Book extract: Sandeep Bhushan looks back at the birth of Satellite Television in India

In this second extract from his book ‘The Indian Newsroom’, author Sandeep Bhushan provides fascinating glimpses of entrepreneurship, early mistakes and how satellites shaped TV

Book extract: Sandeep Bhushan looks back at the birth of Satellite Television in India

Sandeep Bhushan

Recently, American journalist Michael Wolff redefined access journalism by first writing puff pieces for US President Donald Trump and even attacking his detractors. Impressed by his fawning accounts, Trump not only permitted him to write a book on him but also allowed him unlimited access to the White House.

But Wolff’s eventual fly-on-the-wall account in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was a searing criticism of one year of Trump’s presidency and a White House conflicted by hustlers and upstarts. The Columbia Journalism Review hailed it as a ‘devastating account’, one ‘prioritising access over accountability’, but also added that it was ‘the perfect match for the Trump era’.

NDTV occupies a pre-eminent position as India’s pioneering news network, spanning the period around liberalisation until now when TV broadcast is global and relatively deregulated. Its army of anchors, technicians and, sometimes, reporters have driven, to a very large extent, India’s broadcast industry. The editorial template created by NDTV has stood the test of time and serves as a blueprint for newer networks. Its vision, however, has not been successfully replicated by anyone, including NDTV itself in its present-day avatar.

Times Now borrowed NDTV’s fundamental editorial philosophy of anchors and editors driving news content. It emerged as a relatively low-cost operation that helped it survive the meltdown and pointed a path to anyone interested in surviving a perpetually revenue-starved English-language news market. It reduced news-gathering resources and the number of stories to be aired in a day, and leveraged social media and digital technology far better than the rest.

It is the template offered by Times Now, and not NDTV, that is now widely followed by other English- and even Hindi-language networks. Times Now also created the perpetually outraged anchor—a template whose influence cuts across languages. Goswami has, in a way, bridged the visible chasm between Hindi and English news and even the social media. Outrage now straddles television and social media, making it one gigantic echo chamber where all ethics of journalism are repudiated, where even common precautions to be observed while reporting a communal riot are thrown to the winds, and where minorities and the marginalised are an ad break away from getting demonised.

Another question I must address is, why only focus on English-language networks? After all, those who watch them form less than one per cent of the total news-viewing audience.

As of today, there are 10 English-language news networks in India—all of them deemed national networks, unlike the Hindi ones that aren’t quite national (even though more people watch them), given their limited geographical currency. But despite its comparatively minimal reach in India, English is the language of the bureaucracy and the courts. It speaks to those in power in a language they understand and, for this reason, has the clout to set the agenda. It exudes cultural capital.

Despite their limited overall viewership, several of these 10 players can boast of superior advertising rates as compared to their Hindi counterparts. According to the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC), of a total of 780 million (about183 million homes with a TV set) who watch television, only around two million viewers tune into English-language television.

Exact viewership figures of English-language news channels are hard to come by. The media commentator Vanita Kohli-Khandekar pegs the viewership figure at four million per week. Whatever data you take into account, there’s no denying that English-language news viewership is minuscule compared to the 120 million-odd viewers of Hindi news. In a fragmented market, the best, and perhaps, the only successful way to survive is through loud, opinionated studio-based discussions. The more outrageous the anchor-turned-studio performer is, the higher are the chances of grabbing eyeballs.

This trend has spawned what American political scientist Jeffrey M. Berry and researcher Sarah Sobieraj call ‘the outrage industry’. In America, this industry—Berry and Sobieraj focus on cable, radio and blogs—emerged through cable TV in the 1990s, owing to its struggle to gain viewers in a market that was dominated by: CBS, NBC and ABC. While the big three targeted the larger market, cable TV—CNN, MSNBC and Fox News—trained their eyes on ‘smaller, more homogenous audiences’.

Of course, in the USA, English is the language of the masses, so it isn’t niche like it is here. Yet, the outrage industries in both India and the USA are proving to be lucrative. Outrage comprises a combination of eyeball-grabbing factors, according to Berry and Sobieraj. It’s a discourse anchored in ‘anger, fear and moral indignation’. It focuses on personalities and is reactive in nature. It stages a discourse mounted on easy binaries.

Marr’s point on print journalism in Britain also holds true for the television media: ‘The more worrying trends in British news values are related instead to the growth of an office-based, editorial culture (studio-based in television) rather than a reporters’ journalism … Desk-bound journalists desperate to fill their newspapers (airtime in case of TV) rarely have the motive, still less the expertise, to question the carefully packaged story delivered on behalf of experts …’ He adds, ‘So the most important thing is to hire more reporters—front line people who are inquisitive, energetic and honest.’

The Birth of Satellite Television in India

Earlier, media entrepreneurs only wanted to pitch their skills and resources to DD. But audacious pioneers, such as Subhash Chandra and Business India’s Ashok Advani, aimed to start their own independent networks, despite the absence of an enabling environment. Back then, satellite broadcasting was unknown in India and the archaic Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, governed the airwaves. Chandra then tapped his contacts at Lutyens’ Delhi.

He had heard of television broadcasting for the first time while lobbying with Dhirendra Brahmachari, Indira Gandhi’s yoga instructor turned wheeler-dealer. This was 1977–78, when Mrs Gandhi was out of power. Brahmachari once helped Chandra bag a lucrative rice export contract from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Though Chandra eventually fell out with Brahmachari, he kept in touch with the Gandhis. When he ran short of money to pay Star TV owner Li Ka-shing while leasing a transponder on the satellite AsiaSat in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi helped him mobilise nearly $400,000 from an unnamed London-based benefactor. This was just months before Gandhi was killed in a bomb attack in Sriperumbudur. Chandra thus paid a total of $5 million to the Hong Kong billionaire for the transponder—four times the market price.

This was when nobody in India was even thinking of owning a full-fledged satellite television, forget buying a transponder, despite the enormous possibilities that the coverage of the Gulf War had revealed. No Indian could own a private TV company, so Chandra had to register Zee in the British Virgin Islands. And because Indians could neither hold nor trade in the shares of organisations registered abroad, a bunch of Chandra’s NRI pals did it on his behalf. Later, Chandra became a resident of Hong Kong to enter the broadcasting business.

Chandra launched his entertainment venture in 1992. A few years later, he launched a news channel (1995–96) using the uplinking facilities granted to ANI. (He also used these to uplink visuals to Zee TV’s Singapore hub.) As live telecast of news wasn’t permitted, news content was only beamed after a certain time lag. Yet, a daily bulletin Chandra started in 1994 with his ‘find’ Rajat Sharma brought him recognition beyond his imagination. ‘My profile and reputation in the government changed after the news bulletin started airing on Zee TV,’ he says.

In the interim, Chandra moved all his political contacts to scupper Rupert Murdoch’s ambitions of getting into Direct-to-Home (DTH) operations. Chandra had earlier fallen out with Murdoch after NewsCorp too expressed intentions of entering the lucrative Hindi-language entertainment market. As a matter of fact, Star did launch Hindi shows in 1995, soon after Rathikant Basu joined Murdoch as CEO for India. Zee had a sort of monopoly on the Hindi market in the absence of any competition and was keen to maintain it. But recurrent losses, had by the turn of the millennium, forced Murdoch to exit. Star and Zee agreed in principle to merge their India operations as part of Murdoch’s exit plan, with the latter having between 22 and 26 per cent minority stake. However, Chandra claims this merger was stymied by powerful rivals and the then Vajpayee government rejected it. Not taking kindly to this slight, Chandra ensured that the Tehelka sting on BJP president Bangaru Laxman, where he can be seen accepting a bribe, aired on Zee News first, half an hour before the other channels.

Chandra’s approach as a promoter determining editorial content, especially political stories, has underpinned access journalism across networks and languages. What options do reporters or even editors have if owners want to use their networks to push their individual agendas? It would be interesting to plot how Zee News worked its stories each time Chandra’s political preferences changed. Now with his diversification into other spheres, such as infrastructure (courtesy ‘my friend Nitin Gadkari’, he says), power and water distribution, and smart cities, his business dealings are crassly reflected in Zee’s editorial content.

Business India Television (BiTV), later renamed Television International (TVI), was a bit different. Promoted by Ashok Advani, it was set up in 1992 in collaboration with the Raghav Bahl-led TV18. BiTV’s main remit was marketing, while Bahl and his team focused on production, aiming to generate at least two high-quality programmes for BBC and Star TV. But by 1994, the two had split after Advani decided to launch a news and current affairs channel, a prospect that Bahl considered impractical. Bahl thought that ‘it was too early to step into that space, especially since there was no viable platform, unconvinced as he was about the quality and reach of the Russian satellite that Advani wanted to use’.

Around this time, former Times of India (TOI) journalists Anikendra Nath Sen (a.k.a. Badshah), the late Dileep Padgaonkar and the late Arvind Das set up Asia-Pacific Communication Associates (APCA).They wanted to produce news content for the soon-to-be-launched DD3 and pooled in a paltry sum of Rs₹44,000 by way of registration fees.

NDTV and Aaj Tak had already secured their slots on the upcoming channel. Sen recounts, ‘Dileep Padgaonkar and I met Narasimha Rao, who advised us to see (former information and broadcasting minister) K.P. Singh Deo. We realised we weren’t alone in line to meet Deo. In fact, he got agitated on hearing us out. “Oh God, what’s this news and all?” he said. “Why don’t you produce some entertaining serials?” “Sir, we are from TOI,” I replied. “Have we ever given you any trouble?” We anyway bagged a programme. There were plenty of time slots available, so it wasn’t a problem. Besides, we enjoyed a great reputation as TV journalists. There were no TV journalists back then. Even Prannoy Roy and Vinod Dua were from the production side. We were in no mad rush.’

Sometime in 1994, Malvika Singh, one of BiTV’s promoters, who had good connections with the Congress, approached APCA to help her set up the network. Badshah became the channel’s first editor-in-chief. ‘She had already mobilised ₹Rs 55 crore from Arthur Andersen, the mega accounting firm later accused of fudging energy company Enron’s accounts,’ Badshah says. ‘It was big money then. The deal with APCA was that we would set up the team of reporters, etc.

But a dearth of TV reporters was the least of Badshah’s problems. TVI had no satellite connection, as uplinking from India was technically illegal. The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, still dictated the broadcasting regime. The central government exercised exclusive privilege over telegraph lines—virtually, all modern communication devices. (There were exceptions, though. In June 1998, Indian companies with at least 80 per cent Indian shareholding were allowed to uplink through Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited or VSNL. Then, in the following year, the government permitted uplinking through the C band, a satellite-tracking frequency that requires a dish antenna, doing away with the VSNL imperative.)

Until the government issued the ‘Guidelines for uplinking from India’ in July 2000, all TV broadcast companies were either beaming straight from Singapore (like Zee) or sending recorded cassettes abroad for telecast in India. As a matter of fact, uplinking rights for news and current affairs were only formally issued in March 2003, just days before NDTV went on air as a 24x7 bilingual news and current affairs network.

Prior to 2003, TVI, for instance, would despatch master tapes with reporters and even production hands to the erstwhile Soviet Union, which had an uplinking arrangement with the TVI management. Downlinking guidelines came even later, in November 2005, while permission to get into the DTH business for Indian players was only notified around 2005.

Badshah had heard of easily available Russian satellites going for a song from former Union Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam or ‘Ranga’. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, individual satellites, both under production and in space, fell to sundry powerful generals, who hawked these in the international market. Badshah recounts that Ranga had close ties to Moscow. Ranga, who had by this time resigned from the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s cabinet over the demolition of the Babri Masjid, helped TVI clinch a deal with one such satellite buccaneer, who ran an office in Bangalore.

Badshah then remembered an American official—perhaps a CIA agent—who connected him to Scott Bayman, a senior GE executive based in Delhi. At the time, GE, former owners of America’s premier NBC network, was only selling white goods in India. When Bayman realised that TVI’s deal with the Russians for their Express 6 satellite was held up for want of finances, he not only offered to fly in his engineers from the USA to help give it a final push, but also promised to fund the purchase of the satellite and even launch the ‘hot bird’.

Naturally, the prospective tie-up created a market buzz. Vijay Jindal, a senior TOI executive, sought out Badshah and proposed the launch of movie and entertainment channels using the hot bird. ‘You tell your Ashok (Advani) and I will tell my Ashok (Jain) for a meeting and we can shake hands,’ Jindal said. The TOI group was already running a production house—Times Television—which generated content for DD.

Ramoji Rao, owner of the Telugu newspaper Eenadu, was planning to start a news network as well. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Ramoji was offered a berth on the hot bird,’ Badshah thought. He urged Ashok Advani and Malvika Singh to immediately ink a deal with GE. But Advani seemed least interested, according to Badshah. Singh later admitted that the trouble was ‘tying up with a Russian satellite “in declining orbit” for the broadcast, but more obviously, mismanagement of funds’. She added, ‘(Ashok) Advani used the rest of the money to invest in other businesses, land, hotels … and lost all that.

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.