Nirupama Sarma
Publication Date
September 15, 1999

As India concluded its celebration of 50 years of independence this year, having initiated a process of economic reform in the early part of the decade, the forces of privatisation and globalisation have unleashed dramatic changes in the country's media. Amidst a deluge of film-based entertainment, news and current affairs provided by private channels, All India Radio and Doordarshan, once the country's officially anointed public service broadcasters, have become undecided incarnations of their former selves.

This time in the history of Indian media is critical: it's overwhelming in the quick and dramatic changes over the last few years, and frustrating in the current impasse thanks to the imbroglio over the newly instituted Broadcasting Authority of India (for key features and landmarks in Indian media history refer Box 1)

For those in the business of renting eyeballs, the delinking of radio and television from direct state control has given endless joy. But media analysts and NGOs have varied responses. Some see the deregulation of broadcast media as potentially aiding the emergence of community radio and other forms of more democratic, participatory communication. Others despair that Indian audiences have been, to borrow a phrase, amused to death. They observe that market imperatives have already forced the once state-owned AIR and Doordarshan to abdicate their responsibilities, ringing the death knell on the state's role in public service broadcasting.

That role has been one of mixed successes. Over the last four decades, the state's forays into development communication, the ruling communication paradigm at that time, have been significant. But then the successes of SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment) or the Kheda Communications Project are offset by the phenomenal failures of other projects such as PREAL, and in the long run, undermined by the vacillating fortunes and commitments of rapidly-changing governments.

Today's vastly changed media scenario calls for a recasting of the role of media in promoting prosocial change. This paper discusses the prevailing media trends in India in a historical context, highlights the issues being debated and describes the responses of NGOs and development agencies to the changes and the new opportunities they present. An underlying premise is the need for some of the key stakeholders for social change communication – donor agencies and NGOs -- to strengthen the linkages between the discourse on media trends and their own investments in communication, whether to promote child rights, HIV/AIDS education, women's empowerment or the environment.

Media Scenario

An index for radio, TV, print media and telecommunications is presented in Box 2. A quick overview indicates:

  • Radio having the maximum population reach (97.3%) followed by television (425 million)
  • The unmatched reach of Doordarshan (350 million), especially in rural areas, despite the rapid increases in satellite television reach (70 million).
  • The very low reach of print media, thanks to a literacy rate of 64% for men and 39% for women, characterised by an almost exclusively urban, educated readership profile.
  • The low access to telephones (13 per 1000) and email
  • The flagging fortunes of traditional and folk media, street theater

Some key factors to bear in mind is that despite the leapfrogging in satellite television, and the significant trends in that brand of programming, the majority of the population has access only to All India Radio and Doordarshan, which are merely trying to catch up with the private channels. A second factor is that much of this analysis indicates trends mostly among English and Hindi programmes – the predominant languages of the media discussed – to the exclusion of 25-plus other languages and dialects in the country.


The Media in India: Key Features and Landmarks

All India Radio and Doordarshan were state owned until 1997 under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting; primary declared aims of promoting the social objectives of the nation such as literacy and family planning.

1960s- 1990s: Government efforts at using radio and TV for development communication have met with varying degrees of success. Major projects include rural radio forums for agricultural development (1967), SITE (75-76), and the Kheda project (1976-1989) and the 1995 GRAMSAT experiment using radio for training of women panchayat (local village level governance) members. These large-scale projects to meet core development needs yield valuable lessons on the software, hardware and organisational management needs of such efforts.

1981-1985: Rapid increase in the number of TV transmitters from 21 to over 400, and a corresponding commercialisation of Indian television by the mid-80s.

1984-85: Launch of India's first major prosocial soap opera Hum Log (We the People). The much-studied 156-episode, 17-month series promotes issues such as family planning and education for the girl child. This coincides with the rise of the middle class as a dominant force in the country, with an increase in film-based entertainment programming, private sponsorship and consumerism.

1985-90: Doordarshan outpaces radio and print media as the first choice for advertising, hiking its ad rates thrice between 1985 and 1988. By 1987, there are at least 40 serials on air. A media boom sees an increase in the number of publications, and a preponderence of TV and cinema-based reporting.

1990: The Government of India initiates an economic reform process, heralding an era of privatisation and liberalisation. The Prasar Bharati Act is passed, delinking broadcasting from direct government control. The act is notified only in 1997.

February 1991: The Gulf war creates an unprecedented demand for cable television among Indian viewers wanting to follow the CNN coverage of the war. The demand for cable television continues after the war ends.

May 1991: Launch of satellite television in the form of the Hong-Kong based Star TV with its 39-nation footprint. Star TV transforms the face of Indian television, with its multiple channels and aggressive market-driven entertainment programming. Other private channels follow such as Zee TV, Sony TV, Sun, and Gemini. Doordarshan's revenues are fast depleted.

February 1995: A landmark Supreme Court judgement ruling declares that " airwaves are a public property. They have to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interest of the public and to prevent the invasion of their rights." The judgement outlines autonomy for Prasar Bharati and opens broadcasting to private players.

1996: A Broadcasting Bill is drafted which is an apex legislation on broadcasting. The Bill subsumes the Prasar Bharati Act of 1990 by spelling out autonomy for the Broadcasting Authority of India (to replace the role of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) to regulate public and private broadcasting. The Bill also lays down guidelines for granting licenses to satellite, terrestrial and cable broadcasters to establish and operate radio and TV channels to the "highest techno-commercially acceptable bidder." It is yet to be tabled in Parliament.

August 1998: the Prasar Bharati Act is passed by the lower house of parliament, with an amendment that the Broadcasting Authority will be overseen by a 32-member parliamentary committee. The broadcast media stands poised on the brink of autonomy, awaiting the President's signature.

Broadcast Media


The number of radio stations has increased from about 100 in 1990 to 209 in 1997, and the land area covered from 84% to 91%. However, despite its tremendous reach and the fact that it presents the best option for low-cost programming, radio has been treated as a poor relative for over two decades. Listenership has either dropped or reached a plateau. In some cases listenership has risen, although very negligibly, in some urban areas, thanks to the recent time allotment to private companies on five FM stations. Film and other popular music constitute the main fare of such stations, contributing to an increase in commercial time and ad revenues from Rs. 527 million in 1991-2 to Rs. 809 million in 1995-96.

Some efforts have been made to use radio for social change, as in the case of the state-supported radio rural forums for agricultural communication in the 1960s, or to promote adult literacy in the 1980s. More recently NGOs have helped broadcast programmes on women and legal rights, emergency contraception, and teleserials advocating girls' education. But it is clearly a medium waiting for a shot-in-the-arm.

A key need in India is for local broadcasting that reflects issues of concern to the community. In this regard, some communication experts believe that an increased and accelerated commercialisation of radio will eventually drive down the costs of FM radio sets, thus facilitating local radio. The increasing devolution of political power initiated through the 73rd and 74th amendment to the constitution in 1988-89 has also set a climate conducive for the empowerment of communities and local governance. A key area requiring attention, therefore, is advocacy for community radio and the provision of training to NGOs and communities to use this medium for articulating their concerns, as one Bangalore-based NGO is currently doing.


The number of private television channels has increased from none in 1990 to more than 50 this year. Entertainment constitutes about 51% of the total programme content, even though some channels such as Star Plus follow CNN's example in delivering "news on the hour, every hour." News and education constitute a mere 13.3% and 9.6% of programme content.

However, in a bid to give themselves a halo of social responsibility, some channels broadcast programmes with a veneer of public interest: soaps that incorporate socially relevant themes such as women's education and empowerment, interactive talk shows on whether smoking should be banned, and open forums with government representatives responding to audience queries on human rights abuses or consumer rights.

These programmes combine varying degrees of social value with commercial appeal in a competitive market. The open forums, in particular, have played an important role in familiarising the public to the political and legal system and in building a demand for political transparency and accountability.

Another genre, that of the "edutainment" prosocial soap continues with serials such as Tara which dealt with the life of a strong-willed woman. However, while the first Indian edutainment soap Hum Log (1985) transfixed much of the nation (to a lesser degree in the southern non-Hindi speaking part of the country) the audiences for subsequent edutainment serials have been comparatively smaller. There is no longer the captive audience of the mid-80s, and there are several competing channels and soaps to choose from. These include reruns of long running teleserials of the late 1980s such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata which enjoy cult-like status.

An emerging trend – and one that also reflects the current programme focus of development agencies – is the targeting of specific segments of the audience, in particular, young adults (children and youth in the age group of 10-29 years constitute about 40% of the population). Urban, middle to upper class youth, especially, constitute a key target group for private channels. Music channels such as MTV and Channel V, which rank among the top ten favorite channels, feature VJs who are popular role models for a young generation (One such popular VJ coos: "Being fit is cool; not smoking is cool").

Cashing in on this trend, UNAIDS, India initiated in 1996 a collaboration with Channel V for an on-air and on-ground campaign for HIV/AIDS awareness. The collaboration includes training and sensitisation of VJs on issues relating to HIV/AIDS. In another effort, the Ford Foundation, India funded a BBC training for radio and television producers on reproductive and sexual health. The six project proposals shortlisted for additional funding, all of which target children and youth, are in entertainment formats of musicals, talk shows and animation.

Print Media

Given national literacy rates as low as 51%, the very limited reach of newspapers and magazines, and the distinctly urban educated readership profile, the role of print media has been defined more in terms of information dissemination and advocacy. The picture is a lopsided one: circulation figures are rapidly increasing as are advertising revenues, but this is especially true of English publications (refer Media Index, Table 2), which account for 71% of the total ad revenue of members of the Indian Newspaper Society.

A key feature of these publications, unfortunately, is the increasing preponderance of glossy, ad-friendly film and TV-based reporting. That the sole trendsetter in this increasing corporatisation of the fourth estate, the Times of India, also ranks 10th among the top-selling newspapers in the world, is no coincidence. Given the increasing costs of newsprint and production, and the pressure of market imperatives, newspaper houses have followed the piper in carrying ad -friendly fluff at the cost of more serious development and health reporting. Leading dailies have over the last few years dropped their special sections devoted to development and health. The low literacy rates and high production costs have also stymied the possibilities of smaller alternative publications that could potentially reflect the concerns of the development sector.

The Internet

Recognising that access to information and information technologies play a key role in development, especially given the constraints of the mass media, groups of non-profit documentation centers in the country have developed communications systems such as Indialink and Dianet that are focussed solely on development issues. By providing connectivity to grassroots NGOs and emphasising the documentation and information from within the country (refer case description Democratisation of Information), these efforts have facilitated greater grassroots involvement in development and South-South dialogue. However, the extremely low access to internet – there are a mere 90,000 internet subscribers in the country, bringing the density to below decimal points – is a key hindrant.

A World Bank funded project for National Agricultural Technology envisages a similar democratisation through the establishment of "information kiosks" in rural areas (refer interview with Kiran Karnik). The proposed project sees the expansion of public pay-phone offices that have mushroomed all over the country, including rural areas, into centers with computers for the inputting and accessing of data relevant to rural populations.

Traditional theater/media

Traditional folk media forms, once a favorite for communication efforts, are today precariously placed. Some agencies and NGOs continue to use street theater, magic, puppetry, traditional folk dances and melas (fairs) especially in rural areas. Some of these efforts are hugely successful in awareness creation, social mobilisation and in facilitating interpersonal communication. However, the absence of funding and technical support, their inherent fluid structure and the difficulty in monitoring and evaluation have rendered them near-relics in today's environment. So much so that one Bangalore-based NGO, while using such traditional folk forms, also feels compelled to address the basic survival needs of folk artistes such as provision of basic wages, training, pensions and other schemes.

Development Organisations: ResponsesThe current media trends indicate three broad areas of need in terms of social change communication:

  • increasing the quantity and quality of media reporting and programming on development issues;
  • creating a demand for these programmes;
  • creating and facilitating media space for such materials

The efforts of most development agencies and NGOs are focussed primarily on the first area, increasing media coverage on specific subject areas. Workshops and fellowships for information dissemination and upgrading of knowledge continue to be the stock-in-trade strategy, and have yielded positive results, especially with print media. But they do not address the need to institutionalise these efforts. How effectively stories and programmes on diarrhoeal control or microcredit will survive in the media marketplace continues to be a hazardous guess.

But the marketplace is defined by demand – and it was precisely to increase the demand for quality, need-based programming that a Delhi based-NGO established media Viewership Forums. Through these forums audiences from both lower and middle classes are taught media literacy, recognise their rights as media "consumers" and are beginning to demand better, socially-relevant programming (refer case description Media Education and Literacy). In a country which has never really had exposure to, or experience with, public service broadcasting, such as effort is critical.

A significant breakthrough was made in creating a public space for social communication in the mid- 1980s with the establishment of the Doordarshan-affiliated Lok Seva Sanchar Parishad (LSSP). The LSSP-Doordarshan mandate was to promote the production and airing of programmes and spots on social issues. Further, a Ford Foundation grant to Doordarshan promoted the production of programmes and spots on issues such as the status of women, legal rights, education, environment. The close LSSP-Doordarshan link ensured – for a while at least – that this worked. However now with the imbroglio over media deregulation, the status of the LSSP is in limbo.


Given the current media scenario, and the needs of the development sector, the following recommendations can be made:

  • Develop a regulatory framework that defines public service broadcasting to include not only state-owned media but all non-commercial broadcasting. This would empower non-profit institutions such as universities, community organisations, local bodies and NGOs to participate in development communication. This was suggested in a privately drafted, more holistic, alternative to the current Broadcasting Bill, the Prasar Sewa Bill, which was drawn up by a group of communication and media experts in 1995. This draft bill suggests that there should be three streams of broadcasting – public service broadcasting funded by the state, market-driven satellite broadcasting including cable, terrestrial and satellite services, and community service broadcasting by autonomous citizens groups, universities, trusts and NGOs to make more programmes reflecting local realities. However, the draft bill has not been taken into consideration.
  • Media education and literacy to create demand for better, need based media stories and programmes
  • Decentralisation and provision of training for communities to enable local broadcasting and community media. Putting communication resources in the hands of the community is a sine qua non for participatory communication.
  • Sensitisation and training of media professionals from print, radio and television (the broadcast media are often excluded from such efforts) in social development issues
  • Strengthening linkages between media trends and communication investments of development organisations

In the absence of a concerted effort by media analysts, NGOs, donor agencies and the public to support need-based, socially relevant media, the current waves of, and I borrow a phrase here, the "LPG mantra"* will drown the impulse for a media with a conscience. The oft-cited cliché then, of the dichotomy between India and Bharat,** between the cyber-savvy Indian elite and the monsoon-dependent farmer, will unfortunately ring true.

* LPG: liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation

** Bharat: vernacular for India



Some of the following data is gathered from government sources and market research predominantly in the Indian metros. They may hide huge variations stemming from language differences and a stark urban-rural divide

Media Exposure

Television has the highest number of "heavy viewers" (43.6%) while the press has 41.1% non-readers, and radio 70.6% non-listeners, according to a study conducted in the metros of eight most advanced states.

There are 31 newspapers per 1000 people in India

61 in 1000 people own a television.

81 in 1000 people own a radio.

13 in 1000 people have access to a telephone.

Average hours a week an Indian spends reading a newspaper/magazine: 2.1

Average hours a week an Indian spends watching television: 8.4

15 out of every 100 Indian women watch a movie at a theater once a month.

50 out of every 100 Indian women watch TV or listen to the radio regularly.

Print Media

The number of dailies has increased from 2538 in 1989 to 4043 in 1994

Their combined circulation has increased from 20 million to 32 million.

Number of non-dailies has increased from 25,000 to 31,000 between 1990 and 1997

Circulation of non-dailies has decreased from 43 million to 41 million in the same period.

One Indian newspaper – The Times of India – ranks 10th among the top-selling newspapers in the world (all other nine newspapers are Asian).

Cost of press advertising has increased by 906% since 1985.

The press accounts for 66% of total media ad revenue, down from 75% in 1985.

One out of every two publications is either in Hindi or in English

25% of member-publications of the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) are in English.

English-language publications account for 71% of the annual advertising revenue of INS-members.

70 % of the country's newspaper circulation is controlled by 7 families or groups.

Foreign print media are not allowed entry into print media, but this is thought to be inevitable.

Television and cable

65 million of the 170 million households in the country, or approximately 38 percent, own televisions.

Of this, 17 million homes have cable connections.

40 percent of Indian homes in towns below 100,000 population are connected to cable TV

31 percent of Indian homes in 8 ‘advanced' metros are connected to cable TV.

Doordarshan has a population reach of 330 million.

Satellite channels reach a population of 70 million.

The number of satellite channels has gone up from none in 1990 to 50-plus in 1997

Number of programme hours increased from 1500 per month to 25,000

50.8% of TV programme content is entertainment, followed by 13.3% of news and 9.6% education.

There are 70,000 cable networks in the country.

1 out of every 3 Star TV viewers worldwide is Indian.

40 percent of Star TV's revenue comes from its Indian operations.

Cost of TV advertising has increased by 329% between 1985 and 1997.

TV's share of advertising revenue has gone up from 12% to 25%.

53.1% of Doordarshan's programmes are in Hindi, 21.2% in English and 25.7% in other languages

28% of the programmes of other satellite channels is in Hindi, 40.6% in English and 31.4% in regional languages.


There are 104 million radio households in the country, and approximately 111 million radio sets.

Radio covers 97.3% of the country's population and 91% of the country's geographical area.

There are a total of 186 radio broadcasting centers (March 1996).

There are 148 medium wave transmitters, 51 short wave transmitters and 94 VHF/FM transmitters.

The number of radio stations has increased from about 100 in 1990 to 209 in 1997.

Radio broadcasting is done in 24 languages and 146 dialects.

Listening hours per week in 1991 as compared to 1995 are: regular (6-7 days) 54.1 and 49.3 hours; frequent (3-5 days) 23.2 and 27.3 hours; occasional (1-2 days) 14.8 and 15.7 hours;

Advertising revenue has increased from Rs. 527 million in 1991-92 to Rs. 809 million in 1995-96.


Between 1947 and 1997,

  • the number of telephone exchanges increased from 321 to more than 21,000;
  • number of telephone lines from 82,000 to 13, 033, 000;
  • number of urban public call offices (PCOs) from 338 to 400,000;
  • number of rural telephones from nil to 2,400,000
  • There are 23,406 telephone exchanges, 21,260,000 lines and 17, 800, 000 telephone connections (March 1998)
  • The demand for telephone and working connections (in thousands) has increased from 50, 879,000 in 1987-88 to 174,298,000 in 1996-97.

42855 villages have been provided with public telephones in 1997-98.

18.5 million additional lines are planned by the year 2002; private operators are to provide 5.2 million of these lines.

There are 90,042 Internet subscribers (March 31, 1998).

Of this, only 45,000 are paid subscriptions; annual revenue to VSNL, the top internet service provider, is $20 million

The GOI announced plans to open the internet to private ISPs by November 7, 1998

Ownership and Control

A February 1995 Supreme Court judgement ruled that the airwaves are public property and no longer under government control

A Broadcasting Bill was formulated in 1996 which rests regulatory powers with an autonomous Broadcasting Authority and lays down guidelines for granting licenses to private broadcasters. The Bill has not yet been tabled in parliament.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced its decision in June 1998 to allow private Indian satellite channels to uplink from India

References and Sources

The Asian Communication Handbook, 1998: Published by the Asian Media Information and Communication Center (AMIC) and the School of Communication Studies, Nanyang Technological University

Seminar, October 1997, New Delhi

Through the Magic Window: Television and Change in India, by Sevanti Ninan. 1995. Sage Publications

Annual Report, Indian Newspaper Society, New Delhi

Annual Report, 1997-98 GOI, Ministry of Telecommunications, Department of Telecommunications

Annual Report, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, GOI

Personal Discussions with:

  • KalyanRaman, ASC Enterprises
  • Sanjeev Kumar, Population Council, India Country Office
  • Akhila Sivadas, Media Advocacy Group
  • Kiran Karnik, Discovery Communications
  • Anjali Nayyar, Population Council, Regional SE Asia Office
  • Arbind Sinha, DANIDA
  • Fatima Al-Tayeb, the Ford Foundation

Revised August 8, 2002.