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Digital capitalism

Print edition : Nov 16, 2012 T+T-
ANTENNAS of the government-run Arasu Cable TV Corporation in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.-M. SRINATH

ANTENNAS of the government-run Arasu Cable TV Corporation in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.-M. SRINATH

If the television viewer is at the mercy of the service provider, the state too seems to be taking its digital media policy cues from the very industry that will exploit it.

THE television screen turns into a static charge of salt and pepper hiss. If you have the patience to linger to find out why, without instantly switching to another channel, you will eventually learn that this is what is in store for you if you are living in one of the four metros; if you are served by cable, not DTH (direct to home); and if you do not put in place that digital set-top box by the end of October. It is a portentous public interest advertisement which serves notice on an analogue media era and prepares to usher in the digital-only realm of television viewing.

It is part of building the momentum, in the wake of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Act of 2011, towards a total changeover to digital distribution via cable in four stages: the four metros by October 31 this year; cities with a population of over a million by March 31, 2013; all other urban centres by the end of September 2014; and the rest of the country by the end of the calendar year 2014. The conversion is both a legal and a technological imperative. Digitise or perish is the writing on the wall. You are damned if you do not.

It is not as self-evident, though, that youre not damned if you do. The democratic logic of digitisation is better, cheaper, more equitable access and choice for the consumer. The analogue hierarchy of a clutch of channels on prime band that register effulgent clarity in picture and sound followed by a longish tail of poor and poorer cousins on the less and lesser bands with inferior, even indifferent, visual and audio quality is, in the digital mode, replaced by a qualitative constant across the board where the look and feel of each channel directly reflect the production input and values of its content and there is no distribution diffusion. That would be the one obvious change and would itself certainly make the difference between night and day for those yet stuck with analogue signals.

But the investments required for the digital rollout and spread, the high-end consumerist appetites and values they privilege, and the sheer scale of the operation put the business of digital cable networking out of the league and out of the reach of the small- or medium-scale entrepreneur. This new regime in the media sector, as much as the policy and the law that propel it, is made to order for digital capitalism.

The fat cats of the business have already begun to parse the law to suit their rapacity, but are couching it in terms of the best interests of the consumer. The path to digitisation is paved with their good intentions. A recent conclave on Media and Entertainment Business organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in Chennai revealed, to mix metaphors, their itchy palms in velvet gloves. In a panel discussion on opportunities in the digitised era, the participants, who were among the major stakeholders from the content and distribution side of the industry, seemed in no doubt that the raison detre of digitisation was consolidation and vertical integration of their businesses. There was a queer money-minded nostalgia for the business advantages of the analogue market being left behind, even as they scrambled to take over the digital El Dorado of the future. They would, if they could, have the best of both worlds, analogue and digital.

And so, while they are agreed that digitisation would enable upscaled quality, they are even more agreed that consumers must be prepared to pay more for it; and we naively thought digital meant lower costs. The revenue model in digital cable networks is, typically, subscription driven so that advertisements do not hog and clutter airtime. But there is a clear reluctance to part with advertisement revenues, and the upshot may well be that even as we pay more we will continue to be subject to long stretches of commercials interrupting programmes (as the witticism goes, a programme on television is what happens between advertisements).

Then there is the question of carriage fees, which acquires critical importance in a situation where, more than ever before, how to get to be seen is the despair of every new television channel. Thanks to digitisation, the bandwidth required for one analogue transponder or channel is compressed to spin off five or six new ones, making the transponder the leastfrom the mostexpensive component in the outlay for a new channel. But with so many channels (there are over 600 on air now and as many or more awaiting licences) jostling with one another for distribution, and with no norms or rules in place, the big multi service operators (MSOs), like their DTH counterparts, have been charging exorbitant and whimsical carriage fees, skewing the field strongly in favour of the big media corporations which can cough up such amounts, with hefty additional premiums for prime placements. Those who cannot afford this are left out in the cold, and there are so many instances of new channels having to repeatedly delay their launch because of this acute distribution squeeze that the whole process seems ridiculously weighed against the small and medium players.

Showcasing fee

All this is, ostensibly, set to change in the digital milieu because the carriage capacity expands manifold to ensure an outlet for each licensed channel and on the same band as every other. And yet neither channel nor MSO seems willing to give up the carriage fee idea unless the regulatory authority, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), or the nodal Information and Broadcasting Ministry specifically prohibits it in the new dispensation. Even then, or so went the thinking on the FICCI panel, there could be a showcasing fee to, say, place a channel next to a popular one, or a price to become part of a special bouquet of upmarket channelsthus in effect re-hierarchising the digital realm. The big league channels, faced with the prospect of losing their costly but exclusive premium positions in the analogue order, may also be perfectly happy to go along with, and pay what it takes for, this discriminatory tweaking of the new system to procure their higher visibility slots afresh in the pecking order.

If content is king, goes the well-worn saying in the industry, distribution must be god. Digitisation is not about to upset that order. If the growing concentration of distributive power in the hands of a monopolistic cartel of MSOs was already a problem, this kind of digitisation will further marginalise and imperil the independent local cable operator (LCO), the local self-employed entrepreneur who provides and services last-mile connectivity. The innate democratising and devolutionary urge of digital technology, which could have been harnessed by the government to set up tens of thousands of such neighbourhood cable operators under pan regional umbrella MSOs, is stood on its head in this top-down imposition of a corporate model prescribed and defined by big capital. The reigning media oligopolynot the consumer, not the last-mile operatorbecomes the biggest beneficiary of TRAIs digitisation initiative.

Kerala counter-initiative

A counter-initiative in Kerala tells us it could be different. Over 2,300 independent cable operators here, banded as an association and claiming as much as 45 per cent share of the nearly 50 lakh TV households in the State, have formed themselves into a public limited company, Kerala Communicators Cable Limited (KCCL), to take on the function of a professional MSO platform and meet their digitisation deadline of September 2014. The confederation has leased signal carriage capacity on the optic fibre lines of the Indian Railways and the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) so that it has reach through the length of the State. It is befitting that this is happening in Kerala, where the first State-wide cable TV network in the country, using the electricity poles across the State under an agreement with the KSEB and with an elaborate system of franchisees as the local cable operators, was set up as far back as 1992.

An alternative model where the state undertakes the responsibility for laying and managing the cable and satellite (C&S) network, becoming in effect the MSO, is the government-run Arasu Cable TV enterprise in Tamil Nadu which, as this goes to press, is racing against time to meet the deadline of October 31 to have the digital set-top boxes installed in all its subscriber households in Chennai. The company, with 58 lakh (and counting) subscribers in the State and over 2,000 LCOs under its aegis, has announced a base fee of Rs.70 for a package of 100 free to air (as against pay) channels. Now that looks more like the legitimate economics of digitisation at work at the consumer end. But the credibility, not to mention sustainability, of this public interest venture is tied to the fluctuating fortunes of the polarised party politics in the State, particularly because one of the two main parties which alternate in power has strong family links with the biggest media player in the State.

These two examples illustrate, at least in their potential or intent, the possibility of a different organisation, economics and social architecture of digitisation in cable TV networking that is local-operator-centric, more attuned to the cultural appetite and price sensitivity of the end user, is not appropriated by the distant big corporation, and is bottom-up in its approach. This is what the government and TRAI should have set out to enable in the first place, instead of making this historic juncture of a standards conversion and a sea change in technology, with such far-reaching social implications, an occasion for a business bonanza.

The sagacity with which the renowned media and cultural theorist Raymond Williams underscores this policy choice aspect, even though his mind was engaging with it in the 1980s when digitisation was not as much a fact of life as it is now, is remarkable. The moment of any new technology, writes Williams in his essay Culture and Technology, is a moment of choice. Within existing social and economic conditions, the new systems will be installed as forms of distribution without any real thought of corresponding forms of production. New cable or cable-and-satellite television will rely heavily on old entertainment stocks and a few cheap services. New information systems will be dominated by financial institutions, mail-order marketers, travel agencies and general advertisers. These kinds of content, predictable from the lines of force of the economic system, will be seen as the whole or necessary content of advanced electronic entertainment and information. More seriously, they will come to define such entertainment and information, and to form practical and self-fulfilling expectations. Yet there are readily available alternative uses. New cable and cable-satellite television systems, and new teletext and cable-signal systems, could be wholly developed within public ownership, not for some old or new kind of monopoly provider, but as common-carrier systems which would be available, by lease and contract, to a wide range of producing and providing bodies.

In a situation where cross-media holdings have not been barred and where monopolies straddling print, television, FM radio and the nascent but rapidly growing Internet sectors have become a fait accompli, competition between cable and DTH, too, is for a good part notional because the bigger players own and operate both businesses. This and digital standardisation and consolidation across platforms make for a consumer at the receiving end who, to borrow freely from Henry Ford, can have any service at any price he wants as long as it is what the provider provides. If the consumer is at the mercy of the service provider, the state too seems to be at the mercy of the firm, taking its cues for a policy framework for the digital media market from the very industry that will exploit it. Else, wide discussion and debate in the public sphere, distinct from the charades in TV studios, should have preceded such a significant transition. Here was an opening, an opportunity, for the state to give meaning and substance to the Supreme Court judgment of 1995 that airwavesas in radio spectrumare public property. In the absence of the political will to make them so, they will increasingly serve private ends.