If there were one underlying topic for this year's TV.NXT 2014, it would have to be digitisation. And yet, while speakers and delegates discussed monetisation and the way forward for broadcasters, producers and distributors, one part was being overlooked. Sevanti Ninan's session on 'digitisation and the demand for it at the bottom of the pyramid' provided the missing link.
Ninan, a media columnist and editor of The Hoot, shared the findings of her five-state study about television ownership and demand for free-to-air channel at the lower rung of society, on Day One of TV.NXT. This study was conducted by the Media Foundation and supported by the Ford Foundation. The sample for the same consisted of scheduled castes and tribes, OBCs and other working class population from some pockets where TAM does not reach. Ninan and her team of researchers went to Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Delhi and Odisha.
The data is based on household surveys in 13 villages, two semi urban areas and six urban slums, and 55 focus group discussions in these five states. She interviewed authorities from the public broadcast system, Prasar Bharati executives and Doordarshan programme personnel. Ninan realised that digitisation in rural areas is purely consumer driven. But there is no simple pattern in which rural areas consume content. Odisha is completely digitized while users in Chhattisgarh and Gujarat were dependent on cable. Even within Andhra Pradesh, while Butchayyapeta relied completely on cable, those in Chintapalle had almost completely converted to DTH system.
Ninan discussed that while DD's antennas are rapidly being replaced by DTH or cable, the extremely poor stuck to black and white television sets or sets with no connection. Interestingly, her study also throws some light on why the rural poor are shifting to DTH, even if it means going without milk or some other rations once in a while. Most consumers felt that the new system offered them more choices. Many of them also chose digitisation because of their children who want to watch sports or entertainment programmes.
Interestingly, regional language feed post digitisation has become extremely popular in certain pockets of Gujarat. The consumers watch Discovery and National Geographic channels in Hindi and other shows in Gujarati. Ninan concluded her discussion with the challenges.
While digitisation has given viewers a lot of quality content, what it still does not provide is the regional language of their choice. While DD Direct gives them a choice of 55 channels, private players like Tata Sky or Dish TV offer a bouquet of 150 or more channels. Additionally, information valuable to these viewers - like technical skills or job preparation skills are not given out on private channels. Women's health, self-help, empowerment are other topics which have gone missing from the television radar. But the biggest challenge seems to be unstable power connections where even if the set is available, no one can view their programmes of choice.
With digitization, savings have halved, some people borrowed money to buy set top boxes while others have had to take up additional jobs to recharge connections. According to Ninan, therefore, while digitisation has increased choice and quality, it led to the reduction of one key factor - affordability.