September 2010
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Mediated by the media

The country’s ‘mediascape’ — to use a term coined by Arjun Appadurai, an academic of Indian origin based in the US — has changed dramatically over barely a decade and a half from the early-1990s onwards. Unlike developed countries, all sections of the mass media (including print and radio) in this country have grown and continue to expand, albeit at varying paces.

In recent years, among the mass media, the most striking growth has been witnessed first in television and then telephony — making the Indian experience different from those of most other countries.

From a single television broadcaster till as recently as 1991, not less than 600 television channels are today ‘invading’ Indian homes through the skies. Until the end of 2004, there were more television sets with cable and satellite connections than mobile phones.

Since then, the number of mobile phones in the country has grown exponentially to a level where there are more phones (land-lines and mobiles) in metropolitan areas like Chennai and Delhi than even human beings. Still, the gap between India and Bharat remains — rural teledensity is around 25% at present against a saturation level of almost 100% in metros.

Was the media boom in India a consequence of the country’s economy opening up to the rest of the world? Or was it coincidental? These are not easy questions to answer. The book under review grapples with these issues in the context of two major developments that have recently influenced the rapid transformation of the mass media: globalisation and advances in communications technologies.

The authors, both academics of Indian origin based in Australia, present empirical details on how the Indian media have nurtured as well as re-constructed and de-constructed identities by, among other things, allowing access to a host of not just goods but ideas as well that were earlier represented as ‘foreign’ to Indian culture. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, the book examines the role of the media in purveying political, economic and cultural identities and also in defining notions of ‘we’, ‘they’ and ‘the other’.

The book not merely deals with the ‘glocalisation’ of Indian television, it also devotes two chapters to print and radio and elaborates on reasons why the so-called ‘traditional’ media in the country continues to grow and exert significant influence on society.

One obvious reason is that one out of three Indians still cannot read and write her or his name — which ensures that the print medium, in particular its non-English segment, would continue to grow at a clip that would be impressive by international standards. The anomaly of India being the only democracy in the world where news on radio is still a monopoly of the government, should hopefully not last too long.

This reviewer found particularly interesting the chapter in the book that deals with how ‘nationalism’ is being used as an effective advertising tool by multinational corporations to market their products. Also noteworthy are the chapters that elaborate on the pan-Tamil rhetoric in the media in Tamil Nadu in its coverage of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, and the use of online media in the construction and perpetuation of ‘nationhood’ in Nagaland.

Another chapter is an admittedly exploratory study of the recent proliferation of citizen’s journalism which deliberates on audience dissatisfaction with the mainstream media and attempts by communities to develop alternative media in India. While analysing the Bollywood film Swades, one of the authors, Maya Ranganathan, argues that through a careful invocation of tradition and deployment of symbolism, domicile in India — which is how the country’s Constitution defines citizenship — is stressed as an important factor for ‘inclusion’.

While exploring the role of Doordarshan in a case study, Usha M Rodrigues contends that India’s public service broadcaster — despite its inefficiencies and in spite of it being a propaganda tool for the ruling dispensation — has a significant role in ‘raising the taste’ and quality of television programming in a competitive environment (that has led to trivialisation of content by dumbing down audiences) where the private media is focussed on profit maximisation.

Ranganathan points out that Indian satellite television, while seeming to portray women of the ‘new age’, “confines neo-liberalism to the demeanour and occupation of women”. Inother words, the authors argue that the “new” Indian woman portrayed on television serials appears liberal only by her demeanour (or her looks and superficial behaviour) and on account of her occupation (say, a female pilot of an aircraft and not an air hostess). These become her major qualifications for being perceived as ‘liberal’ and not her other qualities or, for that matter, her views, say, on pre-marital sex or abortion.

The last section of the book, which deals with media policy, highlights how the government continues to make ad hoc policy decisions, without providing a clear legal or regulatory framework for the development of the ‘catalytic’ potential of the mass media — its ability to meet the educational and entertainment requirements of different sections of the country’s extremely variegated and often deeply divided population.


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