Hindi Film 101: The Streaming Wars and How We Got Here, the Invention of Radio, Marshall McLuhen, and Doordarshan

This is one of those posts that says stuff we all probably already knew on some level but never said out right.  So if you read the headline and went “oh yeah, I know everything about that”, don’t bother reading on.  But if this is a new concept to you, I am here for you!  Especially because Sacred Games has made it newly relevant.

Usual Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge, this is just how it appears to me and how I understand it based on publicly available information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s go back to 1910 when radio as we know it first came into existence.  The ability to transmit sound through radio waves was already known, but it was used for one to one communication, not for a wide broadcast.  Once the wide broadcast ability came into play, so did a need to regulate it.

The one to one communications were regulated similar to telephone or telegraph.  Individual companies dealt with the physical equipment needed for usage, radio towers and telephone wires, along with the actual devices for use in your home.  It would have been silly to have regulation, like telling people they could only plug certain devices into the electricity they were paying for, or could only use a washing machine if they were sure to separate the colors.

Image result for RKO pictures

(RKO pictures!  A movie company that also owned owned a radio network and a chain of theaters.  And yes, this was hideously incestious and a monopoly, and that’s why such companies were declared illegal in the 1948 Paramount decision.  Oh, and their symbol was a radio tower, this is what was built all over America, the basic infrastructure investment companies made and then wanted to make back somehow)

The ability to do a wide broadcast changed all of that.  Suddenly there was a third element, the person using the equipment, the company making and selling the equipment, and then the person providing the content that was being broadcast by the company and listened to by the consumer.  Who owned that content?  Who regulated it?

The end decision by the countries of the world is that the radio waves were owned by the government.  In most countries this meant that only the government could use the radio, government agencies provided the content.  And once television appeared and became common, it was regulated in the same way.  The government, ultimately, owned the invisible waves it was broadcast on through out their country and only they could provide content (again, with some variations country to country).

This is why cable was such a phenomenon once it became available.  “Cable” simply means actual cables that were laid from massive radio towers to your house bringing in content directly instead of through radio waves.  Satellite television kicked that up even farther, you had your own satellite dish communication with a satellite capable of receiving and sending signals from all over the world, or you had a different cable that connected to a shared satellite dish.  Cable television was not regulated in the same way, not sent over those radio waves owned by the government, and nor was satellite.

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(Cable TV was sent like this, as shown on this extremely complicated diagram)

Now, America is different.  America, because we are so insanely capitalist, chose instead to sell our radio waves directly, keeping only one channel for direct government content and letting the others be owned by major corporations.  We used to regulate this highly, a certain amount of public service content had to be provided every day (sports=public service, which tells you something about American society), bad language was restricted, any reporting had to be accurate and balanced, and so on and so on.  Kind of similar to the level of control that the censors have in India now over films; you can make whatever you want, but ultimately the government could stop you from broadcasting it.  That changed in the mid-90s, now there is very little regulation of the broadcast channels, what remains is more focused on avoiding obscenity and inappropriate content rather than actual trying to create good content.

The original basic structure of American TV relied on 3 major channels, NBC and ABC and CBS.  They would provide the big national shows, the ones with famous actors that were broadcast all over America.  But those shows would only fill about 3-4 hours a day.  The rest of the time if you owned a small local broadcast license and broadcasting studio, you would either have to put up a test pattern (risking losing viewers who would switch to a different channel and stop checking yours and thereby losing advertising dollars) or provide your own content.  Most channels relied on local content, local news of course, and also local sports broadcasts, and local talk shows, sometimes local variety shows with music and comedy and so on.  During the 1950s, the local dance show was a popular craze, a teenage dance party featuring kids you might see in your high school class and a host from the local music scene.  If your show was particularly good, it might get picked up and syndicated from the national channel, sold to markets all over America.  This is how most of the popular daytime talk shows started, local shows that became popular in their local market and eventually noticed by the national channel.

(If you thought I was going to pass up a chance to show “Ladies Choice” from Hairspray, you do not know me AT ALL!  Also, this is an example of one of those local shows that made local celebrities and filled the airwaves in between national shows)

In India, the government controlled everything in this same era.  Doordarshan was the government channel, the Minister of Broadcasting was in charge of everything.  But that didn’t mean everyone watched the same thing.  The local languages would require their own local content.  Only major events would be broadcast nationally.

Early media theorist Marshal McLuhen says “The medium is the message”.  It’s not about what content is provided, it’s about how it is provided.  Look at the structure of the house, not the pictures on the wall.  In the early days of television, in India and America, there was a conscious message that the government was trying to provide.  They encouraged this national/local merge because they wanted a similar national/local concept in how their countries were built.  Both India and America were struggling and do struggle with the issue of how to create a bond between billions of people living massive distances apart.  There are no true shared experiences, a weather event for instance, or a festival which can get them all in one place.  The amazing quality of broadcast waves was their ability to travel great distances in no time at all, creating chords to tie the country together.  And so early broadcast TV in both India and America was giving a message of one great nation undivided sharing together, and also one small local community building connections where each is as important as any other, your neighbor might be on the news, your friend from school might be on the local game show.

It wasn’t just what was broadcast, it was how it was watched.  Televisions were expensive, and larger sets or color sets were more expensive.  A family would only have one TV set, would gather around and watch shows together.  All the kids in a neighborhood might come together to watch a popular show on the one color set in one family’s home.  Someone might host a viewing party for special events, they could even rent a TV for the occasion and invite dozens of people.  And bars became gathering places for the same reason.  The same was true all over the world.

Image result for 1950s television set price

($369.95 in 1950 is the same as $3,700 in 2018 dollars.  Not impossible for most families, but a purchase you would take seriously and only buy one)

The period when this sense of family gathered around, local community sharing experiences, and national community worked best in America was in the early days of television when everything was live and nothing was recorded.  I Love Lucy was a popular show, but not the most popular show in America.  The reason it has lasted through time so well is because Desi Arnaz insisted on recording it in advance on film and then broadcasting, meaning there was a record of every single episode, not the case for most shows.  Slowly, as more and more shows were recorded, a new option for filling in those open hours on the local affiliates came up, reruns of shows that had previously aired.  Along with old movies (as movie studios started hemorrhaging money in the 1960s thanks to TV competition, they discovered a new profit angle in selling TV rights to their old film catalogs), more local content, and so on.  And the American TV audience got used to a certain rhythm, the evening hours were for the major new national shows with a break in the middle for local news, and weekends and daytime hours were for local shows, reruns of older shows, and movies.  The content provided locally became less and less, and more and more there was a sense of national community during those times when the major national shows were broadcast, but the local community was not really represented, the content wasn’t unique.

This was the era of the “nuclear family” in America, and American TV viewing habits supported that.  Your perfect little family at home watching on the shared set.  Or your perfect little suburban neighborhood of houses, sharing the experience of a viewing party.

Indian TV habits supported something else.  TV was something to watch on those rare occasions when there was something you actually wanted to see, or else it was something to have on in the background.  Or more likely, not even own a TV, go to a bar or a viewing party when there was a Cricket match or something else actually worth watching.  Instead of staying home with your own television every evening, you would go out.  Sit outside and talk to neighbors or passers by.  Or go to movie theaters, make the theaters into your home, talk through the movies, eat, arrive late, let your kids play.  The divide wasn’t house by house or neighborhood by neighborhood, but upper stall versus floor seat.

Image result for 1950s indian family

(Not gathered around a TV set.  Don’t actually know where they are?)

The one thing you would always want to watch on Doordarshan was the commercials.  India is somewhat unique in that the government provides and approves the content, but also sells ad time.  The commercials where were creativity was let loose, the one part of the content that was focused on pleasing the people and catching their attention rather than pleasing the government.  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.

In America, the majority of the content wasn’t to please viewers either.  It was to please sponsors.  In the early years, one company would directly sponsor an entire show, for instance the “Lucky Strike Program with Jack Benny”.  One of the things a sponsor wanted was viewers.  But they also wanted a message that matched their corporate identity, they wanted this actor on or that actor off, they had ideas.  And even if the ratings were booming, even if the audience clearly wanted one thing or another, you had to listen to their ideas.

There was also the issue of HOW to know what the audience wanted.  American TV gathers ratings by two methods, diaries and set meters.  In the early years, before the technology was fully available, it was all by diaries.  Households would be chosen at random for meeting certain demographics and asked to write down everything they viewed in detail.  This is obviously flawed, because people lie.  No one wants to admit they were up at 3am eating ice cream and watching a soap opera rerun, they will just lie and not include that.  Or lie and say they did watch some classical music program.  The set meters are much better, they send constant immediate data through phone lines.  These two data systems combined are used to measure “ratings”, and based on ratings, the advertising prices are set.  TV content providers and stations want their ratings to go up so their advertising prices will go up.  They don’t care if the people love their content or hate their content, they just want them to watch it so they can sell them, the audience, to the advertisers.  The TV programs aren’t the content, the viewers are.  And the customer you want to please isn’t the audience either, it is the advertiser.

Image result for nielsen diary

(This looks so complicated, I am glad I never had to keep a Nielsen diary)

India was different.  It wasn’t the audience there they were trying to please either, it was the government.  TV was controlled by the state and was often quite dull.  And the government was aware of this, aware that they were providing “high quality” content that might not be what people actually wanted.  A sort of “eat your fruits and vegetables” attitude.  The message of the TV broadcasts was less about building a national community and more about reminding the national community that ultimately they were under the control of the capital.  For instance, when Indira Gandhi feared she would lose her election, rumor has it she ordered the broadcast of the film Bobby on TV, knowing this would be the rare occasion when people actually wanted to watch Doordarshan and therefore might stay home.  That was the power and the purpose of Doordarshan, to get the government a way to get their message out to the people, not to give the people on the other side a message they actually wanted to listen to.

The two countries started polls apart, one with the government being hands off and corporations controlling content.  The other with the government being hands on and corporations left to fight for the few minutes of ad time they were allowed.  But ultimately, both were the same in that the actual audience was lost in the shuffle, no one was making content for them, they were using them as a commodity.

 

 

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22 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: The Streaming Wars and How We Got Here, the Invention of Radio, Marshall McLuhen, and Doordarshan

  1. I think you might be really interested in how TV was used by the Soviets. Indian TV borrowed heavily from the Soviet model. Including the news broadcast. The Indira Gandhi Bobby thing you talk about, the Soviets did that with swan lake. Everytime something really bad happened nationally, they played swan lake on TV. On repeat. So when the public saw that they knew something really massive had happened. I think they even had that on while the republics were declaring independence from the union.

    I agree that content was state created but quality wise, it was never didactic. Rather, it was more progressive than what we got through our films or our cable soaps. DD was the golden age of indian TV. Their newscasters set the standard for enunciation in all languages and the evening bulletin as a rule had an inset live news broadcast in sign language.

    Cricket matches brought the country to a standstill. There weren’t bars to watch them as there are now. You watched them outside TV shops. Any store with a TV would get filled up with people not buying anything and the storekeepers didn’t mind. You could get leaves from school and office because India had a game.

    And before this, we had the radio tradition. Which was almost the same. Ameen Sayani’s show and regular radio programs were on when DD wasn’t broadcasting.

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    • The watching them outside TV shops thing happened in America too, but to a much lessor degree. If you were at work or stuck downtown for some reason, you would watch in the window of a shop. But that would be for breaking news type things, if it was something like a sporting event that you knew about in advance, you would want to watch it on your home TV, or at a viewing party. There was a big shift just in the past couple decades to major sporting events taking place in the evenings and weekends instead of during the day, to make it easier to watch them in your own home instead of while out in public. While Cricket matches, I assume, can take place at any time both because they are loooooooooooooooooooooong and because they are outside of the Indian time zone. So people are forced to watch them out in the world, instead of at night when they would be tucked into their own homes.

      And there’s a whole other discussion to be had about the effect of all of India cheering for the same cricket team, versus America constantly being divided by sports teams (another reason to watch in a bar or at home instead of on the street, the sports bars are divided by teams so you can cheer with your “own” crowd instead of being on the street potentially watching with the enemy).

      It’s interesting in a “medium is the message” way, if you are watching the TV from a shop, it is even more of a public space than within a bar, everyone is standing together as equals, truly the ideal of the nation being united across boundaries.

      On Thu, Jul 12, 2018 at 9:38 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Millions got their first TV set for world cups and for India Pakistan series! And then there’s the trend of taking your family TV to the street and smashing it to bits if you lost to the enemy team (this mostly happened in India and Pakistan only) People died of heart attacks too. Suicides have also been reported.

        Padmavati protests have nothing on how insane we are as a people. Lol

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        • What I find most surprising about this is how you could get a heart attack from Cricket. Isn’t it just super super slow? Where’s the moment of excitement? Or is that just how it feels to me?

          On Thu, Jul 12, 2018 at 11:46 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • More than Cricket. Really? Cricket?

            On Thu, Jul 12, 2018 at 12:12 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Cricket isn’t what it used to be since the IPL came. Although you still don’t see any Pakistani players in that anymore either do you? And the amount of trolling we received over the champions trophy loss and continue to receive from Pakistanis is unbearable.

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          • You don’t have to sell me on “IPL ruined everything”, I’m already made at them for messing with the spring film release/promotion schedule.

            On Thu, Jul 12, 2018 at 4:26 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Yep, in about 5 more posts I may finally get there 🙂 Next I have to dig into the cable/satellite TV revolution a little more. And then HBO and DVDs and Netflix. And then streaming. And then streaming and internet in India. There is a big big “medium is the message” thing going on there which I don’t think is covered nearly enough.

      Although, what I’ve been thinking lately is kind of the reverse of your article (thanks for sharing!), that people have become a little blind to how much content is still being beamed straight into their skulls, have grown complacent in the idea that social media is under their control. Which, duh, I am sure you know more about that part of it than I do too. Which is why I will try to stick with the journey from radio to streaming and live the other big thoughts to other people.

      But purely in terms of visual content, you may say “streaming gives me all the content in the world at my fingertips”, but it really doesn’t, does it? There is a lot of content that is just erased from the world because corporations can’t/won’t make it available. Tumhari Sulu, for instance, is just GONE. It won an IIFA award, and you cannot watch it anywhere. At least when it was on DVD, some store somewhere might still have it in stock. Or there used to be late night TV broadcasts, or art house movie theaters that would show old films before DVD/VHS. But once something is gone from streaming, or never makes it to streaming, it is gone forever. And in theory you could watch anything you want on Netflix at any time, but like little sheep, we are all watching Sacred Games simultaneously the week it releases. Because Netflix knows how to drive us towards content.

      Maybe that is the difference? Now it is less like we are fenced in with only certain options, and more like we are being herded to certain options, paid twitter promoters (or unpaid, the fan groups that are given marching orders and carry them out), youtube plucking certain successful video makers and promoting them to increase ad revenue from their videos. The boring corporate accounts are still mostly failing, but they can still buy ad time from other sites that have learned how to game the system. Just like eventually sponsors of TV shows learned to step back and let the TV executives take the lead because they knew how to control the audience. And the data mining makes it all feel natural, seamless, youtube just alerted me to Aish’s new video because they sincerely thought I would be interested through organic helpful little programs, not because Zee purchased my search history and is driving all potential Hindi film viewers to the video they want us to see.

      Anyway, thank you for commenting! I am fascinated by this and I am going to end up doing a whole series of posts that no one real read just because I find it so interesting.

      On Thu, Jul 12, 2018 at 2:33 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Fascinating. Also, it makes us go back to the piracy/darknet/P2P networks which the media industry has been fighting all this time. Like I said, I can only get British shows if I watch them on this possibly illegal platform. Game of thrones first few seasons, Mad Men, Breaking Bad– we didn’t get them officially on TV till they had blown up on the P2P circuits and became buzzwords in college and young office goer circles. With streaming, Netflix got lucky because HBO had already ushered in the era of shows being downloaded, even if it were illegally, worldwide. Game of thrones’ last two seasons were sold to streaming platforms and marketed as “watch it within minutes of the broadcast and in HD” because they were so certain that P2P would have the episodes within hours of the broadcast ending.

        Netflix dumping all episodes of a series same day, with Stranger Things being the first big show they did that for, was made for binge watches. But guess what? HBO has kept up with the weekly episode launch and selling rights to global satellite TV and profiting off building major TRPs for their popular shows. Sure they’re also having to rake up major moolah for their shows but the fandoms and basically post first broadcast revenue is driving the profitability for the traditional TV broadcaster. The pattern is- you watch the latest episode of a big show, like Westworld, and you go to YouTube to watch a recap/analysis of it and then you go to reddit for fan theories. And then you basically keep reading about it at several of the places that have become tour regular haunts for coverage of that show till the next episode drops. There’s an industry around the weekly episode still.

        Streaming platforms are playing catch-up. Or they’re trying to lure in views with the cult names like they did with Sacred Games. I mean, would you watch it if it had only Saif and no Nawaz, no Radhika, no other names you knew from those little films?

        It also helps that legit big Hollywood stars are also doing TV now so the stigma around TV isn’t there anymore and to the binge watcher, three films from the same star and a miniseries with 6 episodes isn’t that different. But that’s the trend NOW! We’re set to return to the TV style advertising and broadcast if YouTube ads are anything to go by.

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        • Yep, save all of this for like 3 posts from now. I feel like we can’t (or at least I can’t) intelligently discuss what is happening now in the world of media distribution without first establishing where it came from and the changes that happened to get us here, to fully understand that the structure of how we receive content is changing what kind of content we consume, and where, and why, and with whom.

          Especially since it is circular, we left behind the “Lucky Strike brings you Jack Benny” era and change to the show as separated from the ads, ads slotted in to time slots instead of owning the show out right. And now we are coming back to it, the youtube channels are looking for “sponsors”, individual companies, just like early radio and TV shows would.

          And the discussion around net neutrality in America, or the censorship other countries already have on the internet, and the “blacknet”, is the same as radio with the pirate stations broadcasting without a license, and the shift from person to person usage to wide broadcast by a sponsored company, and how to regulate that and who pays for it.

          On Thu, Jul 12, 2018 at 4:51 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I really can’t wait for those posts now. Can you research a bit on the end of the internet as we know it, death of social media and the new internet too when you do those write ups? It feels like so many people are talking about these things that it feels like we’re one step away rather than it happening in the future. Or maybe the future is here already and we just didn’t notice. Yikes!

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          • The future is always here before you notice it. For instance, turns out the little boy from Gadar is now a hot young man. Which means Sunny Deol is an old man and Ashmita Patel is middle-aged. And somehow that all happened without me noticing.

            Anyway, thank you for your enthusiasm! I was planning to stretch the posts out a little so people didn’t get bored, but if at least one person is excited, maybe I will post them faster.

            On Thu, Jul 12, 2018 at 5:03 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Ooh! I kept a Nielsen diary in the mid 70s, when I was in elementary school. It was in fact complicated. My sister and I kept it because my parents didn’t watch tv.

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    • So, what I am getting here, is two small children had control over what TV was kept and what was canceled? Are you the reason we lost the Mary Tyler Moore Show?

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      • That wouldn’t have been us. We loved the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I remember us being savvy enough not record a couple of programs that we watched but didn’t think were very good.

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        • And see, that’s why they had to come up with the electronic tracker box! Because little girls lied about what they were watching.

          On Sat, Jul 14, 2018 at 7:02 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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