The Local as a Media Created Site: Emergence of Cable Media in India’s North East

By JAYANTA VISHNU DAS, PhD. Assistant Professor, Department of Cultural Studies, Tezpur University, Assam.

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ABSTRACT:

The boom in media platforms in North East India albeit late cannot be termed as a weak one. Post 1990’s the national private media saw a boom especially the Hindi and English language media. Regional space in the south always kept itself distinct from the north Indian influence. In other parts regional media was coming of age due to the contribution of two large media houses the ETV group and Zee media. But, north east remained cut off from these developments. It was not until News Live and DY365 in 2008 that we saw the coming of 24X7 programming in these parts. The idea of ‘locality’ as a discursive space grew with the notion of a local media, and  in my paper I forward the idea of the existence of local cable channels, a distinct media which beams programmes in the local language, on topics that are relevant and belongs to the local area. The ‘local’ which has lost out in the mainstream media gains importance here, infact the local becomes the site for production of ‘culture’. Generally, the process of localization of the press operates within a complex hierarchy of media-structures and media-territories. This hierarchy (which is crucially, but not solely, influenced by the ethnic, linguistic and administrative hierarchies) facilitates in constructing the demarcations between the ‘communitarian self’ and the ‘other’ at multiple levels. This making of the local press involves inventing new semiotic vocabularies and new narratives to define and celebrate the ‘local’, within a specific media space created in contrast with the already available global, national or mainstream media. In fact, the term ‘local’ has increasingly become de-territorialized concepts acting as the basic units for the production of everyday space. Yet, at the same time such space have been located as counter to global forces which are based on the ideas of local production of symbols and codes, and in effect culture, which ties the people of a locality in a cohesive unit.

Thus, I argue the case for the role of local cable channels in creation of an alternate reality, a role which essentially the ‘mainstream’ has failed to deliver in the course of the last few decades.

INTRODUCTION

Assam witnessed a boom in its media sector in 1990’s with language newspapers leading the way. The decade before that the press in Assam had played an active role in the nationalist agitation that took place in Assam. This sudden explosion of the regional press played an important role in the creation of an informed public sphere. The media explosion of the 1990s, commonly going under the shorthand ‘globalization’, was not without a history, but was marked by a certain concentration of both media forms and temporal acceleration. Consider this: within a few years India saw satellite cable television growing from just a handful to a total of 80 channels, and the growth of other media in the form of cassettes, CDs, VCDs, MP3s, and DVDs. Media ownership was extremely diverse (Sundaram, 2005: 56).

In the national context this was the period that witnessed immense growth that can be attributed to the opening up of the Indian economy to foreign investments, a policy encouraged by the then Congress government, and also in part to the influx of the phenomenon of satellite television. Satellite television made a quiet entry during the Gulf war and within a decade established itself as a force to reckon with, upstaging the government broadcaster DD, which used to be the lone player before this. And this growth was driven mostly by the news media of the country. India today has approximately 122 active news channels, the largest number of any country in the world (Kohli-Khandekar, 2011).

Since the time it played an active role in the Assam Agitation, the press in Assam has never looked back. Satellite television channels came up in the year 2004 with the transmission of North East TV. With this the local media scene witnessed competition for audience and with it the rise in fear that newspapers would see a decline in readership with the coming of television. But nothing of that sort happened; News Live another 24×7 news channel was launched in 2008 and was followed by DY 365, a 24×7 news channel launched in the later part of the same year. Other channels soon followed like Prime News, News Time Assam, and Frontier TV in 2010 and added to an ever increasing media market in Assam. “With broadcast media liberalization the number of Indian households with access to television increased exponentially, growing from only a few million in 1984 to 124 million households in 2009, a figure that accounts for approximately 60 percent of the total population” (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2010: 24). And this growth was driven in large part due to the boom witnessed in the regional media scene of the country.

In this study I analyze the role of local cable channels (henceforth lcc’s) in the context of Assam, and what makes the idea of a local press in a globalized world where ideas of culture are increasingly changing with shift in centers of production. Rather, the concept of the local can no longer be taken in isolation but rather in conjunction with the global. Over the years the word globalization has progressively been used to refer to a process through which the entire human population is bonded into a ‘single system’ (Wallerstein, 1990), a ‘single society’ (Albrow, 1990), or ‘the structuration of the world as a whole’, as defined by Robertson (1990). Terms such as ‘glocal’ and ‘glocalization’ are increasingly being used to define the blend of the global and the local.  These definitions have their criticism as well, mostly in the third world context where scholars see the “global village more as a threat to cultural identities and pluralism rather than as an opportunity to create a more consensual culture among neighbouring people” (Goonasekera, 2001: 278). For obvious reasons the idea of the local is often constructed on administrative or cartographic definitions of areas. “Lack of clear, shared definitions does not, however, prevent people from being attached to their region of residence” (Aldridge, 2007: 11). Whereas ideas such as multi-national, trans-national, nation states or international organizations are constructed as global ideas, the ‘local’ struggles for a definitive area. Territoriality however, has often been considered an important consideration as Held et al. explains ‘local’ in communication terminology as “consolidation of flows and networks within a specific locale” (1999: 16).

The importance of the ‘local sphere’ has been emphasized in such communication theories, to create opinion and views in matters that affect the local population. Dirlik has argued the local “as a site both of promise and predicament” (1996: 22). He says it “serves as a site for the working out of the most fundamental contradictions of the age” (ibid 1996: 23). Where the idea of the local can be empowering and emancipatory in its very ideals, there is a fear of parochialism and dictatorial tendencies taking over. The importance, of the local, as a space that is growing with increase in the focus on the global has indeed led to a better understanding of our own locality in our daily lives. It has emerged as a resistant, and the location of production of culture that is appropriated by the globalizing forces.

Thus we see that the term ‘local’ has increasingly become de-territorialized concepts acting as the basic units for the production of everyday space. Yet, at the same time such space have been located as counter to global forces which are based on the ideas of local production of symbols and codes, and in effect culture, which ties the people of a locality in a cohesive unit. All such units of production therefore can be termed as ‘local’ for the sake of this study. As Aldridge (2007: 14) points out that “there is little doubt that for many people, their stake in their area of residence is based not only on issues of convenience but goes well beyond behaviour into the realm of sentiments. We should not, therefore, be surprised that there is a well-established appetite for local news”.

MEDIA IN ASSAM

But this boom in media has also seen a rise of the concentration of media in Guwahati. Language newspapers who published from other towns have felt themselves alienated from the nerve center Guwahati, so much so that some of them had to move out of the districts and set shop in the state capital of Guwahati. This undue interest in Guwahati has also led to news stories and programmes having a clear Guwahati centric bias and in the process the other parts of the state felt left out. Big towns such as Dibrugarh, Nagaon, Jorhat, Silchar did not as a result have an outlet for their agenda. This vacuum was filled to a great extent by some of the dailies which started multiple editions from other towns, and also the rise of local cable channels (lcc’s) which were town centric. These local cable channels took advantage of the already existing cable networks; their delivery mechanism was so strong that the satellite channels too had to take the help of these networks to reach the smaller centers. As a result local issues got a local agency to reach the people of the area. What makes matter interesting is the structure of these cable networks which was conveniently used; de-centralized, grassroots workers and unique revenue sharing and funding mechanism meant that these networks are hugely successful today in the smaller towns and villages.

The process of localization of the press operates within a complex hierarchy of media-structures and media-territories. This hierarchy (which is crucially, but not solely, influenced by the ethnic, linguistic and administrative hierarchies) facilitates in constructing the demarcations between the ‘communitarian self’ and the ‘other’ at multiple levels. This making of the local press involves inventing new semiotic vocabularies and new narratives to define and celebrate the ‘local’, within a specific media space created in contrast with the already available global, national or mainstream media.

I argue in this paper that the process of localization cannot be equated with establishing multiple editions. In the case of Assam, although the newspapers first started multiple editions in 1997 with Amar Asom, and followed by other dailies, these editions rather than democratizing the news process only succeeded in reducing the time it took to reach the readers. For, practical reasons Guwahati, the state capital remained the hub of news collection and page designing, and all hopes of a reassertion of the local in the news sphere failed in the long run. The establishment of satellite television which came up in 2004 in Assam was seen as threat to the newspapers hegemony in the media universe. Television, with its boon of technology had the reach that no newspaper could dream of, it also created new audience and illiteracy was no longer an issue. But television, in its process of consolidation and competition with its peers, confined itself to a limited space. Channels which started with programming in multiple languages started to concentrate on a single language. The regional media itself was aping the national agenda of being undemocratic in its content and programming. The sense of identity and belonging of the audience to such a media becomes questionable.

CASE STUDIES

In this section I analyse the functioning and growth of two such local cable channels (LCC) run by cable networks in Silchar and Dibrugarh in Assam. LCC’s are not a new phenomenon in India, and most cable networks have one. Movies were screened in some of these channels at specific hours, and the best part of having a LCO was the convenience of calling up and requesting for a particular movie. And more often than not these requests were obliged with and thus the popularity of these channels soared. In the process cable networks came to be identified with the channels that they had of their own, a recipe for enhancing the number of subscribers. Cable networks faced intense competition from rival networks and the only way to resist it was value added services, the local cable channels served that end. In course of time some of larger networks and MSO’s, people who could afford, opened cable news channels too. These channels would be the one stop destination for all kinds of local events that would be happening in the area. The area of collecting news therefore would remain the boundaries of the reach of the network. Therefore the existence of the channels would be symbiotic to the network itself. The local news bulletin was something innovative, and also earned extra revenue through local advertisements. “By insisting and sometimes even supplying footage of a local event, such as a cricket match, inauguration of a public amenity or a celebrity visit to the area, they (LCO) can have these items included in the evening news bulletin. This may be a way of getting personal publicity for himself or of rising in the estimation of the local boss; either way, it was a practice that the MSOs encouraged during the early days to cultivate local contacts and expand their networks” (Naregal, 2000: 304).

BARAK TELEVISION NETWORK (BTN)

BTN Cable is a major MSO for the Barak valley region of Assam. Situated at Silchar, the capital of Cachar district, BTN cable is located strategically in the commercial hub of the region. For practical purposes Broadcasting from Silchar, the kind of money that is required to run a satellite channel, enough revenue won’t be generated to be sustainable. The geographical area that it (network) reaches is covered by their news coverage. Today it reach almost 80% of the household of the Cachar district.” For all purposes opening a satellite channel based in district towns is impractical. All the revenue comes from Guwahati and satellite channels in turn have to be dependent on cable distribution networks to reach the people across the state, which is costly. Prime News is a stark example, how it failed to provide the cable networks the distribution charge and finally closed down. For, smaller towns that way it makes commercial sense to stick to its area of operation. The cost of channel distribution is free as such channels belong to the network themselves. The only cost they bear is the cost of hiring extra people for the news production and presentation process.

Advertisements although is a major issue for these local networks, they are impeded by their smaller reach to get big clients. Small advertisements which include anything from coaching centers, swimming classes, birthday wishes, anniversary wishes, inaugurations, local events, astrologers, doctors etc. form the bulk of such advertisements. These advertisements are mostly in the form of banners on top and bottom of the screen, and also running tickers which are booked on normally a weekly basis. These kinds of advertisements are generally textual advertisements, and some cases may even carry smaller images. With the easy availability of technology and trained people making advertisements have become easier. The LCC themselves double up as the advertisement agencies giving complete solution to the customers, right from production to equipment to distribution all in a package. These advertisements again are not sold on time slots but on weekly basis, the more the money you pay the longer it runs and the frequency increases too.

The purpose of genres in LCC’s is double fold. Firstly, to become conduits of entertainment, localization of the existing genre of television programming and secondly, to connect with the people and keep them hooked, audiences who are also consumers of their networks. This two pronged evolution has defined how in the initial days of LCC’s it was only about bolywood song and dance videos and occasional movie screenings, and how it later evolved to interactive programming and reality shows. The LCC might be considered to be the early starters of reality programmes when they would cover local events, school functions and neighbourhood competitions.

The Director of BTN Monish Das explains their programming thus “we have live talk shows on health, where doctors answer to the queries directly which the viewers ask by telephone, we have dance and song programme by kids, also we organize programme by local artists, we go out on the streets and parks to record. We also have live shows like during Durga Puja, the Dashami festivities, Republic Day, some renowned artists programme are also telecasted live. Among the local viewers the popularity of BTN is huge, and that is the reason people are still not converting to Direct to Home (DTH), this local touch is absent in DTH.”  And this local touch that he talks about is the growth centers of new culture. Peter Manuel’s work shows, cassette culture opened new markets, produced new artists and music forms, and hugely expanded the market. Both in production and circulation, cassette culture stood at the borderline of the property regime, a feature that clearly anticipated the form the ‘global’ decade of the 1990s would take ( Sundaram, 2005: 56). LCC’s created new genres, and new stars, who the audience could relate to. These new breed of artists who became known through their neighbourhood performances opened up new markets and cultural forms.

The local thus emerged as the site of popular culture, encouraged by LCC’s. Localization has definitely helped hitherto marginalized groups to participate in the public sphere (Neyazi, 2010: 920). Local festivals such as Durga Puja are covered live on BTN and become important spaces for public gathering. The public is formed on television through BTN and the channel becomes an important conduit for people’s expression of festivity and joy throughout the area of coverage of the LCC.

VNS NETWORK

The Editor of VnS cable (constituent channels of V&S network)  which covers Dibrugarh in upper Assam Mr. Chandan Jyoti Kalita observes the importance of the lcc’s as an important constituent of the distribution network

He says “Dakhineswar in Kolkata the rituals that are done there, people of this region can’t afford to go there to watch them, so we for the first time started showing those rituals and recitations. They have recording discs there and send them to us and then we telecast. Then we have VnS Cinema, where people request the movies they want to watch, purely on request. VnS News started later only from July 10, 2009. On June 1, 2009 the three channels started together Aamar VnS, VnS Bangla and VnS Cinema.” VnS is today a brand name in the upper Assam region. The fact that it provides a bouquet of channels gives it the edge over other networks.

The existence of the distribution networks depended on the identity of those local channels they had. As the networks took shape and got larger in size so too the channels started to get more ambitious and even branch off into niche channels like cinema or language specific content. VnS News is one of the most popular among the channels. The distance between Guwahati and Dibrugarh both geographically and content wise gave ample space for other news channel to grow. Mr. Kalita points out “the logic behind the news channel was that they (satellite channels) are only Guwahati based. They only make news from there; they never show the problems of the people living here. What they do is they make it there and push it to us, the smaller towns. But our target was to make it here and push it to Guwahati, so that the problems that arise here are being heard in Dispur (administrative capital) and this was our main purpose. And it is a success. For e.g. small and faraway places such as Lekhapani, Makum etc. their problems are never highlighted or never heard of, sometimes they never realize places such as those exist. Only during elections people know them.”  The grudge with Guwahati based satellite news channels is clear; VnS is a means of resisting imported images from power centers. Appadurai and Breckenridge have argued that ‘most societies today possess the means for the local production of modernity’ (1995: 1).

The reach of V&S cable is massive, it has numerous LCO’s under it and the four channels it produces are a driving force for its expansion. VnS News caters to news from the four districts, VnS Cinema acts as a movie on demand channel, Aamar VnS and VnS Bangla are niche channels catering to Assamese and Bengali speaking people respectively. Thus the size and influence of V&S Cable the MSO has been driven by its local content generation. As Sundaram (2005: 56) mentions “by the late 1990s, multi-service providers emerged, pushed by large television networks offering franchises to local players, but this only increased conflict at the local level between rival operators. The reporters in VnS are salaried people. The reporters are paid by the respective LCO’s. For each market it is the operator who engages the reporter. So VnS does not bear any expense. The advantage as the reach of VnS grows and more the number of LCO’s so too the number of reporters and the area of coverage goes up. Each LCO thus takes equal responsibility and interest in coverage of news as their popularity depends on the transmission of their area news. It acts like a co-operative in its operation where news gathering to transmission process is all tied in an equation of shared responsibility for shared benefits. It’s a give and take policy where the LCO’s know their futures are tied to the well-being of the smooth running of the LCC’s.

Sevaral MSO’s got together and formed a super MSO called the V&S Cable private limited in 2008, a private company with about 150 shareholders. Mainly the shareholders are the MSO’s of the three districts of Sivsagar, Tinsukia and Dibrugarh.” It explains the whole story of consolidation, in most parts of India there is a fierce competition in the cable network sector. In some states the dominance of a single MSO is seen where all the other players have either sold off to the larger MSO or simply had to close operations due to competition. ‘It has been observed that the level of competition in the MSOs’ business is not uniform throughout the country; certain States (e.g. Delhi, Karnataka, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Maharashtra) have a large number of MSOs providing their services’ (TRAI, 2013: 07). Larger the size of the MSO more the benefit for the customer as the MSO can pass off the benefit of economies of scale to the consumer, but gives rise to unhealthy competitive practices too which have adverse effect on the customer. For this reason V&S Cable tied up with Gujarat Telelink Private Limited (GTPL) in a 60:40 share agreement in January 2012, where GTPL holds the majority share. And now we are called GTPL V&S. So GTPL provides the technological support to us. It provides the set top boxes for digitization, the process is already underway. GTPL is a Gujarat based corporate house with MSO presence across the country particularly in states of Gujarat, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and now in Assam. GTPL itself is again 50% owned by Hathway Cable and Datacom, one of the largest MSO in India.

LEGAL ISSUES

The two LCC’s that I studied resemble a unique form of ‘small media’, which although is owned by operators, is actually sustained by the interests of the consumers. This consumer-audience equation has led to programming which is interactive. The ‘local’ which has lost out in the mainstream media gains importance here, infact the local becomes the site for production of ‘culture’. Be it school programmes, a local match, neighbourhood programmes, inaugurations, local festivals etc. are at the center of LCC’s programming. It is ambiguities in the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 that allows the operations of these channels. Yet, they become important means of public information used by the administration from time to time, and can be found in most towns in Assam.

The fact that they are not registered with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting but take local clearance from the Post Offices makes them fall outside of the purview of rules for satellite channels. The rules are quite vague and have been interpreted locally by administrators. GTPL which has a large operation in Maharashtra runs four channels in Nagpur city including news channels. In an interview to ‘Nagpur Today’ Sameer Chaubey the CEO of GTPL says “we are running round the clock news channels as there are no such directives restricting us to do so. The current regulation suggests running round the clock through wireless medium like satellite’s uplink and downlink. But at the same time, there is no restriction on wired medium showing news too as we do with fibre optics” (2013). Based on complaints the ministry has set up a committee to look into the issue of channels being run by LCO’s and MSO’s.

The incident of Dibru Live a channel from Dibrugarh is a case in point, mainly a news based channel there were a lot of problems created by the Deputy Commissioner in Dibrugarh then, who raised objection of how cable television can transmit news. Then the news was renamed as Tathya Pravah (flow of information). The news was sent out as information. This epitomizes how sensitive the legal grounds of LCC’s are. But VnS News now has been running without any objections raised since its inception in 2009, and it no longer uses subversive methods anymore like Tathya Pravah. “The Directorate of Information and Public Relation (DIPR) of the state regularly publish press releases through these channels.

I conclude by arguing that the survival of these channels does not just depend on advertisements, rather in its ability to attract participation from its audience. Advertisements for most parts remain local as well and the advertiser knows the audience that the message reaches to. And this knowledge of the audience has made programming focused, and multi-lingual. At a time when most of the satellite channels are resorting to cutting down in the number of languages, VnS has specific channels for Assamese, Hindi and Bengali audience.

  1. The growth of local content through LCCs has facilitated an emergent layer of the press and media at the grass root level.
  2. The existence of LCCs is explained by the global/local dichotomy of the Guwahati media and LCO’s
  3. LCCs act as local sites of resistance and space for production of local values and codes
  4. Becomes important to define these local spaces and frame legalities before large MSO’s gobble them up.

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