Channel South Asia? Yes and No!

I wrote a few days ago about Ujala TV, a fledgling and entirely private, modest effort to operate a satellite TV channel carrying education and information for South Asian audiences — a quarter of the world’s total population.

This reminds me of discussions that have been around for years about setting up a South Asian TV network.

It’s one of those good ideas too dangerous to be mentioned frequently in public — in case our South Asian governments actually take it up! And that, as all South Asians know, will be the death of another good idea.

Two years ago, Himal Southasian, the only publication that truly thinks and acts at South Asian level (even if they spell it as one word: Southasian!) ran an interesting analysis on the prospects for a South Asian channel. It was written by Indian journalist Aman Malik.

The article’s premise was this:
Isn’t it time for a regional television network that ‘thinks Southasian’ and broadcasts via satellite and cable throughout the region? While Latin America’s incipient Telesur and West Asia’s energetic Al Jazeera might provide models, it is clear that we will have to go our own way.

Read Channel Southasia by Aman Malik in Himal Southasian, Nov – Dec 2005

Himal Southasian Cartoon courtesy Himal Southasian

It looked at the experience of Al Jazeera Arabic channel in the Middle East (launched in 1996), and the more recent initiative of Telesur, the pan Latin American television network founded by the Chavez administration of Venezuela in 2005.

Aman’s article was based on this premise:
“Regionalism in Southasia, which got a boost with the official sanction of the establishment of SAARC two decades ago, has been an increasingly important theme for civil society in each of the region’s countries. Over time, such groups have felt the need for print and electronic media that cover the region as a whole; the overwhelming presence of western satellite news has made analysts call for native channels. The spread of Indian channels, in particular the satellite footprints of Hindi and English broadcasts emanating from India, has again led people in other countries to call for a satellite channel that is uniquely Southasian, without allegiance to any national sensibility.”

Map courtesy www.safeer.info copy-of-southasian-map-by-himal.jpg

He also analysed the prevailing media mix accurately when he wrote:
Coverage of the Southasian neighbourhood is hampered by the fact that no television channels, beyond the few big Indian channels, keep correspondents (or even stringers) in the neighbouring countries. As a result, the news that is used is filtered through the medium of Western wire services and television channels. A region the size of the Subcontinent generates an enormous volume of news, but you would not know that ‘there is a region out there’ if you watched television in any of the countries of Southasia. The Indian channels that are able do so send camera units parachuting into nearby countries – if there is a bombing spree in Dhaka, for instance, a state of emergency in Kathmandu, or a tsunami disaster in Colombo. But they themselves have neither the wherewithal nor the interest to stay with a story to do follow-up.”

He then summed up the divided opinion on the timing for such a channel:
“Some believe that now is the perfect time for a Southasian channel; they tend to be the idealists who hanker for ‘soft borders’, Southasian camaraderie, peace and the prosperity that comes from peace. There are others who believe that the time is not right for such a channel; they tend to be the realists who point out, first, that the audiences are currently not present for a channel that tries to be all things to all audiences across seven nation states. They also point to the enormous costs of running a satellite channel in Southasia. Such an investment would be unlikely to be backed by bankers and investors – at least, not until the movement for Southasian regionalism evolves into a revolution.”

Among the key issues such a venture will have to address is language. There is no one South Asian language spoken and understood by all people — between Hindu and Urdu, a few hundred million may be covered but it still leaves out a sizeable number who don’t understand these. English, for the time being, is the language that cuts across political borders, even if it has its own cultural barriers: only a numerical minority speaks English, even if they are among the more influential in societies.

Other challenges for a Channel South Asia include:
* Given the enormous diversity among South Asian peoples, societies and economies, how would audience be defined for such a channel (no channel can be all things to all people).
* How to rise above the interests and perspective of a single country
* How to recruit and nurture staff who can think beyond and above their own nationalities
* Where in geographical terms can such a broadcaster be anchored, and yet stay beyond the crushing bureaucracy and political pressures of the physical location?
* Where to find the investors with deep enough pockets yet honourable enough not to meddle with the editorial aspects of such an operation

I agree fully with Aman when he writes:
The governments of Southasia clearly cannot be expected to back a Southasian television channel — neither by themselves, nor due to their lack of trust in each other. Such a channel would be an expensive project, from the hardware and satellite hook-ups, to region-wide networks of correspondence and marketing reach. But if not the government, then who would have the required cash to promote it? While a sense of regionalism may be developing, it is still incipient as far as the marketplace is concerned; investors are hardly going to come up at this time with the multimillion dollars that the project would need.

I, for one, am relieved that South Asian governments are unlikely to come together in such a venture – we’ve suffered long enough and hard enough with our state-owned, government-controlled, ruling party mouthpieces (both radio and TV) that pollute our airwaves (a public commons) every day and night. Euphemistically called ‘national television’, these conduits of governmental propaganda have progressively lost audience share — and influence — since private channels started operating in the early 1990s. They are today reduced to vanity channels for vane politicians and bureaucrats. The mass audience has long ago abandoned them.

I’d rather take chances with a South Asian Murdoch, than with our unaccountable, selfish governments.

Read the full article on Channel Southasia in Himal Southasian, Nov-Dec 2005
Enriching South Asian airwaves: Ujala TV is one year old – and counting

Satellites and South Asia: An overview by David Page and William Crawley published in Himal South Asian magazone, August 2000

Arthur C Clarke on ‘Satellites and Saris – 25 years later’ in Frontline Magazine, 28 April – 11 May 2001