Economics of Culture Industry: Television in India by K V Joseph
C S Venkiteswaran
In the last two decades, and since the ‘opening up of the sky’ in the 90’s, television has replaced print media as the most overwhelming presence in our public (and private) lives; it is the medium through which we make sense of the world, of us and the other. Most importantly, it has also taken upon itself the task of being the primary agenda-setter in our polity. In other words, rather than being a ‘medium’ we use, the omnipresence of television and also in many cases, its omnipotence, has turned it almost into something like the air we breathe. But, despite that, serious and scholarly studies on television, its economic aspects, socio-cultural impact etc are very few and far between. Most of the books under the ‘Television Studies’ category are about the ‘content’ of television or about audience ‘reception’ rather about the institutional and economic structures that surround it.
In this context, K V Joseph’s book ‘Economics of Culture Industry: Television in India’ is most relevant, as it is an attempt to map the economic aspects of a culture industry like television in India. The book is structured around questions about television - as a media, industry and also, a cultural product. As a result, the analysis encompasses complex issues arising from engagements with various concepts in media technology, entertainment industry and marketing along with issues relating to its aesthetics and social good. Obviously, all these aspects deserve detailed analyses on their own, and hence the author is forced to compress a lot of historical and cultural-theoretical issues to fit into the economic arguments that form the central pivot of the study.
The book begins with an attempt at the definition of ‘culture industry’ followed by a short sketch about the growth of television as an industry. The next chapter is dedicated to a brief history of television in India, followed by chapters on the analysis of the product mix of television industry, marketing, labour market, the audience of television products, and artistic response to programmes. In the concluding part policy options in television industry are also examined.
What makes the book interesting and relevant is the fact that it takes a multidisciplinary approach to television. It freely delves into the works of cultural theorists like Adorno, Horkheimer, Raymond Williams etc on the one side, and attempts to employ their insights to illuminate the paradox that television is in its manifold existence as a means of entertainment, tool for education, potential equipment for indoctrination of various kinds, a peddler of advertisements, a political agenda-setter, and an obsessive sensationalist par excellence. This functional and economic multiplicity of television products themselves often makes discourses about them difficult and dense. But the author diligently wades his way through all this, to make a preliminary analysis of television and its history in India for the last three decades. In the process, he also attempts to examine the multilevel existence of the industry and dynamics of the relationships that ranges from cable operators who are the last mile service providers to the regional, national and global players.
In the course of analysis, the author also brings interesting information about the economics of television industry in Kerala as a case study, illustrated by the changing composition of programming through time. There are interesting observations about the conflicts between the forces of standardization and massification of programmes on the one hand and the pressures for innovativeness in programming due to competition.
Obviously one major challenge in writing about a topic like television is the tricky task of treading between economics and culture. In some occasions, the author is unable to resist making certain value judgments upon the ‘content’ of television, resorting to very moralistic remarks about it. Another problematic area is the suggestion about bringing the state to put controls on media in the form of censorship. There are several instances in history to show that in the war for media/public space, the state was no less oppressive than capital. Any public space like media is a site of conflict and negotiation between the three forces – the state, capital/market, and civil society. Some of the crucial areas that could have been explored are the role of Public Service Broadcasting and professional media bodies/NGOs in setting benchmarks with regard to content, and also in putting in place mechanisms of public accountability and transparency. Equally important is the role of visual media education that should form part of formal curriculum to create a population of discerning consumers of television products. Only through such systemic initiatives can one hope to democratize media space/practices and check the diabolic potentials of the State and Capital.