This is probably a very dull series for many of you, but by golly I am going to put my boring years of studying media history and analysis to use! And anyway, I find it interesting, even if you don’t.
Usual Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge, this is just general available information with my own interpretation added on to it.
I ended the last section with the establishment of broadcast TV in both India and America as a settled routine business. Somewhere around 1970, when every household in America had their own TV set, and every household in India cheerfully ignored boring state run Doordarshan and flocked to the movie theaters instead, watching TV in public spaces like bars and stores when it was absolutely necessary (mostly during Cricket matches).
Let me leave India for a minute and return to America. I give you this background, because the major streaming companies and major international and satellite TV companies all begin with this model, the American model. The goal was to fill 24 hours a day, 4 of them with prime good content that would attract the maximum number of viewers during the “prime time” best viewing hours on weekday evenings. TV seasons were 20-30 episodes long, so that there could be one hour a week of new content every week until summer (because the kids are on school break and you take vacations during the summer, and so spend less time watching TV). And each show was only one hour a week, because that was the most that was humanly possible to write and rehearse and perform in only a week’s time, if you wanted something of a quality that would get the whole family to gather around the set.
(And the early shows were very very good. Your Show of Shows had essentially a generations worth of American comic voices all in one room, Carl Reiner to Woody Allen)
The content was varied in a predictable way based on time. During the day, you had “women’s” shows, talk shows and soap operas, for the stay at home housewives. Something familiar and easy to have on in the background as you vacuumed. In the evening you had the big ticket shows, the ones couples or families could watch together. On Saturday mornings and early evenings, you had kids’ content because that’s when they would be home from school and their parents would still be too busy to watch TV.
In terms of the specifics of the actual content, the main goal of TV was to avoid government regulation, and to sell advertising. To sell advertising, you had to please your advertising client, and to avoid government regulation you had to please the government. The actual viewer came after those first two considerations. If the public loved a show, but General Electric was offended, you canceled the show. If General Electric and the viewers loved a show but the Federal Communications Commission was offended, you canceled the show.
Now, let us look at India! India also had a kind of unique TV structure. The Government created or approved all content broadcast and there was only one channel, Doordarshan. But, they also allowed commercials. And they would (occasionally) show “fun” content like movies. Most of the time, viewers preferred the commercials to the actual government run content. There were popular high quality series, and news broadcasts, but there were also documentaries and classical music shows. The commercials were the real fun most of the time. We can see that now in the burst of short films in India, it’s the same kind of stories and imagination that used to be brought to the commercials on television, far more than simply a smiling model holding a product, it would be a major movie star performing stunts and singing songs and having a whole storyline.
(That bunny will haunt your dreams. But luckily Shammi and Ashok Kumar are right after to sell you Pan, and then a very young Salman will sell you Limco)
The arrival of satellite TV in India in the 1990s changed EVERYTHING. For decades, movies had been the only real source of popular universal entertainment, with the occasional sporting event or popular miniseries or broadcast of a film bringing people to Doordarshan. Then in the 1980s, VHS came in, but that just meant people were staying out of movie theaters and watching the same films at home on tape. Satellite TV meant there was a whole new world of non-film related entertainment available.
In America, satellite TV and before that cable also provided a whole new world of entertainment. But it wasn’t exactly “new” entertainment. We were watching those same odd local shows but now on cable channels since the broadcast channels were more likely to show national content during the day. And with satellite, we were watching TV channels from all over the world, the content was new to us but it wasn’t actually “new” content, just stuff we hadn’t seen before.
In India, it was actual new content. Sure, the American TV shows, dubbed or subtitled, are extremely popular. But there is a need to fill in the gap for those who can’t read subtitles, or just can’t enjoy content that different from their every day life. There was this gaping empty space in the schedule waiting to be filled. It didn’t have to be good content, or content that would stand up to rewatching (or logic), it just had to be something there when you turned on the TV. And thus began the golden age of Indian TV soap operas. They were ridiculous, they were long running, and people loved them. Dozens and dozens of short 15-30 minute episodes cranked out year after year without stopping. While the American TV structure relied on a 20-30 week season with a clear beginning and ending, the Indian structure was looking for a different kind of audience, one not so strictly tied to the 9 to 5 and September through May schedule.
(Kyunki….Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi=Because…Every mother-in-law Was Once a Bride. Obvious universal appeal)
Balaji Telefilms quickly took the lead in filling in this gap. 19 year old Ekta Kapoor was given some start up money from her father movie star Jeetendra and told to come up with some shows and see if she could sell them to a network. Within 5 years, Ekta had built an empire, a whole building filled with people rushing here and there, writing and filming 20 different shows, sitcoms to soaps. The soaps were the most popular, and Ekta and her team figured out the way to make them in the most efficient and cheapest way possible, multiple scenes from multiple episodes filmed simultaneously if they required the same set, costumes, and actors. Or maybe not the actors, Ekta and her team became experts at faking it, using shot reverse shot tricks and stand ins to get around even needing actors in the same room. The goal wasn’t great art, it was cheap quick and addictive art.
Indian satellite TV has been improving in the past few years, but those early days still cast a shadow over it. And, ultimately, it is still advertising driven, just like regular American broadcast TV. The goal is something cheap that will get the viewers without ruffling any advertising feathers. And something to fill every hour of the day, so you never have dead air and never lose an audience.
Now, let us return to Marshal McLuhen and think about what the message is in this medium. In America with the rise of cable, we went from all watching the same thing at the same time all over the country, or watching local things we shared with our neighbors, to watching things we only shared with a smaller segment of the world, those who also had cable and shared our interests. This isn’t a new thought I am having right now, there was a lot of talk about it at the time, how American society was crumbling and dividing thanks to the loss of the shared broadcast TV experience.
Something which isn’t talked about as much is that the same era brought increasingly cheap television sets. Or simply old TV sets, TV had been around for 30 years now and the TV sets were built to last. You had your grandmother’s set in the basement for the kids, the “good” set in the living room, and the set from your first apartment tucked into the bedroom upstairs. TV viewing was no longer a family experience, it was a divided experience within the home just as it was becoming a divided experience for the greater audience, increasingly segmented into niche interests with the massive expansion of channel options.
(Very different, kids alone watching TV with friends in the basement instead of supervised and with the rest of the family in the living room)
Advertising encouraged this idea as well, advertisers had recently gotten excited about the idea of “narrowcasting”. Why waste money trying to reach all the people in America, when you could focus on only the people who were most likely to buy your product? “Soap operas” were originally called that because soap companies sponsored them, trying to reach the housewives. Now, you could have an ad on a show on a cable channel aimed at young lower income homemakers, and target them with your new detergent with the youthful name and label, and cheap price.
The best viewers, the ones the advertisers would pay the most for, were the ones with the most disposable income. Which usually meant college educated and unlikely to enjoy the TV that appealed to the majority of viewers. And so cable brought with it a new kind of class divide, some shows that were high profile and high quality, the shows you could use to attract the most valuable viewers and were worth spending more money on. And the other shows, the ones that attracted the least valuable viewers and so you spent the least possible amount on them. This was true in cable TV, and also in broadcast TV as “narrowcasting” became more and more the norm. The 90s saw the rise Jerry Springer confrontation talk shows, broadcast wrestling shows, and the beginning of reality TV. And it also saw the start of a golden age of TV drama and comedy, Seinfeld and Frasier and ER and NYPD Blue and Saint Elsewhere. Shows you could watch with your teenage friends in the basement and then go out and buy soft drinks, shows you could watch with your family in the living room and then go out and buy a car, and shows you could watch in your bedroom at night and then go out and buy, I don’t know, condoms?
This was not the case in India, not exactly. TV itself was still just one of many options for entertainment. Movies, in their variety of languages and in their variety of viewing options, were still dominant. And there was Doordarshan still in existence along with the satellite channels. And among the satellite channels, there were the ones that specialized in soap operas and local content, and the ones that brought in “English” shows. And of course, the advertising campaigns were still amazing, if anything they got more impressive with the introduction of satellite.
(I think my favorite is the first one)
The audience divide was more between those who watched Indian TV content (bored housewives was the stereotype), those who watched only “English” content (upperclasses and those aspiring to upperclasses), those who still just watched movies (men, children, everyone except the upperclasses). Advertisers wanted to reach housewives because housewives controlled the money and so they flocked to Indian TV content. For the first time, the Indian audience got to experience what it was like to be sold as walking wallets instead of as walking vote blocks.
And what would Marshall McLuhen say about the Indian medium and message? There was a new kind of divide happening. Women were told to stay in the home, not just by the content of their shows (all about family values and sacrificing women), but by their very existance. TV shows are for women, movies are for men. Women should stay in the home with the TV, alone, while their family goes out and does other things. Women were increasingly set apart and removed from the rest of the family. There were few shows aimed at gathering the family together to watch as a group, and many many shows aimed at filling the empty hours while you were trapped at home, unable to get out and experience other entertainment.
Movies reflected this shift as well. Just as violence and male oriented content became more popular in the 80s as women were expected to stay home and watch VHS, in the early 2000s films started to become more violent again as women were expected to stay home and watch their TV instead of going out.