Cable digitization and the poor

A country that recognizes its extreme inequalities has to find ways to administer policy transition better,
says ABHISHEK K CHOUDHARY. PIX: Women in Kalyanpuri

When the news about the government’s decision to digitize television subscription came out two years ago, it drew applause from everywhere. The popular perception was that the broadcasters had been making losses due to demand-side corruption: that is the under-reporting of the number of subscribers by the cable reporters. It was assumed that digitization, by rendering the operators relatively powerless in the delivery chain, would curb the under-reporting, thereby leading to an increase in revenues—for both the broadcasters as well as the government.   

Though delayed by a few months, digitization is now in its advanced phase. This basically means that every individual TV set in the country would now compulsorily require a set top box; the subscribers can then—depending on their preferences and affordability—avail either of the four options of access: cable with set top box, Direct To Home (DTH), Doordarshan’s terrestrial connection with/without the antenna, and Doordarshan’s subscription-free DTH platform, DD direct.  

The government is earning taxes; and while some of the major private broadcasters—NDTV, Network 18, Zee Media Corporation—continue to make losses in 2014, the losses have come down. In the overall digitization debate, though, something significant had been completely missed out. It was never probed who these under-reported users were: could it be that most of them were households from the bottom of the economic hierarchy? Could it be, for example, that through an arrangement with the operators the residents of poor localities were availing cable services at a lower price than the residents in the better-off localities? (On the other hand, it wouldn’t matter if the under-reported people were mostly from the middle or upper income brackets.)

There is really no way to know. But a new research study conducted by The Media Foundation on the TV-viewing patterns of the lowest income groups shows that the poor have been at the receiving end of the digitization process. While this study was conducted over two years across five states—Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Odisha—for  this article I would only focus on Delhi, the national capital and an urban state where even the poorest of households have owned a television set (and very often more than one) for long.

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The study was conducted in six slum areas of Delhi (almost all of whose households fall under socio-economic classification E): Kalyanpuri, Subhash Camp, Ramchand Basti, Saboli Khadda, Rajasthani Camp, and Tulsiram Bagicha. The information gathered was both qualitative and quantitative.

Some of the important findings are:

  1. A majority of subscribers in the post-digitization period prefer cable with a set top box over the DTH: 65-70 percent of respondents across the six areas used cable with set top box; 25-30 percent reported using DTH; the rest accessed free DD Direct and Doordarshan with/without antenna. People who prefer the DTH over cable with set top box do so because the DTH is relatively cheaper and allows flexibility of payment. 
  2. There was a time-gap in switching to the digitized version: some households—especially the ones who went on to use DTH—shifted within two-three months; others waited anywhere between three months and a year (hoping the government would reverse the decision) and then switched to the cable or DTH; some among them simply could never afford enough money to buy the set top box.
  3. The delay was caused mostly due to an increased cost: the set top box for every TV set requires a one-time investment of anywhere between Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 1,500. Then there is a monthly charge, depending on the chosen package, of Rs. 200 or 250 or 300. In the pre-digitization, on the other hand, all they paid was a monthly charge of Rs. 50-100.  
  4. Poverty is not the biggest deterrent to paying more for a TV subscription: some households used their savings, or took loans, to purchase the set top box; others said they had to cut expenditures on basics such as food, shopping and travelling. (Reminder: the monthly income of these households was often between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 8,000.)
  5. A large percentage of respondents said even though they preferred the diversity that digitization provided (in terms of number of channels and quality of shows), they were overall less satisfied with the current service. So while the TV-viewing experience post digitization is significantly better, the fact that poor have to paying significantly more now reduces the satisfaction level.
  6. People are no more inclined to watching the public broadcaster Doordarshan, mostly because of an outdated content as compared to other channels; the ones who do, do so mostly because they can’t afford a cable with set top box or DTH.  

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The summary is: transparency is a noble cause; and government or broadcasters earning more than what they used to is also welcome. But: the economic burden of transition shouldn’t be borne by the poorest section. To be sure digitization can still be a boon for the poor—if, for example, they are allowed to choose channels of their requirement and pay only for them (the packages that are currently available are less than flexible). But a country that recognizes its extreme inequalities must also find in advance ways to administer such transition better.   


See full study here:

Post-digitization changes in TV viewing patterns

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