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50 years of Indian Television

During the last 50 years television, one of the greatest inventions of the scientific world has contributed immensely to the development of mankind. It has brought people of different countries and regions closer to each other, enabling them to learn about the culture and traditions flourishing in different parts of the world. It is perhaps the most powerful means of mass communication for education and entertainment.

The history of television in India started around later fifties. In 1955 a Cabinet decision was taken disallowing any foreign investments in print media which has since been followed religiously for nearly 45 years. Under this circumstances, television in India was introduced on September 15, 1959 in Delhi when UNESCO gave the Indian Government $20,000 and 180 philips TV sets. The programs were broadcast twice a week for an hour a day on such topics as community health, citizens' duties and rights, and traffic and road sense. In 1961 the broadcasts were expanded to include a school educational television project. The first major expansion of television in India began in 1972, when a second television station was opened in Bombay. This was followed by stations in Srinagar and Amritsar (1973), and Calcutta, Madras and Lucknow in 1975. In 1975, the government carried out the first test of the possibilities of satellite based television through the SITE ((Satellite Instructional Television Experiment)) program. For the first 17 years, broadcasting of television spread haltingly and transmission was mainly in black & white. By 1976, the government found itself running a television network of eight television stations covering a population of 45 million spread over 75,000 square kilometers. Faced with the difficulty of administering such an extensive television system television as part of All India Radio, the government constituted Doordarshan, the national television network, as a separate Department under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

There were initially two ignition points: the first, two events triggered the rapid growth of television in the eighties. INSAT-1A, the first of the country's domestic communications satellites became operational and made possible the networking of all of Doordarshan's regional stations. For the first time Doordarshan originated a nation-wide feed dubbed the "National Programme" which was fed from Delhi to the other stations. In November 1982, the country hosted the Asian Games and the government introduced color broadcasts for the coverage of the games. In this period no private enterprise was allowed to set up TV stations or to transmit TV signals.

The second spark came in the early nineties with the broadcast of satellite TV by foreign programmers like CNN followed by Star TV and a little later by domestic channels such as Zee TV and Sun TV into Indian homes. 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. Fifty years after it switched on, Doordarshan, India's public television broadcaster, continues to face the trinity of the three R's that haunt such broadcasters worldwide: REVENUE, RELEVANCE and REACH.

Nonetheless, mainstream media for most seemingly news-hungry Indians today is TV. TV news is India's vicarious new reality. When urban Indians learnt that it was possible to watch the Gulf War on television, they rushed out and bought dishes for their homes. Others turned entrepreneurs and started offering the signal to their neighbours by flinging cable over treetops and verandahs. According to an IRS survey, there are now 67 TV channels in 11 Indian languages devoted only to news-way above any country in the world. TV viewership for news has gone up from 333 million in 2000 to 437 million in 2007.

Advertising had discovered television in early nineties. In years to come, it would reorder the medium to serve its purpose. Beginning with equipment gifted from a foreign government, a makeshift studio and a clutch of 21 television sets installed in homes, TV now means 160 satellite channels broadcasting into India, earning revenues of more than Rs. 79 billion from advertising alone. Now, with over 66 million homes connected to Cable, India is the third largest cable-connected country in the world after China (110 million) and quickly closing in on the US (70 million).

Manik Saikia