis and the latter focuses on audience analysis, both studies ascertain the tremendous potential of the medium in altering the lives of Indian people. Since these studies, TV has become even more widespread and powerful in India. Mehta (2008) notes that in 1992, the total number of people per television set in India was 26, which had come down to as low as ten by 2006, making India the third largest television market behind China and the US. As such, it becomes even more important to utilise the potential of television and redirect programming in order to achieve the foremost aims of the nation: national integration and human development.


India is a country in transition. As with any society undergoing transition, it is marked by great contrasts. With the restructuring of the economy in recent years, the tremendous growth of the IT and BPO sectors, and a rapidly expanding middle class of close to a quarter of a billion people, India has emerged as an important and powerful player on the world scene. Millions of people living in Indian cities are growing up in a culture familiar with 3G mobile technology, high-speed wireless internet, luxurious cars, international fashion labels, and lifestyles which mirror the values and goals of people living in the ‘developed’ West. On the other hand, almost 75 percent of India’s population lives in villages; agriculture being their primary occupation. India’s rural society is marked by a deep reverence for traditional values and customs, especially those in relation to caste, gender and religion. Although village life has seen a variety of material improvements: from electricity to water systems, from healthcare to better roads, Indian villages are materially much improved than before. Their progress on Human Development Markers though has not been at the same pace: poverty, illiteracy, superstitious practices and other forms of backwardness are still rampant in rural India. However, one material commodity which has significantly influenced social structure in both urban and rural India has been the television set. The degree of this impact can be assessed from the following incident mentioned by Kirk Johnson (2006: 23)

“…when I visited my old mali’s (gardener’s) house, which consisted of two small rooms no more than 7 by 8 feet each, no running water or gas stove, there sat in the corner a 21-inch color TV set made in India. He had spent an entire six month’s salary to purchase the television. There I sat on a cow dung floor, eating dinner of caked rice with hot curry on a banana leaf, drinking water from the neighborhood well with things floating inside, which made me thankful it was a fairly dark room. I asked this man’s 9-year old son what his favorite television program was. His answer was not unqiue. He said he enjoyed three shows the most, The Bold and the Beautiful, Beverly Hills 90210, and Bay Watch, three shows which seemed to have no relevance in the life of a poor village boy. I strained to hear my host over the braying donkeys outside, and was told by his son dressed in rags, who had only a first grade education and had never ventured more than 10 miles from his town, that his favorite shows were about rich American executives, teenagers with wealth and morals completely different from his own, and beach bums in string bikinis.”


Television was first introduced in 1959, with the establishment of a centre at Delhi as a pilot project, aided by UNESCO and the Ford Foundation. The focus area of TV then was education and creating general awareness about the responsibilities of the citizen. This project was experimented for six years. Later on other programs were added gradually, giving it more recreational and informative shape. For long, TV was confined to only the capital city of Delhi. The second TV transmission centre started operating in Bombay in 1972, fourteen years after the first centre. The government viewed TV as a medium primarily developed to benefit the rural population. It was perceived only in terms of its educational potentialities. The Chanda Commission made it clear that ‘television was to be a means of education and any other programs were relatively unimportant within the future plans for television’. Community viewing (i.e. one television set per village) was the method by which villagers watched TV. Sets were usually placed in the headman’s house or in the village school. One half-hour program used to be aired daily, which was later developed into a full hour. By the early 1970s however, programs were being telecast daily between 6:30 and 10:30 PM. At the same time television receiver technology was being indigenously developed and an increasing number of domestically built black-and-white sets were available in the market. Middle to upper class urban families began to acquire these sets and lobby for more entertainment programming. The importance of the shift in viewer demographics became evident as programs began to appeal to both the villager as well as the urban household.

The inauguration of the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) on August 1, 1975, is considered the most significant landmark in the history of TV, not only in India but all over the world. The experiment was setup in conjunction with NASA for reaching the rural audiences with developmental messages. The primary purpose of the project was: “…to gain experience in development, testing, and management of satellite-based instructional television systems, particularly in rural areas, to demonstrate the potential of satellites in developing countries, and to stimulate national development in India… to contribute to health, hygiene, and family planning, national integration, to improve agricultural practices, to contribute to general school and adult education, and improve occupational skills”. The experiment involved 2,400 villages in 20 districts, spread over six states. Television became a household name in the country during the early 1980s. The live telecast of the ASIAD games of 1982 marked another milestone in the development of TV, with the introduction of color transmission using a mixture of microwave and satellite links to reach a large part of the nation. The subsequent period witnessed a tremendous increase in transmission capabilities as well as the development of a variety of genres of programs on television. Installing both high-powered and low-powered transmitters became a priority throughout the country. From July 1984 one transmitter was added every day for a period of four months.

The 1980s also witnessed the development of what has become the single most popular genre on Indian television after feature films: soap operas or ‘serials’. For almost a decade between 1976 and 1985 Indian television was dominated by Hindi films and film-based programs. The only sitcoms, soap operas, or other shows aired on Doordarshan, the national TV network, were borrowed from foreign television. These serials were inspired by Mexico’s Televisa, a private commercial network, in producing popular melodramatic series. These series in Mexico promoted adult literacy, family planning, health and sanitation. Following a meeting in Mexico City with the creators of the popular development-oriented soap operas in the country, the Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Mr. S. S. Gill returned to handpick a few individuals to work on the production of India’s first indigenous soap opera called Hum Log. 106 episodes of the serial were telecast twice a week from July 1984 to December 1985. This was a turning point in Doordarshan’s history. It was the first serious attempt to combine entertainment with the promotion of ideas of social development. The central theme of this 17 month long drama was family planning, but by the time it was over it was felt that the central message had been effectively drowned in an ocean of melodrama. It was at this time that the advertisers began to realize the power of television. Maggi 2-minute Noodles, a product of a Nestle subsidiary sponsored Hum Log. The success of this advertising campaign resulted in other advertisers jumping on the Doordarshan bandwagon, enabling the network to raise its advertising rates by 150 percent in three years. By 1987 there were 40 domestically-produced programs on air, from soap operas to detective serials, and documentaries to sporting events.

The two-volume report submitted by the Joshi Working Group in 1985 recounted the vision of Vikram Sarabhai that television must be used to reach the most backward first. The effort of SITE was a great step toward the realization of this dream. This rural development initiative is now a memory as Doordarshan has steadily moved toward being a medium of mass entertainment and advertising. With overwhelming faith in the power of television to bring about social and economic development, family planning, and nation-building, the Committee argued that:

“The audiovisual mode of communication has the potential of serving as the most powerful promoter of growth with equity in an illiteracy- and inequality-stricken if this mode is consciously utilised for communicating information to the target groups and for awakening and activising them in defense of their rights. The true communicator is transformed into a communication activist in an egalitarian society.”

It questioned the centralised manner in which programming on national television was being produced and called for a more participatory, decentralised, and regionally-run network. The committee believed that an integrative, interactive, and participatory model of communication was imperative. It stressed the urgency of setting up decentralised district-level television stations based on low-cost production equipment and area-specific, people-centered, problem-oriented program production and community viewing. The report argued that developing countries like India are exposed to the dangers of erosion of their national cultural identity and that domestically produced programs were extremely important in resisting cultural invasion from outside. The report was popularly known as “An Indian Personality of Doordarshan.” All of the committee’s concerns have come to pass. Though several recommendations were useful, the vast majority were never fully implemented.

The CNN’s live coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 brought the concept of Satellite TV to public notice. This marked a defining moment and the beginning of a new era in TV broadcasting in India, which ushered in multi-channel broadcasting in the country. This single technological innovation has had its most striking impact in transforming television from state-run and -operated organisation to one of the largest competitive new businesses in the country. STAR TV formally launched its operation in India on May 15, 1991. The launch saw the spread of satellite TV like wild fire and the cities and towns were peppered with dish antennae causing a social upheaval. The formal expansion of cable networks began in 1992. From100 cable operators in 1984 the number increased to 12000 in 1992. The quantum leap in satellite TV technology made it possible to use smaller and cheaper dish antennae. STAR TV when launched in 1991 consisted of a bucket of four channels, namely STAR Plus, Prime Sports, BBC World, and MTV. The instantaneous success of STAR TV paved way for the mushrooming of satellite channels. However, the first Indian owned and Indian language satellite TV channel to be launched was Zee TV, which started broadcasting on October 2, 1992. The launch of Zee TV heralded the arrival of private television as the first tangible impact of globalisation, privatisation and liberalisation. The satellite TV channels expanded in India within a short span of a decade and revolutionized broadcasting. It resulted in more TV channels both in government and private sectors. The reach and access improved tremendously with Doordarshan reaching over 90 percent of India’s population. But the rural communities received a raw deal as the market forces of the multinational companies drove both government and private satellite channels. Though the satellite age saw the emergence of a flurry of TV channels offering diverse content, the evolution of ownership patterns resulted in an oligopoly of media corporations. Big media corporations such as Zee, STAR, ETV, etc. each had a chain of entertainment and news channels flooding television space. Chain television channels, as in the case of the print media, only strengthen media corporation hegemony and make programming advertisement and revenue driven. The structure of such chains does not allow the growth of media at the grassroots level. Rapid changes in communication technology have paved the way for cross media ownership patterns, defeating the purpose of decentralization of ownership and control. As a result, the social cause of Indian television remains elusive.


a) State Control versus Autonomy

After independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, had declared that it was necessary to retain state-ownership and control over the broadcast media in the interest of holding the country together. Any possibility of a privately owned autonomous media was set aside. Later, the hegemonic tendencies of a state-owned media became apparent during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975. At the end of the 19 month period of Emergency, when the Janata Party, under the leadership of Morarji Desai, was elected to power, there was a move towards progressive thinking. The new party appointed a 12 member commission, under the guidance of B. G. Verghese, a journalist, to examine the state of the broadcast media and offer some new directions. This commission suggested the creation of an autonomous corporation called the Prasar Bharati or the Broadcasting Corporation of India. This proposal struck a compromise between a privately-owned, commercially-motivated media and a government-regulated and owned media. The term ‘autonomy’ meant that the media would be a government-supervised institution with an independent board of directors who wouldhave decision making powers. By this proposal, the media would be removed from the direct supervision of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. However, when the bill was introduced in parliament in March 1980 for the formation of the corporation, it was turned down by the Congress majority. Meanwhile, a stage of political upheaval during and immediately following the Emergency deepened the conviction that ownership of the media was a treasured possession and should not be easily relinquished. For an entire decade this, however, remained a bone of contention between the coalition of opposition parties and the ruling majority of the Congress party. After much confrontation and debate, the bill was finally passed with 70 amendments in March 1990.

b)     Education versus Entertainment

This dichotomy has its roots in the way television was conceived in India, and the ways in which policy questions were answered by early proponents of state-owned television. Education-via-television suggested a democratic and well-distributed form of education, where television becomes a channel to disseminate educational messages to places where it is difficult to put up schools or provide teachers – mainly the rural sectors of India. This resulted in the linkage between education on television with a necessarily rural manifestation of this form of programming. The education-entertainment dipole got combined with the tensions around the rural-urban split. The connection between ‘education’ and ‘rural’ indicated that the benefits of didactic television were predominantly for the rural population, as opposed to entertainment television which was assumed to cater primarily to urban culture. Yet, this was a problematic dichotomy because entertainment programs were found to be widely popular in the rural sectors too. Conversely, the educational programs aired to rural audiences were found to of interest to not only the farming community, but also school children in both cities and villages. It is, therefore, insufficient to connect these contradictions in any one-to-one relationship. The Chanda commission which submitted its report in 1966 argued in favour of a communication model that suggested a linear flow of messages from an organised source to an anonymous audience and, secondly, a strong commitment to developmental television as an educational artefact. The commission concluded that television was conceived as a vehicle to help ‘illuminate’ the masses about issues that were key concerns of the government.

Though initially envisioned to function as an educational and developmental tool by government agencies, television in India has now become primarily a medium of entertainment. From films to music, and soap operas to reality shows, Indian television has made the transition from an educational medium to one that is almost exclusively entertainment based. The lifeblood of this powerful medium is advertising. Television networks are selling the Indian public en masse to advertising companies for a lot of money. The larger the audience and the more detailed the demographic data about it, the higher the price. Advertisers want detailed information about who they are targeting and want that target audience to be as large as possible. Television networks understand that engaging entertainment programs are the key to capturing that large audience. Indian television has now grown into one of the largest networks in the world, and audiences use the medium mostly for entertainment. But this does not mean that education and transfer of information is not taking place. In fact, Indian villagers have never been more informed about news and current events and have never been more knowledgeable about the system in which they live. Villagers are now more than ever cognizant of their rights, choices and responsibilities as citizens of the Indian Union. Also, entertainment-based programs with an educational bent such as quizzes and the like have fused both paradigms together to result in what is now called as ‘infotainment’. Purely entertainment programs too have strong educational messages in their background.

Development TV

Meaningful communication is about getting information out to particular audiences, listening to their feedback, and responding appropriately. The basic idea is to build consensus through raising public understanding and generating well-informed dialogue among stakeholders. Development Communication is recognizing the power of communication in eliciting positive social change. Instead of mere information dissemination, education, or awareness-raising, it strives for behaviour change. At a time when communication technologies are spreading to the most isolated regions of the world, and the development of the poorest of the poor is a dominant issue, many ‘Third World’ nations see development communication as a viable strategy for modernisation.

In the Indian context, the term development, in its broadest sense, refers to rural development. Rural development is viewed as an economic planned change to achieve desirable social goals through successive Five Year Plans. The canvas of development has been significantly enlarged in recent years to include anything that would improve and enhance human ability to cope with existing inequalities, degrading environment, ethical and social values. Therefore, consumer awareness and protection of the environment are considered as much part of development as information about agricultural crops and AIDS awareness.

A good example of the use of television for development in India and the various stages involved in the process was the Kheda Communication Project (1975-91). The project was conceived to provide instruction and information to rural television viewers. Communication was viewed as a means to mirror and focus on the oppression, bondage, and exploitation of the poor. The communicators explicitly took the position that in the struggle they were aligned with or supported the poor who belonged to lower classes and backward castes. “The Kheda credo, in terms of communication, implies that information is both a resource and power, which once acquired helps generate more resources to fight against oppression and exploitation. Such information may help create a scientific and rational outlook and an ability to analyse one’s own situation and methods for improving a lifestyle which is free from oppression and exploitation. If this happens, then the television viewers will break away from bondage and oppression, which will create a new awakening and self-confidence. If this happens, a chain reaction will follow, leading to development” (Agrawal 1994a: 392)

Given the vast potential of the medium today, it follows that the government can accelerate the process of development by initiating more projects along the lines of Kheda on national television, and by inculcating development strategies in television programming.


The above discussion establishes that television programming in India was initiated with the objectives of “education, information and entertainment” – objectives it was partially able to achieve through a variety of educational as well as entertainment programs, within its limited area of influence. The influence and power of television has grown exponentially since then, and the demand for entertainment programs has also risen. This evolution of television into a medium primarily geared toward entertaining its viewers calls for a strategy different from the early agricultural and educational programs shown on national television such as Krishi Darshan. Owing to slumping TRPs and lack of attractive or meaningful programming, the national network is desperately in need of radical restructuring as well as a facelift. It needs to be made more relevant and in-tune with the needs of its viewers, while at the same time being used to disseminate developmental messages. Since private channels are motivated predominantly by commercial concerns and constraints, expectations from state-supported television run high as far as development communication is concerned. The present paper provides a brief history of television in India, and in light of the current challenges facing the country, argues for a greater role for television in the process of development. It suggests the use of state-supported television channels as the primary vehicle for the propagation of developmental messages, packaged in the form of entertainment or ‘infotainment’ programs. It also calls for the decentralisation of television programming, and the promotion of local district-level TV networks as mentioned in the Joshi Working Group report. Owing to limited resources and time constraints, it does not include any field work or empirical research, and does not account for recent shifts in television programming with the introduction of television series such as Balika Vadhu on private-owned satellite television, which deals with the issue of child marriage in rural India. It also does not account for the rise in local television networks in languages such as Bhojpuri, and other languages that have relatively small audiences.


–       Mitra, Ananda (1993) ‘Television and Popular Culture in India: A Study of the Mahabharat’, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

–       Johnson, Kirk (2000) ‘Television and Social Change in Rural India’, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

–       Jain, C. M., et al. (eds.) (1995) ‘Media and Rural Development’, University Book House, Jaipur.

–       Agrawal, Binod C. ‘Culture, Communication and Development: An Indian Perspective’ in Third Survey of Research in Sociology and Social Anthropology – Vol. 1

–       Sarabhai, Vikram A. (1974) ‘Television for Development’ in Chowdhry, Kamla (Ed.) Science Policy and National Development, The Nehru Foundation, Ahmedabad.


About sadianasr

Road safety x digital, social, policy, media at SaveLife. AIR, Urban Justice, CAIR, ICGC, UNDP alum.

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