In India, the Golden Age of Television Is Now
MUMBAI, India - Ghanshyam P. Shah, an 82-year-old widower, spends
up to eight hours a day in front of his television watching prayer
services, soap operas and financial news. But one afternoon last December,
he was completely disconnected from his favorite pastime — and visibly
unsettled — because his new digital set-top box was not working.
“I’ll become really agitated if I can’t watch,” Mr. Shah said as Rumy
M. Bhagat, the owner of a small cable company, gave up and plugged
the wire directly into the television until he could return with another
box. The image was no longer digital, but that did not matter to Mr.
Shah, a retired gold and silver dealer, whose face lit up as CNBC
India reported that the price of gold was up in afternoon trading.
Mr. Bhagat explained that some set-top boxes, which had been sitting
in warehouses for months in advance of a government-mandated change
to digital television, had proved a weak match for the heat and humidity
of Mumbai. “Sometimes we have teething problems,” he said.
Growing pains like these are common throughout India’s booming television
industry. Deregulation and new technology have combined to produce
an explosion of new offerings. Before the early 1990s, a single government
broadcaster provided a handful of channels. Now a crowded field of
domestic and global media companies, including the News Corporation,
Sony Entertainment and Walt Disney, offer hundreds of channels.
Indian films, especially the flashy musicals and dramas of Bollywood,
have grabbed plenty of attention in the West. But the country’s lesser-known
television business is more than twice as big, with an estimated $3.4
billion in revenue in 2005, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. It
is also starting to exert greater cultural influence.
Television ownership is growing fast here, and it has plenty more
room to expand. There are roughly 105 million homes with televisions
in India, up from 88 million in 2000. The current number of television
households is about the same as in the United States, though for India
that amounts to only about half of the country’s households, compared
with 98 percent in the United States.
Advertising spending on Indian television increased by 21 percent
a year, on average, from 1995 to 2005, when it reached $1.6 billion,
according to ZenithOptimedia, which tracks advertising globally. Double-digit
growth rates are expected to continue for years.
Such numbers are very tempting to companies like the News Corporation,
Disney, Time Warner and Viacom, which are losing viewers and advertisers
in their core Western markets. (In addition to the domestic market,
Indian television is also delivered via satellite and cable to the
global South Asian diaspora.)
The pace of change in India is supercharged because the country is
catching up to, and in some cases leapfrogging, developments that
took decades to play out elsewhere.
“Everything that happened in the rest of the world in 10 years, is
happening here in two years,” said Vikram Kaushik, the chief executive
of Tata Sky, a satellite-TV company that is jointly owned by the News
Corporation and the Tata Group, the Indian industrial conglomerate.
In the 1990s, media companies seized on new opportunities in India
after the government, which had controlled broadcasting for nearly
50 years, began releasing its grip. The first big changes in Indian
television came in the early part of that decade, when cable operators
used satellite dishes, illegal but tolerated at the time, to give
subscribers access to news on CNN, as well as American soap operas
and movies. Viewers could also watch Indian movies and music on Zee
TV, then a fledgling joint venture between the News Corporation and
an Indian entrepreneur.
Previously, India’s ruling elite had a dual and somewhat contradictory
view of broadcasting. On the one hand, politicians considered it too
powerful a force to be left to the private sector, especially in the
years after independence in 1947, when the nation’s unity and secularism
were considered vulnerable. On the other hand, television was seen
as too frivolous to merit much investment at a time when politicians
were focused on turning India into an industrial power.
Those attitudes began to change after a financial crisis in the early
’90s forced the Indian government to devalue its currency, the rupee,
and to start relinquishing its tight control over the economy. Then,
in 1995, the country’s highest court declared the government’s monopoly
over broadcasting unconstitutional.
When it did yield, India went further in deregulating television than
it did in other sectors of the economy. It also gave up far more control
when compared with China, the country against which it is most often
measured. Foreign media companies can fully own entertainment networks
here; they cannot in China. (India does, however, limit foreign ownership
to 26 percent of television news channels and newspapers.)
THE open environment attracted the News Corporation, which entered
the market in 1993 by acquiring Star TV. Star has the highest-rated
shows among the private networks in Hindi-speaking parts of the country.
Sony started its flagship channel here in 1995 and now has seven channels;
the company owns about 61 percent of the business, with Indian investors
owning the rest. The biggest Indian broadcasters are Zee and Sun TV,
which dominates ratings in non-Hindi-speaking southern India.
Still, Doordarshan, the public broadcaster, remains the most widely
available network, especially in rural areas, where a majority of
the population lives.
To keep up with changing times, Doordarshan has retooled its programming,
adding genres like soap operas and musical contests to a lineup that
is still dominated by more high-minded — and what some critics would
call staid — cultural programming. It has also started a satellite-TV
service that has no subscription fees but also does not include the
most popular private channels.
Star has been one of the few consistently profitable businesses in
Indian television. Although the News Corporation does not disclose
financial details of its operations here, Merrill Lynch estimates
that Star accounts for 3 percent of the company’s total operating
income, or about $116 million in the 2006 fiscal year.
Zee, which started by offering a few hours of programming a day, now
has more than two dozen channels; it started a satellite-TV service,
DishTV, in 2004. “We offered an alternative to a broadcaster, Doordarshan,
from which urban audiences felt disconnected,” said Ashish Kaul, a
senior vice president at Zee. “You cannot blame Doordarshan; it had
a national obligation.”
About 60 percent of the nation’s television households subscribe to
the cable or satellite services that carry private channels. Though
Indians theoretically have dozens of channels to choose from, a handful
dominate the ratings and earn most of the profits. A fragmented cable
business is straining to reshape itself in response to new regulations
and competition from satellite television services.
The transition to digital cable, meanwhile, has so far occurred only
in parts of India’s four most populous cities. The changeover has
been troubled by technical problems, weak enforcement of a Jan. 1
deadline and a shortage of set-top boxes.
At the same time, the newest technology operates alongside the often
stark economic and social realities of India. Black-and-white televisions
still account for an estimated 40 percent of all TV’s in use, and
about 56 percent of rural households do not have electricity, according
to India’s 2001 census. And because most homes in India that have
a television have just one set, watching TV can be a communal activity
that brings together the entire family, and often the neighbors, too.
Perhaps the most striking of the changes in Indian television is what
is starting to show up on the screen.
“Dhoom Machaoo Dhoom” (Hindi for “Let’s have a blast”) is a Disney
show aimed at teenagers, and it might look at home on the Disney Channel
in the United States. It is about four teenage girls, one of them
from New York, who want to start a band so they can represent their
school in a talent contest. They face a number of challenges, including
an arrogant classmate who is determined to derail their plans.
But the show, which went on the air last month, has an Indian twist.
Priyanka, the New Yorker who has returned to her family’s native land,
wants the girls to perform a song they have created, rather than using
a tune from a popular Bollywood movie, as the local norms dictate.
In one episode, Kajal, played by Sriti Jha, complains that Priyanka
doesn’t understand India. “Only Bollywood works here,” she insists.
The girls do not dwell on the issue, but it is an important consideration
for television executives and media companies here. Indian television
has a strong partnership with the film industry, whose stars appear
on its shows as guests, contestants and hosts. Movies and music videos
from Bollywood remain staples on television here.
Yet in the last decade television has attained influence over the
popular culture that is starting to rival that of the film business.
And whereas filmmakers have traditionally worked in close-knit networks
that operate in a single language, media companies have been exploiting
the large and growing capacity of cable and satellite networks to
cheaply develop customized channels and shows for different parts
of the country. Zee, for instance, operates several regional-language
entertainment and news channels.
“We have a vibrant TV industry,” said Rama Bijapurkar, a business
consultant whose clients include Disney and who also writes a column
for The Economic Times. “When talking about the hinterland, TV is
what Bollywood would like to be.”
Nachiket Pantvaidya, an executive director at Disney’s Indian operations,
predicted that “Dhoom” would be a breakthrough for Indian television
because it was one of the few shows produced for teenagers, and specifically
for girls. He said that more than 90 percent of what Indian youths
watch on TV are family dramas and other shows created for their parents.
“This is a story of kids who are trying to do something out of the
ordinary,” Mr. Pantvaidya said. “Nobody makes TV for the real world.
This kind of TV is rare.”
Ms. Jha, the 20-year-old who plays one of the girls on “Dhoom,” added:
“This can’t be compared to the whole lot of family serials. This is
much more real and close to the lives of kids.”
“Dhoom” is Disney’s sophomore effort at producing TV shows in India
— its first, “Vicky Aur Vetaal,” was based on an Indian myth about
a prince and a genie-like figure. The company sees television as the
first step in a broader India strategy that includes films, merchandising
and possibly a theme park. Last year, Disney spent $44.5 million to
acquire a 15 percent stake in UTV, a production company based in Mumbai,
and to buy Hungama, a television channel of children’s programming
created by UTV.
“We decided early on that this had to be driven locally,” said Gary
Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide in
Burbank, Calif. “If we were to truly become a global company, we had
to let our regional organizations create their own programming.” India
was the first country where the company developed local Disney Channel
shows, something it is now doing in Britain and Japan, too.
Many of Disney’s competitors have built their businesses on a similar
strategy. Time Warner, which operates the Pogo and Cartoon Network
channels here, is offering an Indian version of “Sesame Street” called
“Galli Galli Sim Sim.” The show uses some material from the popular
American show, but it is set on an Indian streetscape and is anchored
by four local Muppets. A large orange-and-red lion named Boombah replaces
Television executives say the ventures by Disney and others aimed
at youths and various niche markets are a welcome break from the way
business has been done in India. A handful of channels — which carry
soap operas, reality shows, music shows and important cricket tournaments
— receive the bulk of the advertising. Yet entrepreneurs continue
spending millions of dollars starting copycat networks. India has
more than 40 cable news channels, for example.
“Here it is, we have 200 channels of the same stuff, and people are
saying let’s do more of it,” said Sameer Nair, chief executive of
Star Entertainment, a News Corporation subsidiary. “That will churn
and change.” (In an indication that competition is intensifying, Mr.
Nair announced last month that he would be leaving Star in March.
According to news reports, he will be helping a rival Indian-owned
TV company start a new entertainment channel.)
AS media executives try to introduce innovative programming, exactly
what can go on the air in India remains fluid. There is no overt censorship
of television content, but most media companies say they aggressively
police themselves to avoid running afoul of political and cultural
Several movie channels were forced to go off the air for more than
a week last summer when a court in Mumbai ruled in favor of a schoolteacher
who had argued that films that had been rated for adult viewing only
in their cinematic release could not be shown on television without
being edited and recertified for a wider audience.
In some ways, television fare in India today is far more adventurous
than it was even five years ago. A recent adaptation of “Big Brother,”
known here as “Bigg Boss,” for instance, has stirred the pot by showing
minor celebrities behaving badly. Though it may seem insignificant,
the show has let viewers see famous people as human beings, said Kunal
Dasgupta, who heads Sony’s Indian television operations, which broadcasts
Still, Mr. Dasgupta knows that social customs evolve slowly here.
He said he was considering “with kid gloves” a proposal from an Italian
company to help produce a miniseries that would be based loosely on
the life of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of India’s ruling
Congress Party who is the widow of the former prime minister, Rajiv
The proposal calls for an Indian cast, but the series would take an
“Italian perspective,” Mr. Dasgupta said. “I find it very exciting
and challenging,” he said. “At the same time, knowing our own media,
we could be ripped apart.” He said he was “trying to see if we can
get people who are really in power to accept that if we do such a
thing it will be O.K.”
The fact that he is even considering such a proposal is a sign of
how far television has come in India. And as the country continues
to experience major economic and social changes, the shape of Indian
television is likely to keep evolving.
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