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Situating the Global Village: Developmentalism and Immersion in India’s Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE, 1975-76)

Sudipto Basu



Situating the Global Village: Developmentalism and Immersion in India’s Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE, 1975-76)

Commemorative first day stamp for SITE, dated August 1, 1975.

On August 1, 1975, not long after PM Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in India,[1] crowds gathered in around 2,400 villages across six states—some of them not even connected by metalled roads—to witness images and sounds come alive on small community television sets provided by the government (usually one per village). Many in the audience had never even seen a film. Yet here they were, watching television broadcast via NASA satellite and captured by small and cheap direct-receiving antennas. During the following year, instructional TV programmes on farming, education, health, nutrition and family planning reached the villages four hours per day under the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), piloted by Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in collaboration with All India Radio (AIR) and National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). Hailed as the “greatest communications experiment in history”[2] by sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, SITE was more than a mere attempt to prototype a national TV grid in preparation for the launch of India’s own satellite—which is how it has been trivialized in Indian media histories. In a significant moment during the global Cold War, SITE represented a specific confluence of beliefs and institutional interests that saw television as a medium for social change. Unpacking these interests allows us to understand how Indian villages, many of which had not even been electrified (where the TV sets had to run on portable batteries), were recruited into the largest international development communications experiment of the time.

In India, SITE was not the first use of television for national development. Since 1967 AIR had used terrestrial transmitters to pilot Krishi Darshan, an agricultural TV program that reached a few hundred villages around Delhi. But as India’s scientific modernizers like the ISRO chief Vikram Sarabhai [3] realized, expanding this terrestrial TV network was time-consuming, since it followed a slow process of technological transfer from Global North to South, and from urban centers to rural peripheries. Instead, Sarabhai wanted to use geostationary satellites to bypass this slow teleology of modernization, directly bridging the gap between the state and its most remote, subaltern citizens. By a technological fix, Indira Gandhi’s government thereby hoped to address a persistent problem that has historically troubled the Indian state’s popular legitimacy: the last-mile delivery of essential infrastructure and services to its marginalized citizens.[4]

Fortunately for Sarabhai, many Western policymakers were also invested in satellites for development in the 1960s.[5] During the Cold War, in the wake of successful national liberation movements, the US was keen to sponsor technological transfer programmes that gave a human face to its imperial ambitions and projected its willingness to aid decolonized nations in economic and rural development. It was particularly interested in countering communism in the third world by conscripting (semi-)illiterate peasants into projects of gradual reform and behavioral change.[6] The 1970s were, then, a time of developmental TV experiments across the Tricontinental: pilots ran in India, El Salvador and Cameroon, for example.

Vikram Sarabhai, ISRO chief, and Thomas Paine, NASA administrator, sign a satellite cooperation agreement in September 1969 to bring instructional television programmes to some 5,000 Indian villages.

Moreover, as Asif Siddiqi has shown, the US was secretly concerned with stopping Indian nuclear research at a time when China had just developed a bomb.[7] Since these geopolitical imperatives converged with Sarabhai’s interest in a national satellite TV project, he could draw on the support of powerful modernization theorists like Daniel Lerner and Wilbur Schramm to prove the project’s feasibility and desirability against domestic opponents. By 1969, a deal was struck between AIR, ISRO and NASA to pilot SITE, though it would take six years to implement. Because the Americans wanted to avoid charges of imperialism, NASA limited its role to lending its ATS-6 satellite for a year and providing on-ground supervision. Most of the project personnel were Indian, as was the manufacturing of TVs and direct receiving sets.

TV assembly for SITE, locally developed by the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL).

SITE in the histories of Indian Developmentalism

India, in particular, held special significance for Western developmentalists since it laid claim to being the most populous democracy in the world, its peoples largely settled in agrarian villages. It had a long history of peasant revolts and strong communist parties, factions of which were close to the neighboring PRC. For the West, India was therefore the quintessential testbed of liberal developmentalism in the Cold War. But while earlier development experiments had targeted economic issues through initiatives such as rural community development, family planning, and co-op formation, SITE constituted a new, minimal kind of intervention: it connected remote villages to an information grid through direct broadcasting satellites. In older paradigms like community development, experts were directly involved in rationally re-modelling the village, building new infrastructures and implementing change. In SITE, by contrast, change was expected to be implemented primarily by the villagers themselves, based on the scientific information transmitted to them through TV. This pedagogy, it was hoped, would help villagers change their socio-economic conditions through their own prerogative and self-organization.

Albert Mayer overseeing brickmaking and village replanning at Etawah in India, a “model village” that was the most notable of India’s community development pilot projects.

The shift was partly pragmatic, since India’s community development projects had faced severe shortages of trained village-level workers and resources for international aid bodies and the Indian state.[8] These had entailed reorganizing land use, replanning villages, rural electrification, school and dispensary building, and so on. SITE needed less resources; the project mostly involved installing modest antennas and TV sets in schools or community halls. Heavy capital only had to be invested in two earth stations, four production studios, and the ISRO administrative offices in Ahmedabad. SITE’s labor demands were also relatively low, as the most numerous extension workers were school teachers who were assigned additional responsibilities at little added cost. Therefore, SITE was as an early example of the self-help epistemology of neoliberal developmentalism: which imagined Global South subalterns as active, entrepreneurial agents who could remake their lives, given some external expertise and funding, often by mobilizing their own cultural techniques, skills and crafts as economic resources.

While low on resource use, SITE was one of the most studied field experiments in developmentalism, both in India and abroad. Among its most important personnel were ISRO’s social scientists who selected the 2400 project villages, canvassed local needs, gave programming recommendations, and assessed the efficacy of the broadcasts in achieving behavioral and social change. While the SITE broadcasts are not easily available today, we can reconstruct the institutional desires and imperatives shaping Cold War development communications from the array of reports, papers, conference proceedings and monographs these social scientists produced.

The Programmed Spectator of Developmentalism

Villagers gathered to watch SITE programs.

In the reports sent by the NASA representative in India, Howard J. Galloway Jr., we find an emblematic fragment—an idealized scene of spectatorial immersion:

I have read reports where in many villages, the audience talks and moves about and in general has not developed mannerly viewing habits. Without exception, in all of the villages that we visited, the villagers sat quietly on the ground, on walls, on roofs, in trees, etc., with no talking and with an intense concentration on the screen. This behaviour was not exhibited for my benefit. I know this because until my photoflash went off, the folk were not aware of my presence. During the Rajasthan program, 2010 to 2050 IST, there were sometimes laughter, keeping time to the music, and other signs of enjoyment.[9]

This is a remarkable scene since Galloway’s account estimates that between 300-500 villagers watched the broadcast on one TV during this visit in harvest season, while the average audience size noted in the logbook was around 1,000. Yet, he admits:

...before I knew of SITE, I thought that eight to ten people gathered around a TV would be about the limit. However, we sat on the ground behind everyone, amidst everyone, and in front of everyone, and much to my surprise, we could see and hear very well from all positions. You probably find this hard to believe, but it is true!

It is, in fact, hard to believe that such large audiences were immersed in TV because of the broadcasts themselves! Galloway’s reports mention frequent fuse blowouts due to voltage fluctuations, transmission glitches, the broadcasts clashing with more pressing realities like harvests or festivals, and rain affecting outdoor screenings. There was also a linguistic problem: given that locals in the six village clusters spoke at least 7-8 regional dialects and often had a limited grasp of Hindi and the three other official languages in which the broadcasts were done. It was just as likely that the villagers in Galloway’s idealized scene of immersion were acting deferential to a visiting sahib, whose retinue was conspicuous, and who seemed like a state representative during the Emergency. Disobedient spectatorship could, after all, have political consequences.

We do not, however, have to resort to speculative readings. Many post-SITE evaluations by ISRO scientists acknowledged that while there was some audience enthusiasm in the new medium, little was achieved in terms of social and behavioral change.[10] Many SITE creatives laid the blame on the hurried, slapdash nature of production by executive diktat, informed by little field experience, that made the TV programs monotonous and unrelatable to rural audiences.[11] Most significantly, the lack of change was due to the sheer weight of inherited habit and tradition in an agrarian political economy that was undergirded by caste, gender and class segregation. It could hardly be counteracted by distant, hurried pedagogy that left the socio-economic base unchanged.

Elsewhere, however, Galloway argues that spectators were utterly naïve, mistaking actors for characters, or eliciting surprise and confusion when an actor turned up across multiple programs.[12] So, we might ask: why did Galloway portray the rural spectator as simultaneously immersed in TV, yet naive? How do we square his idealized scene of immersion with the many frictions of transmission and exhibition? My contention is that immersion in the developmentalist context relied on a fantasy of activating the obedient subject.[13] In its ideal scene, the rural peasant subject is immersed in television, accepts the message of developmental programming, and adopts it within their social situation, whether it be making their diet more nutritious, changing hygienic habits, or adopting new cropping methods. The technocrats’ function on the other hand is to provide the model designs and scientific information—communication as information transfer. The positivist communication theories of Wilbur Schramm underlying SITE (cited repeatedly by the social scientists) ultimately relied on classical themes of imitation as the foundation of social orders borrowed from earlier sociologists like Gabriel Tarde. Even admitting communication gaps and deficits, effectiveness was always a question of recursively feeding more data from the field back into production, creating better representations for the rural audience to absorb and imitate. The participation of peasants in this developmentalist configuration meant merely being programmed.

In the informatic paradigms of the Cold War, being programmed—in the sense used for computers—meant obediently executing pre-written commands, such as closely following expert designs (and, if necessary, adapting to changing field conditions). Programming was explicitly tied to maintaining political domination over subaltern subjects, as when McLuhan wrote:

We are certainly coming within conceivable range of a world automatically controlled to the point where we could say, “Six hours less radio in Indonesia next week or there will be a great falling off in literary attention.” Or, “We can program twenty more hours of TV in South Africa next week to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio last week.” Whole cultures could now [with television] be programmed to keep their emotional climate stable in the same way that we have begun to know something about maintaining equilibrium in the commercial economies of the world.[14]

Programming was a question of creating self-governing yet stupid subjects, who adapt and execute the smart designs of expert planners and designers (rational, literate, often Western/ized) without questioning them. Paradoxically, being programmed was the precondition of political freedom for (semi-)illiterate, tribalized, Global South subjects, since their obedient, self-governing actions would free them from domination by brute force. In the context of SITE’s developmentalism, programming meant rural villagers were given the barest tools to remake and improve their lives as proto-neoliberal subjects, even in the absence of structural changes like the abolition of caste, gender and class divides, substantial access to state infrastructures or loans, or land reforms. This is perhaps why Galloway was so invested in perfectly behaved, obedient spectators: TV could be a new mode of minimal governance. The spectator’s perfect immersion was the first symptom that this hands-off governmentality worked.

Counterinsurgent Desire at the heart of Cold War Media History

It is ironic that Cold War media history has been misconstrued as a largely urban phenomenon, with its locus in the research labs of US (or more broadly, Global North) universities and immersive new media environments in expos and art galleries, given how much of it was beta-tested in the villages of the Global South. In fact, sometimes we overlook that the signature Cold War imaginary of a hyperconnected, global, immersive media condition—the media-world(s) we inherited—is Marshall McLuhan’s global village. As Ginger Nolan has shown, far from being a mere metaphor, McLuhan’s global village had conceptual inspirations in Cold War-era neocolonial experiments that took the African village as the locus of violent land and population management.[15] Particularly, McLuhan drew on the racist ethnopsychiatry of John Colin Carothers, who championed the forcible villagization programmes of British authorities in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion (1952-60), in which Kikuyu, Embu and Meru peoples were corralled into camps and subjected to British propaganda through traveling radio and cinema vans to prevent radicalization by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). While McLuhan’s global village utopically promised a “perpetual peace enabled by electronic communications,”[16] this peace was enabled by counterinsurgency achieved through coercive communications. It is in light of this counterinsurgent desire at the heart of Cold War media theory (and the practical experiments from which they arose) that we should read a project like SITE. This desire also permeated the positivist media studies and modernization theory-based sociology of authors like Daniel Lerner, Wilbur Schramm and Everett Rogers whose work—such as The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (1958) and Modernization Among Peasants: The Impact of Communication (1969)—gave the theoretical framework for the field of developmental communications. In my ongoing project on the question concerning technology (and media) in Cold War-era developmentalism, I study how the foundations of media theory and history were shaped by these counterinsurgent, developmentalist desires. The focus on the Cold War in media historiography has so far largely been concerned with Global North experts and their epistemologies. By attending to the rural field sites of projects like SITE, I hope to show how, in the failures and contestations of these expert designs, epistemologies and experiments, we can see the historical aporias of decolonization in the Global South.



[1] The Emergency was a two-year period of the complete suspension of civic and political rights during 1975-77, when hundreds of thousands of opposition activists and politicians were jailed, strikes banned, and independent journalism curbed. It represented both the high-point and crisis of Indira Gandhi’s governmentality: which saw a centralized, bureaucratic, authoritarian regime as the historically necessary form of implementing national reconstruction against all oppositional forces. Gyan Prakash, Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy's Turning Point (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2019). Return to text.

[2] Clarke served as a consultant on the SITE project, residing in Sri Lanka and providing frequent advisory services to international and US aid organizations involved in the project. It is noteworthy that Clarke's seminal article, "Extra-terrestrial relays," proposed the utilization of geostationary satellites for comprehensive planetary radio coverage. This groundbreaking concept, advocated by Clarke, significantly influenced NASA's decision to launch a series of geostationary satellites known as ATS for telecommunications, weather forecasting, broadcasting, and various other domains. In multiple respects, Clarke's quote represents a modest expression of accomplishment from a distinguished industry insider. Yash Pal, "A visitor to the village," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 33:1 (1977): 55-56. Return to text.

[3]One of India’s foremost physicists and scientific institution builders, Vikram Sarabhai hailed from a very prominent family of industrialists in Ahmedabad, who had historically been patrons of the Indian National Congress. As a result, he had the personal backing of PM Indira Gandhi. Return to text.

[4] On the last mile problem and technosolutionism, see Ashish Rajadhyaksha, The Last Cultural Mile: An Inquiry Into Technology And Governance In India (Bangalore: The Centre for Internet and Society, 2011). Return to text.

[5] Herbert and Richard Frenkel's World Peace Via Satellite Communications (1965), Wilbur Schramm’s Communication Satellites for Education, Science and Culture (1968), and William Platt’s Education by TV Satellite in Developing Countries (1970) were part of a fertile field of policy work aligned with the ideologies of modernization theory. Return to text.

[6] On rural development and anticommunism, see Nicole Sackley, “The village as Cold War site: Experts, development, and the history of rural reconstruction,” Journal of Global History 6 (2011): 481–504. Return to text.

[7] Since ISRO was housed initially within Homi J. Bhabha’s Atomic Research Centre in Ahmedabad and controlled by the Department of Atomic Energy, a satellite TV project would divert resources away from nuclear research. See Asif K. Siddiqi, “Whose India? SITE and the origins of satellite television in India,” History and Technology Vol. 36, Nos. 3-4 (2020): 452-474. Return to text.

[8] Sackley, “The village as Cold War site.” Return to text.

[9] Howard L. Galloway, Jr., Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE): Reports from the NASA Representative in India (Greenbelt, MD: Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, 1976), 36. Return to text.

[10] Even the lead ISRO social scientist admitted that rural audiences were more interested in the feature films shown as entertainment than the instructional TV programs. Binod C. Agrawal, SITE Social Evaluation: Results, Experiences and Implications (Ahmedabad: Space Applications Centre, ISRO, 1981), 60. Return to text.

[11] See first-hand reports by Jahnu Barua, Anju Daswani and Gopal Gupta in Binod C. Agrawal and Arbind K. Sinha, eds., SITE to INSAT: Challenges of Production and Research for Women and Children (New Delhi: Concept, 1986), 75-88. Return to text.

[12] Galloway, Jr., Reports, 8. Return to text.

[13] William Mazzarella, “‘Reality must improve’: The perversity of expertise and the belatedness of Indian development television,” Global Media and Communication 8(3) (2012): 222. Return to text.

[14] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 28. Return to text.

[15] Ginger Nolan, The Neocolonialism of the Global Village (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018). Return to text.

[16] Ibid., chapter 2. Return to text.


Sudipto Basu is a PhD student in Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University. He studies how theories of media and technology shaped Cold War-era developmentalist experiments in the Global South (with a special focus on India) and how technocratic modes of governance thwart political transformations for subaltern populations. He is a research associate on the SNSF-funded project Governing Through Design, and edits the online research portal Against Catastrophe.

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