Catch the Waves

India on Television,
Nalin Mehta
HarperCollins India, Rs 495

Filling in the 'satellite-size gap' in the scholarship of Indian television

The gulf war did not take place. So said Jean Baudrillard, cultural theorist and provocateur, about the blurring of spectacle and reality in a war that played out on the world's TV screens. In India, the Gulf War marked the buccaneering beginnings of satellite television, when neighbourhood cable operators set up rooftop dishes to illegally beam CNN, round-the-clock, into people's homes. Nalin Mehta's India on Television: How satellite news channels have changed the way we think and feel chronicles the years since, as the single, state-scripted narrative of Doordarshan exploded into the many babbling fragments that make up our media experience today.

It's obviously a book that was begging to be written, and Mehta has done a remarkable job of filling in the "satellite-size gap" in the scholarship of Indian television. But despite his bombastic subtitle, the book is not about the reception or effects of satellite news, but about the business itself right from the intricate prehistory of Indian broadcasting to Doordarshan's nation-welding project and the simultaneous creep of commercial impulses, the chaotic entry of private news and clumsy attempts to regulate it, and the peculiar ways it has evolved over the last decade.

Mehta's own immersion in the industry (working at NDTV and Times Now at crucial, formative moments in the business) gives a certain weight to his study, and an abundance of compelling anecdotal details for instance, Prannoy Roy's telling story about his first private live bulletin and the resulting uproar in the PMO and among the Doordarshan faithful forcing him to bung in a five-minute delay, just to soothe their nerves.
The narrative tracks the anxieties that surrounded the satellite invasion ("gunpowder from the sky"), pointing out that television became a barometer for the government's commitment to economic reform. Despite the moral panic around the culturally ruinous effects of globalisation, Mehta argues that Indian television shows up the mutually constitutive tugs of the local and the global. He quotes a marketing guru telling foreign investors to "repeat after me. India is different. India is different. India is different". India's storied encounter with cricket has been recounted in much globalisation literature, but Mehta outdoes himself in his study of the "cricketisation of Indian news". Cricket is now one of the prime drivers of the Indian news industry in 2006, cricket-oriented programming was estimated to account for the greatest expenditure in newsgathering across most news channels.

The book also examines the ratings race and the unabashed shilling that goes on in responsible networks (case in point: NDTV's infamous Bunty and Babli newscast), the way TV structures politics elevating snappy sound-bite warriors like Arun Jaitley and Jairam Ramesh over politicians who can be unkindly described as having "a face for radio". But Mehta's claim that India's argumentative tradition makes for a uniquely argumentative television could have used some comparative assessments. Israeli television, for instance, offers interesting parallels and divergences to the Indian experience. In contrast, his analysis of the Gujarat riots as the first 24/7 mediated political event is superlative. The Gujarat riots were the first event to have 24/7 attention from television cameras. He traces the arc from TV's unflinching and damning coverage, the Gujarat government's protests of how television irresponsibly amplified violence and rancour, and subsequent gaming of the system with its own statements.
In short, Mehta has produced an impeccably researched, crisply written book on a momentous development of contemporary India. It has enormous ambition and is exactly what is says it is a much-needed chronicle of the past heady decade and this "new and revolutionary theatre to the daily life of India".

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