by  Susan Koshy

Media diversity as a policy objective is implied in many of the decisions that are taken by the government but as a corollary, it is also important to ensure that the viewer is able to have a greater say on what he or she wants to watch.

The opening up of the markets and the removal of government monopoly over broadcast has also resulted in a plethora of channels that have proliferated over the past two decades. Due to various issues plaguing the sector, especially under-reporting of subscriber base allegedly by the Local Cable Operators (LCOs), the government proposed that the television distribution in the country should be made addressable. Digitization- a process that is still underway- is largely a consequence of this.

A perusal of the debates and the reports from the Parliament and the TRAI Consultation Papers reveal that the central argument put forth by the government for digitalization of cable TV was that it provided greater choice for the consumer. After the two phases have been rolled out in the four metros and 38 cities with ‘reported’ success, it becomes pertinent to question the extent of choice that this shift has brought for the subscribers.

The manner in which the project of digitization of television distribution was introduced in the country was probably indicative of the lack of choice that was to follow in the digitized regime. The shift was mandatory as it was backed by an amendment to the Cable TV Network Act 1995. With ads that threatened that the viewers would not be able to continue watching television if they did not shift, there was no question of whether the viewer ‘wanted’ to shift to a digital distribution. In the case of most viewers, the shift to a digital set up, which would have entailed adding of the Set Top Boxes to their Television sets, was probably the first time that they would have realized that the distribution entails factors apart from their Local Cable Operators (LCOs). The primary concern for them until then, would have been that they get the channels that they wish to watch which in most cases could be achieved by making a call to the LCOs. It was promised that this shift would provide them with more number of channels, better picture and sound quality and a greater agency in choosing what they wish to watch.

As was promised, a digital connection did allow a subscriber to select the channels s/he wants to watch and pay for those as opposed to being forced to pay for all the channels that is beamed by the cable operator. However, the choice that is effectively offered to the subscribers is between packages which are created by the cable operators. It is assumed that a package is prepared to cater to the tastes of the public. It is when a viewer wishes to subscribe to a channel which is not a part of the bouquet that one realizes that it is a Hobson’s choice. The a-la-carte prices or the individual prices of the channels are much higher than those of the bouquets, thus effectively leaving little room for a ’choice’. There have been reported cases where distributors refuse to give a channel on a-la-carte basis, forcing the viewer to take a whole package when all that was desired for were probably  one or two channels. Also the reality varies in different locations and service providers. It was revealed in a Focus Group Discussion in Patna that there is no option of a-la-carte channels available in the city. Also, in the case of the on- going Cricket World Cup matches for which Star has acquired the exclusive rights for broadcast, there have been cases where people are required to subscribe to the channel separately despite having taken the subscription earlier.

The TRAI regulations have mandated in public interest that the MSOs should provide a Basic Tier at 100 INR that should mandatorily contain channels from the different genres, as listed in the regulation. This pack, in common parlance is called the Janta Pack, which usually comes up to around 150 INR including taxes, etc. It is not very popular as it largely contains Free to Air channels that are not preferred by many people. It was also reported by the LCOs during the FGD that the channels of the Janta Pack that become popular over a period of time are shifted to more expensive bouquets which forces the subscriber to migrate to continue watching the channel. This is particularly common in the case of Sports channels, since its demand spikes during specific sporting events.

Given the fact that the entire spirit behind digitization was to make the sector more regulated and manageable, it is important that the TRAI gets involved more closely to ensure that the interests of the viewers are protected in this new scenario.

This write up is based on an FGD conducted with Local Cable Operators  in Patna on 23 January 2015 by members of the ‘Tracking Access under Digitalization’ Team.