By: Vibodh Parthasarathi/Associate Prof./CCMG

Settling into my room in Patna, in a guesthouse tucked away in the central but residential locality of Nageshwar Colony, by habit I switched on the TV, the AC, the mosquito zapper and prompted my laptop to search for the wi-fi. As the visibly new LCD TV quietly came to life, I was greeted with the sign “No Entitlement!” (original exclamation).

 Following the mandatory digitalization of cable distribution, introduced thru legislation in December 2011, can access to TV be seen thru the lens of entitlement? Since Amartya Sen is preoccupied in other parts of Bihar, it was left to me ponder over what “entitlement” could mean in the context of receiving digital TV signals.

 Patna is classified as a Phase-2 city, like 38 other cities with a population of over 10 million, unevenly spread across the country. While Maharashtra has as many as 8 Phase-2 cities, states like Bihar have only one. All 38 had to comply with mandatory digitalization from 31st March 2014—following the four Phase-1 cities, which were the first to comply with the mandatory switchover by 31st October 2012.

 Post-digitalisation when we subscribe to cable, our minimum monthly tariff, mandated by TRAI-MIB to be Rs.75, gets us Free to Air satellite channels. This is the Basic Tier package, which perhaps could be seen as a “right” for all cable subscribers. Significantly, this package is supposed to include, by law, five terrestrial channels of the public broadcaster— DD National, DD News, two parliament channels, and the regional channel of DD where a subscriber is located. This stems from extending the right to view public interest channels of the government, which are accessible terrestrially for free, to households accessing satellite TV through cable. Beyond the basic tier, channels we wish to view are to be paid for; this could be either on an a la carte basis, in accordance with regulation, or as a bundle/bouquet, as is the reality of offerings by cable providers. These paid channels can be said to form our “leisure entitlements”.

 As this regulatory history flashed thru my mind, “No Entitlement!” continued to patiently give me a stare thru a 39” HD TV, while I unpacked by knapsack. This was ominous, since this short visit was to expressly join my colleague, Arshad, who coordinates interviewing TV households across two cities, conducting fieldwork in Patna since a fortnight. The objective: to inquire how subscribers are coping with the compulsory introduction of digital set top boxes. The purpose: to examine the impact of digitalization in the distribution segment of the worlds’s most complex broadcast market. The impact we have sought to investigate, as part of our larger TAD research initiative, is on both, the leisure entitlements of viewers and the commercial operations of actors in the value chain of distribution.

 Patna has been a late bloomer in the TV market. In the last decade, Bihar was not even considered being in the “national” sample to measure TRPs. By 2013, Bhojpuri channels crept in to the wagon wheel of viewership of regional channels. Bhojpuri is the only language outside the 8 principal regional TV markets of India that saw adaptations of successful Hindi entertainment programming. In 2014, when Dainik Bhaskar launched its Patna edition forcing incumbent national and regional competitors, Dainik Jagran and Prabhat Khabar, to slash their cover prices, Zee acquired Maurya TV (initiated by film director turned part-time politician Prakash Jha), and re-launched it as Zee Purvaiya. At a juice shop, I notice a young (but not unaccompanied) girl with a guitar slung on her back, as is common in Delhi over the last few years. Anurag, who heads the interview team in Patna, is quick to explain: “Reality TV ka thoda asar pada hai”.

 Patna forms a worthy comparison with Delhi, the den of Hindi TV, to examine the coping mechanisms of subscribers-viewers to the introduction of digital set top boxes. Of course both cities share a sense of urban chaos, albeit at different scales. However, the 0.35 million household cable market in Patna is neatly divided into two commercial geographies, effectively monopolised by a national player, Siti Cable, and a regional player, Darsh. The rapidly expanding national entrant, DEN, has its eyes on Patna, as on some other Phase-2 cities, wanting to enhance its inroads though organic and inorganic mechanisms.

 During my stay (between 3-6 April 2015) in the city, I accompanied the fieldwork team to couple of houses in the areas of PC Colony (Kankarbagh), Hajjam Toli (Daldali), Park Road (Kadam Kuan), Issopur (Phulwari Sharif), etc.

 In April 2013, TRAI directed MSOs to ensure their subscriber management system (SMS) is operational before providing digital signals—and relay TV channels only to those subscribers whose name, address, choice of channel etc. are entered in the SMS. MSOs were to provide a compliance report by May 2013—a deadline, unlike that of the digitalisation of Phase-2 cities, has been repeatedly extended. The defining cause is their own weakness in ensuring uniformity in the types of STBs seeded, which has hampered creating a common SMS. Similarly, for Phase-2 cities TRAI had to extend the date for MSOs completing the collection of customer application forms (CAF). Trade reports suggest Patna is one of 4 Phase-2 cities with 80 percent CAF collection by Jan 2014. On the ground, however, we find an abysmal rate of compliance to gather customer CAF, introducing gross billing and rolling out channel packages—which slowly commenced 21 months after it was supposed to. This has hampered genuine Addressability, or the ability to choose our digital entitlements— i.e. which of the typically 400 channels belched out by the digital pipes we really want to subscribe to. I immediately recall what a senior government official recently confided: what we have fairly successfully managed is Digitalisation— but we are far from achieving Addressability.

 For once, what was on my TV was accurate: the era of No Entitlement continues.

Note: This write-up was written in April 2015.