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Doordarshan turns 61

As India’s national broadcaster Doordarshan celebrates its 61st year in service, media experts and connoisseurs look back at its journey with nostalgia.

Doordarshan began as a modest experiment in broadcasting in 1959 at a time when there were few viewers, print was the gold standard for news, and people turned to radio for all immediate updates.

“It caught the attention of viewers primarily for being the first visual medium to relay the news at a fast pace,” said Sajjan Kumar, professor of media studies and political science at Symbiosis International University in Pune. “It was more alluring as a medium than the audio and print. But till the 1970s, its reach was limited to the metropolitan middle class.”

In 1982, Doordarshan became a national broadcaster as DD National. The timing coincided with the introduction of color TV in India and its viewership increased.

The governments of prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi — mother and son — realized the potential of TV in public discourse and used its programing.

“It was only in the 1980s that Indira Gandhi started embracing some elements of the market,” said Kumar. “Doordarshan started having more diversity of content along the lines which we call infotainment.

“A breakthrough came in after the mid-1980s — when popular serials like ‘Ramayana’ led to a quantum jump in the number of households acquiring TV sets, which also led to more viewership for Doordarshan,” Kumar said.

During the 1980s when broadcasting was under the central government, the content was focused on groups. Popular mythological dramas had millions glued to Doordarshan. Shows including “Vikram Betal” and “Tenali Rama” became popular among children. By the 1990s, government used projected TV screens to provide educational content in India’s villages, introducing the new audiovisual model to a broader population.

When India went into lockdown in late March this year to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar announced the re-telecast of “Ramayana.” The series got more than 170 million viewers in the first four shows.