Television Zindabad

Posted in culture, politics, society by jrahman on January 4, 2010

On 25 December 1964, a handful of people in the then Dacca witnessed the birth of something new in our part of the world — television. It began with daily 4 hour black and white programs. Colour programs started in Dec 1980. Until the early 1990s, the only channel on air was the state-run Bangladesh Television, though from the late 1980s, people started watching Indian channels. Cable tv arrived in 1992. Between the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ekushey TV, a private telestrial channel, revolutionised program standards. In the past decade, over a dozen private satellite channels have sprung up, with nearly another dozen scheduled to start in the next few years.  By 2006, nearly half the households in Bangladesh had a TV, compared with less than 0.2% in 1975 (see the chart). 

This post celebrates the 45th birthday of television in Bangladesh with some random observations about: the role TV has played in shaping our culture; how commercial TV can act as an agent for positive social change; the way TV is likely to change our politics; and how channels are licensed in Bangladesh.

In 2000 or 2001, writing about the way globalisation (and its regional manifestation — Indianisation) was affecting our culture, Prof Zafar Iqbal noted two ways we could respond to it.  One was that of the Taliban — smash the TV sets, and reject everything that is deemed ‘unauthentic’.  He suggested an alternative way, using Bangla rock bands as an example.  What he had in mind is possibly described here.  Although not without controversy, can anyone deny that television has played a positive role in this cultural (r)evolution?  At the beginning of this decade, one used to hear Bollywood ditties in most wedding celebrations in affluent Dhaka.  By the end of the decade, this was the biggest hit, and it wouldn’t have been possible for television.

There is a huge subjective element to culture.  Whether one likes a particular dialect or type of music is essentially a matter of personal choice.  However, there are other aspects of culture that one can make objective statements about.  Cultures that treat women with dignity and respect are usually also of societies with better standards of living, measured in objective criteria such as life expectancy or infant mortality.  

And according to Robert Jensen of Brown and Emily Oster of Chicago universities, television improves women’s status in a major way.  Their research explores the effect of the introduction of cable television on gender attitudes in rural India during 2001-03.  They find that access to cable television increases reported autonomy while decreases reported acceptance of domestic violence and son preference.  In some cases, the effects are equivalent to what can be achieved with five additional years of schooling.   

No one made Kyun ki saas bhi kabhie bahu thi with women’s rights in mind.  But it seems television did spur important social changes in rural India.  I am not aware of any similar study done in Bangladesh, but I suspect television is having a similarly positive effect here too.

Or it could be, if our producers were not so heavily focussed on talk shows.  Of course the microeconomics of entertainment industry means it makes perfect sense that talk shows are so popular.  In the entertainment business, it is generally impossible to predict what people want.  Typically what happens is that the production house will produce a number of programs (or movies, or albums), only one of which will be a hit, and then this will have a large number of imitators until the market saturates and something else hits.

This is why in the west we saw glam soaps like Dallas-Dynasty (and BTV equivalents like সকাল সন্ধ্যা) rule the airwave in the early 1980s, sitcoms boom in the mid-1990s, and reality TV phenomenon a few years ago. Similarly, music industry or movie industry goes through phases when everyone follows a particular formula.  Indeed, this formula chasing is as old as the industry itself.  Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, of which Romeo and Juliet was 28th. It was his first where the leading couple die as a result of some misunderstanding. This turned out to be his biggest hit, and he had multiple deaths in 4 of his remaining 9 plays.

In today’s Bangladesh, the particular hit formula for TV is talk shows.  While talk shows don’t appear all that likely to result in positive social transformation, television current affairs programs are likely to dramatically alter politics in the country.  Every statement made by a senior politician from either side of the aisle, every gaffe committed by either parties, every news to break, every incidence to happen, are already dissected every possible way over the 24 hour news cycle.  And this will onle accelerate with new channels (and technology such as cellphone based web TV).  It used to be that whoever controlled the streets dominated our politics.  This will no longer be the case — street fighting will give way to air wars.

And this makes it crucial to understand who is allowed to enter the television market and why.  Ten new channels were granted licence in October.  How transparent was the process?  Why were certain applications successful when others failed? Was it because of their business plans, or that they offered a particular vision? Or were there other considerations?  Who are funding these new channels? Are they attracting foreign investment like Ekushey did from Citibank?  Or are they raising their funds from domestic capital market?  Is Bangladeshi market large enough to have two dozen channels?  How come no one is asking these questions?


Data for the chart comes from the World Bank World Development Indicators.

The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India by Robert Jensen, Emily Oster  – NBER Working Paper #13305.

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  3. Saif said, on January 6, 2010 at 1:52 am

    (This of course does not take away from any of the very valid points and questions you raise, all of which and all of whose importance I agree with)50% of Bangladeshi households have a TV? The population below the poverty line is 45%. How is that possible?

    • jrahman said, on January 6, 2010 at 8:25 am

      One possibility is that pretty much anyone who can afford to eat two square meals a day (definition of the calorie intake poverty line) can also watch TV. I cannot speak about the countryside, but in Dhaka and a number of district towns, this doesn’t sound implausible at all. If true, this is remarkable, no?

      • Saif said, on January 7, 2010 at 1:08 am

        Hmmm. I’m not sure that 50% of the households in rural Bangladesh have a TV. Where’s that statistic from anyway?

      • jrahman said, on January 7, 2010 at 2:29 am

        I forgot to cite the source, but it’s updated now. The data are from WB World Development Indicator, which also shows 45% below poverty line.

  4. DS said, on January 7, 2010 at 11:17 am

    Amazing, amazing post! Thanks for the Jensen, Oster link.

    Small quibble – facts about Shakespeare chronology are as debated in literary circles as Mujib in Deshi political circles. With the same sort of resolution.

  5. Udayan said, on January 8, 2010 at 4:51 am

    How much of the statistic is tied to relative cost of technology etc. over time? Definitions of poverty may differ, but I think in US there is a similar statistic (ie, more people below the poverty line than without a TV)

  6. fugstar said, on January 8, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Your graphs they come with bells and whistles
    I dont know how you make them
    Exponential, asymptotic bars
    they are hypnotic.

  7. jrahman said, on January 18, 2010 at 10:25 am

    DS, outside the ivory tower, I don’t think anyone debates Sheikh Mujib and Shakespeare’s status in their respective theatres. 🙂

    Udayan, I am sure a lot is due to relative cost of technology. Cheapest sets in Dhaka cost as little as $5,000 taka.

    Fug, I use excel.

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