SPACE TV IN ASIA
Sitting with my ancient laptop computer in the even more 'dated' inner city suburb of North Melbourne, I have access to information from around the globe. Electronic mail can keep me more in touch with friends in Europe than with my shift-working flatmates. I guess this is 'life in the global village'. With borderless satellite TV, the Internet, international free-trade and cheaper phone calls, our likes, beliefs and occupations are becoming less and less dependent on where we live.
Satellite TV began in the 1960s, when a program was broadcast across the Atlantic. Today, it is big business. One satellite TV company, Star TV, broadcasts to 53 countries across Asia. Its beams form a blanket stretching from Egypt to Japan, and from Siberia to Australia. Its northern beam is aimed at China's billion-plus population, and its southern beam at India's 960 million.
Star TV is owned by the massive New Corporation, which has broadcasting interests on every continent. Chairman of News Corp., Australia-born Rupert Murdoch, is one of the greatest pioneers the media has known. He has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Star TV in the conviction that, before long, it will be making massive profits. Star's Chief Executive, Gary Davey, says, 'We are determined to build our position as Asia's leading satellite broadcaster'.
What will the impact of this be on Asian society in the years ahead? Arundhati Nanavati, a Bombay lawyer, sees both a positive and negative effect. 'Indians are better informed, as a result of Star TV, about other countries. We realise that our problems are not unique. and sometimes we see how other countries are overcoming those problems.' She is not so pleased, however, with many of the Western entertainment programs. Much of Star TV is of Western origin. One channel is devoted to music videos, another to movies. On the 'Star Plus' channel, you can watch the X-files, The Simpsons, Baywatch, the Miss World Contest, Beverly Hills 90210, Home and Away, Star Trek, Oprah, Santa Barbara and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Many of these Western programs stress physicality, fantasy and sexuality over intellectuality, realism and self-sacrifice. They portray a life of easy success and instant pleasure. While attractive to young people, they do little to prepare them for the real world. Young Westerners can compare the lifestyles of Beverley Hills 90210 with their personal experience of living in the West, but their foreign counterparts can not.
Many Indians fear the impact of these programs on their society. They see them as a threat to traditional culture, and an encouragement to a Western monoculture. When Murdoch visited India in 1993 he dismissed these fears. 'Indian culture can look after itself', he said. Since then, however, Star TV has steadily diversified, and now includes a substantial portion of locally-produced material in its programming. In 1993 it bought fifty percent of ZEE TV, one of the most popular Indian TV stations.
Quality local programs are vital in countries flooded with imported shows (though many developing nations cannot afford to produce them). ZEE TV proved a sensation when it first hit the screens; its lively Hindi programs offered a dramatic contrast to the then dull Government-controlled broadcaster Doordashan. As a result of this partnership, ZEE TV now receives more viewer mail at its Bombay headquarters than any other channel in the world - an average of 200,000 letters, cards and faxes per day.
Digital technology on new satellites enables Star to deliver many more channels, with crisper pictures and CD-quality sound. It now has four Chinese (Mandarin) channels, and a subscription channel in Japanese has recently been added. There are programs in various Indian, Indonesian and Philippine languages, and in Arabic for the growing Middle-East market. It has also made various co-production agreements and has purchased the rights to material from sources such as the booming Hong Kong film industry and India's 'Bollywood'. This is all part of Star's effort to 'develop a sub-regional focus, where each market will have a tailored package of international and Asian language channels'. And there are now over 220 million viewers across the region. But nagging concerns persist about Star TV's social impact.
Visier Sanyu is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Nagaland in North-East India. As an expert in the oral history of the people of North-East India, he is aware of the increasing cultural conflict between 'old' and 'new'. 'People are becoming aware of the consequences Star TV can have. It has accentuated the shift towards Western culture. In addition, there is a general awareness of the need to protect and shape culture', he says. 'Star TV is one accentuating factor, subtle and insidious, and its influence is not only because of what it is, as such, but because it is coupled with things like a poor education and economy, and political conflict'. His wife Pari, a teacher, writes that, 'Normal interaction within the family is hampered by increased viewing. And, to some extent, young people have become alienated from the rest of society'.
Star TV has made young people more susceptible to the drugs culture, writes Christine Iralu, who lives in Meghalaya in North-East India. North-East India lies on the Western edge of the Golden Triangle, and drugs are easily available as they are smuggled West. The region has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Asia, mainly from shared needles. 'A serious spin-off of certain TV programs is that drugs are considered a part of an "advanced" lifestyle. Many here see them as a sign of "Western progress" and adopt them wholesale as fashionable.'
Christine's husband Niketu works in drugs rehabilitation. Recently he interviewed 17 addicts individually, and asked each what had led him into drugs. Sixteen of them replied that they had wanted to follow the lifestyle of their Western pop idols whom they watch on TV. Satellite TV has brought the world closer together. But is exposure to Hollywood the main thing we now have in common?
Countless youths world-wide are 'buying' Western identities, 'marketed' through TV, music, films and sport. Cultural interaction can be very creative; and the Internet offers new possibilities to bring this about. But there is also a danger that diversity will be undermined merely in the pursuit of profit and power.
This December marks Star TV's fifth anniversary. It may be a moment for stock-taking. With the influx of the new media, we must each learn to watch and listen critically, and then participate. If we are to encourage excellence, we will need to speak out. And we will need to create programs which are more captivating than stereotyped characters and escapist themes.
Erik Parsons, Australia