By: Shashwati Ghosh

Perhaps, I am exaggerating but when three persons reach your house enquiring about your digital TV connection you may feel your leisure time is being inspected. When we used to visit the respondent-households as field researchers of the project “Tracking Access under Digitalization” for in-depth interviews, we made the reasons for our visit clear at the beginning itself. Television distribution (in comparison to television production or consumption) has received little academic attention in the literature on TV users. The study was precisely to understand the change in the TV distribution of our country in the wake of digitalisation of television distribution.

Introducing myself, I am a snooping field researcher who has to give attention to every detail when it comes to interviewing the various households for understanding their behaviour or experiences under this new system of digital television. I practice short-hand, not Kung-Fu. I do not breathe down my respondent’s neck except occasionally to catch my breath for a break from this arduous running-under-the-sun and sweating-your-glands-out kind of work while jotting down copious amounts of detailed notes. The most difficult part of this agonising process is locating the house where the respondent for the interview resides. Plus take into consideration electricity blackouts and pesky neighbours who become peeping-toms thinking we are taking a movie-shot instead of a research-interview! My aim of religiously observing is being severely tested every minute and second of my time here on this earth. I am courteous to the respondents when they offer me water or a cold drink but when you are on the job no amount of hospitality can really relax your nerves. So for keeping my life on toe-line every day I have to say that the life of a field researcher is no less than the life of a soldier in the battlefield. (Here I am exaggerating my ordeals, as the organisers had made sufficient arrangements for comfortable transport and refreshments in between two-interviews.)

The project seeks to understand the TV user’s experience post the transition from analogue cable TV to digital TV which has been a process of major changes in the economics and techno-infrastructure of TV distribution. The section of the research instrument that was focusing on the television history helped us document diverse voices of the old and new generation of TV users. The philosophy of access to media technologies involves both the process of acquiring new technologies and how the users respond to the new situations. The key questions which arise in this context are: Who forms the user? What is the market like? Why are some consumers more informed? Is there social exclusion or marginalisation resulting from this transition to digital distribution? Most importantly, is the digital TV technology benefiting the masses at all?

The places I visited for the in-depth interviews range from middle to lower middle-class households in Johri Farm and Taimoor Nagar; one-room households in Madanpur Khadar; HIG (High Income Group) flat in Sarita Vihar; even the posh locality of New Friends Colony; and the more humble brick shacks of Nai Basti and Masih Garh, Dalit majority settlement. The spaces occupied by these households may differ but the common uniting factor is that they are all ‘consumers’ living the digital Television era and using the services/ products of more or less few monopoly DTH and cable TV service providers like TATA Sky, Dish TV of Airtel or the popular DEN.

DSC02602A sub-sample of sixty households were taken from a sample of 1000 households from whom we enquired questions related to their experiences with buying a TV, using cable services and their transition to the digital set-top box. Usually, all members of the family were not present for the interview if the day was a working-day. So to gather the views of every member of the household was almost never possible. Still we were able to catch hold of the head of the family or those who could best provide us with useful information: like the grandfather if it were a joint family, the working lady of the house if it were a nuclear family, the working son, etc. I dare not say that this means that I excluded children’s voices from my sample. Wherever they were present, the interview became richer and real as I know how much I loved to watch cartoon channels as a youngster.

With the introduction of the Digital Addressable System (DAS), the importance of the Local Cable Operators seems to have been significantly reduced in the value chain of the television distribution. They have no option other than shifting to providing digital cable services. During the interviews, we found that the LCO for many of the users was a familiar household name and many of the users remember them only by their casual names or just faces. Now the delivery of the TV services has become much more systematic and addressable so that it does away with the fudging/ avoidance of taxes or under-reporting of the subscriber base by cable operators but it also takes away the camaraderie associated with cable entertainment. For many users now Set Top Box installation is a mechanical process i.e., technicians come for installation which includes proper paper work in comparison to the analogue days when only a friendly relationship with the LCO was enough to get the cable connection and also in many cases, to continue the connection without paying a single penny!.

The everydayness of leisure is changing in its character and contours. From the black and white shutter boxes with antennas many now own a flat screen high-end branded TV. But the fun in watching the Sunday dharavahik together in large numbers on Doordarshan has definitely altered! Watching TV is becoming more and more a solitary activity. With the availability of television content on the mobile phone screen through apps like ‘Hotstar’, different kinds of media are set to outdo and outpace each other. Thus, there is a semblance of competition among the broadcasters to produce diverse and innovative content but the distributors like MSOs and aggregators, through bundling and curating of bouquets in a particular way for a locality, limit the options available to the audiences.

Introduction of Subscribers Management System (SMS), made it impossible for the users to catch signals from neighbour’s connection if their own has disrupted! Again, if weather plays havoc with the satellite umbrella then we have no choice but to wait for the technician to come and fix it.

As a part of this fieldwork I managed to collect information that can be organized under various themes and sub-themes like demographic details regarding the respondent’s family, their television history, their acquiring of a set-top box connection, billing and payment, grievance redressal, etc.

I must say that the research instrument we used for the fieldwork is a bit ambitious in the sense that often the respondents are not able to furnish all information requested for as some of it is based on one’s memory which is difficult to recall with respect to questions like ‘what was the model of the first TV you purchased’? Thus, I realised very early on that for these kinds of questions hemming and hawing is a very common and natural reply.

In my opinion, technology has not been able to replace the novelty of real life. When I visited these households and interacted with its various members, it was a ‘real-life’ experience. Through this field-work I became aware of a part of Delhi which is socially diverse and heterogeneous.