SUSHMA SWARAJ’s debut as minister of Information & Broadcasting could not have been more dramatic, or appealing to the yuppie classes. TheCabinet’s decision last week to permit Direct-to-Home (DTH) telecasting has delighted the consumerist pro-globalisation upper strata while, as per the present strategy of the sangh parivar, paying lip service to swadeshi. The minister summed it up when she said the new policy was “Yes to DTH, but with safeguards.” If one looks back, this is a formalisation of the framework outlined by the former I&B minister Pramod Mahajan, who had reversed the then extant policy of not allowing DTH. Has the BJP indeed performed a volte face? What does the approval for DTH reflect in terms of cultural policy of the BJP-led government? And what are the more general implications of DTH in India?
WHAT IS DTH?
Let us first understand what DTH is. In the first place, Direct-to-Home broadcasting of television signals is not a revolutionary new system but simply a more advanced version of a broadcasting system which is already familiar namely, satellite TV.
When television first started and till quite recently, TV signals were transmitted terrestrially i.e. by a transmitter on earth, the signals then being received by TV sets with their own antennae. If such signals had to be sent over long distances, relay towers had to be erected to catch and re-transmit the signals to the next tower and so on. This system was necessitated by the fact that TV signals, like radio signals or light, travel in straight lines and, due to the curvature of the earth, cannot be received beyond a certain distance. On the other hand, satellites orbiting high above the earth could receive signals transmitted outward from earth and beam them back over a wide area known as the “footprint” of the satellite system, which is again limited by the earth’s curvature and the satellite’s distance from earth. In India, TV as a popular medium really came of age only with the advent of satellite TV, initiated in the early ’70s for the SITE educational programme, which enabled reaching remote parts of the country without the enormous expense and difficulty of setting up numerous relay towers.
The next step was what we know as Cable TV in India, essentially a system where small private operators set up dish antennae to receive TV signals from several satellites accessible from that point and re-transmit these signals to individual homes through cables. In some countries, re-transmission by cable is either not permitted or tightly controlled, forcing those who can afford it to set up their own individual satellite dishes, usually 8-15 feet in diameter. Even in India affluent homes in farmhouses or in posh apartment blocks have their own dishes rather than relying on a neighbouring cable operator.
This system has many variations. Some channels send out their signals free while some charge subscriptions either from individual owners or from cable operators who, in turn, recover the same from consumers. Collection of subscription is ensured via an encryption system i.e. where the signals are sent out in code requiring a device at the receiving end to de-code the signal into normal pictures and sound, such devices again being either at the cable operators end or that of the consumer. Some channels are also “pay-per-view” where the consumer pays only for what he watches through a metering system installed at home.
The DTH system is a technologically upgraded version of the above, but one which has potential to considerably alter the way television is used by the consumer. While the conventional satellite-dish-cable system uses a frequency range called C-band, the DTH system uses the Ku-band frequency capable of carrying much better quality picture and sound signals. The DTH system also requires a very small antenna, a dish of 12-18 inches diameter easily installed at home, and a set-top decoder box. If one ignores the technicalities, the essential difference between the existing cable system in India and DTH is that the latter completely eliminates the local intermediary, the cable operator, and allows the consumer to deal directly with the TV channel beaming its signals from orbiting satellites. It is estimated that consumers in India could receive dozens of channels through DTH in addition to the close to one hundred channels that are even now available through cable.
Of course, all this comes at a price. The dish is likely to cost about Rs 10,000 and the set-top decoder about Rs 15,000, besides hefty subscription charges of an estimated Rs 1,000 per month likely to be levied by the channels, clearly putting DTH beyond the reach of all but an affluent
section of society. Business circles are estimating that about 3 million homes may come into the DTH fold compared to about 25 million with cable TV (each paying around Rs 100-150 per month) and 75 million with terrestrial TV only (with no charge). Small wonder that critics of the DTH announcement have labelled it as elitist.
However, in the long run, and with advancing technologies, these high prices for DTH are likely to come down substantially. In technological terms, DTH TV would ultimately move towards becoming like radio which, with transistorised receivers, enabled people in the remotest part of the world to receive quality audio signals without major equipment or high running costs.
The other worry for some people is that such a system appears to allow untrammelled reception of programmes by consumers with no check or control over harmful content. With cable TV, the government or other authority can at least theoretically check the local cable authorities who currently number around 70,000 throughout the country. And it is ostensibly to address these concerns that the BJP-led government has simultaneously announced certain conditions on broadcasters wishing to start DTH services in India.
CONDITIONS FOR DTH IN INDIA
The major aspects of the conditions imposed on DTH broadcasters relate to foreign investment, ownership and control, cross-media holdings, original of the signal, licensing and regulatory authority.
Most countries have restrictions on foreign equity participation in media operations. In the UK and Europe, the cap is placed at 25 per cent. In fact, in the UK no person (foreign or domestic) can hold more than 25 per cent equity. Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-origin media magnate and owner of STAR TV, was compelled to take US citizenship before he was allowed to invest in US-based media companies!
The BJP-led government has now proposed a cap of 49 per cent on foreign investments in DTH companies, of which a maximum of 20 per cent can be foreign direct investment (FDI). It may be recalled that when the draft Broadcast Bill prepared by the United Front government had also proposed a ceiling of 49 per cent on foreign investment, critics including the Left had at that time suggested reducing this to 20 or 24 per cent. While the BJP’s figure takes care of the point that with holdings less than 24 per cent, a foreign equity holder is not automatically entitled to a place on the Board of the company, by allowing as much as 49 percent total foreign holding it has virtually accepted foreign domination of DTH services despite such provisions as mandatory Indian CEOs, registration in India and so on. Anyone with an even remote familiarity with the Indian corporate world knows well that Indian companies can be controlled with quite small equity holdings, especially if pliant state-sector financial institutions are instructed to lie low as is usually the case.
The BJP-led government’s DTH policy also lays down that no broadcasting company or cable distribution network can hold more than 20 per cent of DTH companies as a means to check monopolies. This measure surprisingly leaves out other media companies such as print media corporations. Such restrictions on cross-media holdings exist in almost all countries to prevent multi-media monopolies which could control the whole gamut of information going out to consumers. There may well be more than meets the eye in this surprise omission of cross-media ownership restrictions given the openly-expressed interest of a leading print-media corporation in entering the DTH sector.
It also appears that, despite having overcome some weaknesses in this aspect in the UF government’s draft Bill, the BJP-led government has not fully understood the nature of DTH. As suggested above, DTH is really another more advanced form of the existing satellite TV system transmitted to Indian homes through cable. There is therefore little justification in putting broadcasting and cable operation in the same boat against DTH telecasting. As things stand, the first company most likely to launch DTH services will be Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV through its new company ISkyB, named for India after the successful British company BSkyB. Murdoch’s major rival Zee TV has already announced a joint corporate float with Chennai-based computer hardware firm Zenith. These companies will no doubt make sure they conform with the new rules for DTH but still manage to control both content and distribution through DTH. In fact, the new policy ignores the growing convergence between broadcasting and distribution with local cable operators gradually coming under the corporate umbrella of companies with major stakes in content, such as Zee TV.
REGULATION, CONTROL OR FANTASY?
So what do all these so-called safeguards aim to achieve? Two important features, mostly ignored by media commentators, may provide answers.
A much-touted measure to safeguard against moral perversion and infringement of security is the new policy’s insistence that all DTH broadcasters, who could be unlimited in number provided they meet the required criteria and pay the requisite fees (of Rs 10 crore plus 10 per cent of revenues earned) to government, must uplink their signals from Indian soil within 12 months of being granted license. The logic behind this provision is supposedly that this would enable the government, or appropriate regulatory authority, to exercise control over programme content and ensure its conformity with Indian legal and moral standards.
The whole logic and advantage of satellite communication is that from a single point on earth a very large area can be covered by a signal reflected back from a satellite. This `footprint’ of a satellite system can extend over as much as 60 countries ( as in the case of the STAR network) while uplinking or originating from one location. If each country insists that signals to be received in it should be uplinked only from that country then this would defeat the very purpose and advantage of satellite communication! Thus in the long run it is going to be very difficult to enforce this requirement because the logic of the technology will go against it. Even today, satellite TV channels distributed in India through cable is not uplinked from India. After all, one cannot realistically expect that global channels like CNN nor BBC will uplink from India or each country that insists on such uplinking.
Can there, then, be no control at all over DTH? On the contrary, as the experience with cable TV suggests, sound regulation and enforcement of conformity with domestic legislation can certainly bring about the desired results as the ban on certain channels or programmes, or control over advertisements of alcohol have demonstrated.
Of course, part of this obsession with “control” as against regulation is a historical legacy of governments in India, in part due to the doors the former opens to patronage and kickbacks. But it also particularly suits the BJP and sangh parivar ideology and its inclination towards thought-policing. The party which, while in opposition, advocated independence of the media from government now refuses to accept autonomy of state-owned media and strongly prefers direct (read non-transparent) governmental control or pretends to do so in order to placate the swadeshi lobby.
OVER GLOBALISED FACE
There is strong evidence to suggest that all these “safeguards” and “controls” are mere smokescreens to mask a laissez faire media policy which the BJP actually prefers in its truer pro-liberalisation and pro-globalisation form.
For instance, the fine print in the new policy suggests that the condition
regarding uplinking from India could also be satisfied if the signal is received from abroad via satellite and re-uplinked for delivery to India via DTH!
But more importantly, the new policy has been unveiled only a short time
after the BJP-led government unveiled its plans to form a composite Ministry to represent the growing convergence between information, entertainment and communication. Government spokespersons have also revealed that, in order to promote convergence, a new composite Regulatory Authority would be constituted with a policy framework designed with sufficient flexibility to take into account changes in technology and “obviating the necessity to repeatedly go back to parliament” for legislation to account for changed circumstances.
The cat, we believe, is finally out of the bag. All these safeguards mean
little except to temporarily reassure possible critics in the sangh parivar’s swadeshi lobby and elsewhere while building the ground for the opposite. The BJP-led government has steadfastly refused to consider a comprehensive Broadcast Bill and is now leaning towards a non-transparent regulatory authority with an open-ended agenda and little or no accountability.
And meanwhile, in the midst of fears of foreign cultural invasions, the moral corruption by a blatantly consumerist, elitist and socially conservative Indian electronic media goes unchallenged. The threat of vulgarity, stereotyped and degrading images of women, consumerist and other socially retrograde values, and trashy programmes on TV heavily based on commercial cinema which itself contains all the above negative elements, continues unabated. It is the same as the sangh parivar pretending that its own vulgar reinterpretation of Indian culture and moral values are all right while all other view points are automatically suspect especially if they even remotely have a non-Indian origin.
The problem is not merely whether a broadcaster is foreign or Indian, but what the programme content is. Would an Indian-owned DTH broadcaster
necessarily be better than a foreign one, and if not, how is this issue to be tackled? Everyone knows that the sangh parivar will not trust an independent regulatory authority to do so. The BJP has made it clear that Doordarshan will not be freed from stifling big-brotherly control. And no attempt has been made to reform and strengthen the public broadcaster. So, whither TV in India? If the mixed signals from the BJP are anything to go by, untrammelled globalisation will show the way.