Long before news was a “product” and the viewer a “customer”, there was Doordarshan. A generation still sighs with nostalgia over those black-and-white and, later, colour pictures that changed with the vagaries of the weather, wavy at times and grainy at others; the antenna that the entire family helped fix; news readers; Chitrahaar; and serials such as Hum Log and Buniyaad.
On September 15, 1959, Doordarshan (or “a glimpse of all afar”, as the Prasar Bharati website describes it) was launched in Delhi using equipment from West Germany. In 1965, it began broadcasting to homes in and around New Delhi. Mumbai and Amritsar had access to the services by 1972, and seven additional cities were added three years later.
Satellite launches made it possible to broadcast on a national scale. Midway through the 1970s, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment helped develop programmes that provided entertainment in the form of dance, music, drama, and folk and rural art forms as well as information on agriculture, health, and family planning.
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On April 1976, Doordarshan, until then a part of All India Radio (AIR), became a separate Department of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Currently, along with Akashvani, it is one of Prasar Bharati’s divisions.
The coverage of the Ninth Asian Games in Delhi, which were held from November 19 to December 4, 1982, was a turning point in Indian television history. For the first time, Doordarshan offered nationwide coverage in colour via INSAT 1A. The Republic Day parade at Janpath, the thrill of a sporting event, scenes from far-off battlefields, and summit venues kept viewers glued to their seats in the years that followed. Sunday evenings were movie time.
The airing of Ramayan in 1987 followed by Mahabharat was another watershed moment in Doordarshan’s history. According to critics, these serials laid the groundwork for a political juggernaut to begin rolling.
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From a single studio at AIR, Doordarshan has now grown to 66 studios across the country and operates 34 satellite channels in addition to providing a free-to-air DTH service.
After liberalisation, when the logic of the marketplace entered the “signal area”, TV access was no longer free. India is now a hub for numerous channels and programmes produced by both domestic and international companies. But one can still find the mandatory Doordarshan channels in various languages on broadcaster bouquets. In memory of simpler times, some people grab that piece of history while channel-surfing.