Market forces may decree that millions of viewers can no longer afford the television service they have had many years, unless the government takes pre-emptive steps to treat television as a public utility and guarantees citizens access to it.

The wave of consolidation in the television industry over the last few days has been reported mainly as a commercial story. But the implications extend far beyond the media industry per se. We are in a new phase of media growth, with greater economies of scale for business promoters, and far more viewing options for those who can afford them. Affordability for the wider public is the subject that remains a big question.

India's democracy rests among other things, on a free media, but this may soon change in one important respect. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Bill 2011, passed in Parliament recently, makes full digitisation of cable television across the country mandatory in three years. The rationale is that digitisation will provide more and better channels, and value-added services that benefit the consumer. Cable service providers and broadcasters will be able to monitor their subscriber base, determine what channels they get and at what price — decisions the local cable operator used to make.

Corporate control

But most importantly, digitisation enables large corporates to control a greater segment of the hitherto fragmented television market. Note that the largest cable service providers are already owned by broadcasting companies: Star owns Hathway Cable, ZEE owns Dish, and Sun owns Sumangali Cable Vision. Since the bill passed, Reliance Industries has invested in TV18, and has announced plans to acquire a 26 per cent stake in cable operators. With the expected doubling of revenues due to digitisation, we can expect further consolidation, with telecom companies acquiring more stakes in the media. Big players will grow much bigger, and small businesses will suffer.

One immediate result will be that consumers can no longer negotiate rates and viewing options with their local cable operators (LCOs). Currently, broadcasters claim they receive only about a quarter of the fees that viewers pay for their programmes, because LCOs under-report subscribers and gain disproportionate revenues.

LCOs, of whom there are more than 60,000, have been crucial in making cable service available across the country, albeit through mostly non-legal means. The bill will prevent them from bypassing the digital set-top box, and deciding the mix and price of channels according to locality and customer base. The bill will also shift the balance of power away from LCOs to cable service providers and TV broadcasters, and ensure that the latter control the flow of revenues. This fact is ignored in most of the celebration that has greeted the new legislation.

Market forces may decree that millions of viewers can no longer afford the television service they have had many years, unless the government takes pre-emptive steps. And in a context where media self-regulation has become the credo, such action by the government will be regarded as interference by the industry, and needs to be defended with a communications policy. There is none at present.

Growth of media coverage and expansion of the audience reached have always been presupposed in Indian media policy, and were meant to serve state goals of information, education, and entertainment. Today it is an article of faith that only the market can efficiently provide media to the people.

Broadcasting for most of the post-independence period was considered part of the national infrastructure, and was treated as a natural monopoly of the state. Today media industry leaders suggest the government should consider television as a non-essential item, and as an optional commodity. In other words, we are asked to believe that what was infrastructure has suddenly become superstructural and akin to a disposable good. But there is no reason to adopt such a view.

‘Hard' and ‘soft'

Like roads, railways and electric power stations, television communication, or telecommunication, is also infrastructure. Infrastructure provides the raw materials, e.g., food, energy, and information, to make the environment we inhabit and shape. Infrastructure thus connects the visible and the invisible. Hence it is both ‘hard' and ‘soft.' Thus telecommunication's ‘hardness' is reflected in broadcasting towers, cable and satellite dishes. It is also ‘soft,' being composed of sounds and images, of oral, written and body language, through which we perceive and communicate with others. Infrastructure thus has both technological and cultural aspects. When television becomes privatised, that is not simply a series of individual private choices but a matter of collective concern, and the government has to consider its implications for society.

Television is the source of information for the largest number of people across the country. It is true that Doordarshan even in its heyday was watched for its films and entertainment rather than for its news and current affairs programmes. Today commercial TV has created many more venues for public discussion and debate through news, current affairs, reality TV, and entertainment. Meanwhile Doordarshan's viewers are mainly rural, poor, and lack other options. Those who have had the means to choose have gone for commercial channels. This was possible because local cable operators offered services based on people's ability to pay.

Broadcasters and cable companies can, by contrast, maximise revenues to deliver value to their shareholders. The subscriber base may decrease, but corporates expect to make more money through the operation of market forces. And the new bill has been passed without any guarantees for the poorest viewers who can be offloaded if they cannot afford market rates.

Sixty per cent or more of India's population is estimated to lack food security. Will they spend on television rather than on food? Or should the government treat television as a public utility, as some States are now doing, and subsidise consumer access to it?

If the latter happens, the media industry is clearly worried that content regulation by the state will be next on the agenda. But by trying to downplay the significance of communication, the industry is only making it more, not less, likely that the government will step in. What is needed is a more intelligent and proactive stance, acknowledging that an emerging market is also an emerging public, one whose attributes cannot be treated as fixed. That requires a visionary communications policy and not simply a focus on the bottom line.

Unlike China, India has chosen a slower and more incremental path of social change. Whereas China's communications policy emphasises conformity with state ideology, communication in India needs to be both a medium of dissent and a means for promoting reform.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry was until recently such a crucial portfolio that only senior politicians took charge of it. It was considered a stepping-stone to higher things. Indira Gandhi, I.K. Gujral and L.K. Advani were I&B Ministers. Two became Prime Minister, and the third, Deputy Prime Minister. It is in the liberalisation era that I&B diminished in importance. The airwaves became decontrolled in this period, and the ministry's revenues began to decline, partly because the government saw the success of the media and entertainment industry as showcasing economic reforms.

This meant that the broadcasting infrastructure built at enormous expense from the 1975 Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) onwards, that resulted in one of the largest terrestrial broadcasting networks in the world, was quietly de-listed as not a priority sector any more.

Why? Because economic reforms took priority over development-oriented communications. Doordarshan mainly emphasised entertainment over news and current affairs as a kind of censorship, to curtail dissent. Economic reforms themselves happened without parliamentary debate. Stealth, not public discussion, was the vehicle of India's liberalisation. But as the recent debacle around FDI-in-retail should suggest, stealth is no longer a viable means of achieving reforms. India's emerging market has an emerging and argumentative public that needs to be engaged, not threatened or lulled with misleading assurances.

Way of the future

Digitisation is clearly the way of the future. It will assist in the growth of broadband, and can help to direct revenues towards the production of higher quality programming. But if the media industry is given a free hand in digitisation, it can lead to the abrupt disenfranchisement of scores of millions of citizens, who will be shut out of communications they now take for granted. That is a political cost bound to escalate over time, and must be avoided. Ensuring the widest possible reach for digitisation should be understood as part of the reform process. As media consolidation accelerates, it should be remembered that in an emerging public, the most important voices may be those that are not yet heard.

(Arvind Rajagopal is Professor of Media Studies at New York University. He can be reached at ar67 @ nyu.edu.)

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