Making meaning from conflicting narratives: The ethnography of Digital Addressable System
Television as a medium underwent profound changes at the beginning of the twenty-first century mainly due to the advent of the digital. The drive towards television digitalization began in India around 2001 when the prohibition on the reception and distribution of television signals in Ku band was lifted by the Indian Government, to allow the operation of Direct to Home (DTH) television services. Later, in the year 2011, an ordinance was passed by the Indian government making the digitalization of cable services mandatory. This mandatory digitalization brought substantial changes in the television industry not only in terms of investment or technology but also in terms of power and control. Thus, distribution, governance, and public policy related to digitalization becomes important in order to locate the different practices, strategies, and challenges inherent in a neoliberal developing country. However, since my PhD dissertation focuses on the cable television industry and directly relates to various trade information and business practices, often one of the major concerns of doing ethnographic fieldwork was to deal with discursive anxiety. This short piece deals with some pressing concerns related to doing ethnography in the field of digital distribution of television broadcasting in West Bengal.
It was always difficult to ascertain whether or not my respondents were particularly presenting their accounts with the aim to underline or obscure certain aspects of confidential business information or trade secrets related to the industry. For example, almost all the Local Cable Operators (LCOs) eschewed the question in relation to their share of profit during the analogue distribution system. Moreover, the deeply hierarchical industry structure was inscribed in the narratives of the respondents. The local cable operators are evidently worried about divulging their business practices and even to provide names for further interactions. The complex web of local political interference and the thought of tacit understanding between the authorities made them initially reluctant to talk freely. Most of the LCOs asked not to disclose their actual names and often categorically asked not to mention that they had a discussion with me to other industry professionals. “What are you going to do with this interview exactly?” was a question often asked to me by some of the LCOs I interviewed. They were even concerned about the other people I talked to or was going to talk to. “Why are you interested in this industry?” was a question that was repeatedly asked by almost all the stakeholders.
A number of studies on methodological reflections reveal that all ethnographies are interpretations of experience from the specific subject position of the ethnographer. This awareness of reflexivity allowed me to negotiate my subject position and my anxieties of being a middle-class consumer of Digital Addressable System, while doing my fieldwork. The rhetoric of benefiting the public is a notion laid out by the government time and again. It thus appears that the viewers are the ones who are benefited the most through the implementation of the Digital Addressable System. In order to understand these changes, it is important to understand the agency of the customers, as according to the claims of the government and industry, they are the ones who are “supposed” to be benefited the most by the digitalization process. Better quality signals, more choice, paying for only the channels chosen, easy selection of channels through the Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) are some of the benefits claimed to be offered to the customers after the shift.
In order to understand what customers actually understood by this change, I decided to talk to them and in doing so, I started with the houses located in my neighbourhood. Most of the people, I interviewed, were aware of the set-top box, as they were using it in their houses, but they were clueless about the necessity of digitalization. They were not aware of their freedom to choose and chose their preferred channels as a part of the bouquet offered by their LCOs. It is to be noted that these people were aged mostly between 29–60 and for them, TV was the primary viewing medium. On the question of how the shift from analogue to digital TV has affected them, most of them answered “It has increased our costs. We have to pay more now.” They also complained about not being able to watch their favourite channels for some weeks due to reasons unknown to them. “I called my cable operator and asked him to resume back the channels. I have known him from his childhood days so I am sure he is doing his best.” At times, the respondents had a personal relationship with the cable operators as the cable business in the neighborhood is usually operated by someone already known to the local residents.
Nonetheless, the conflicting relationship between the various stakeholders has offered me layered and productive material to work with. However, such diverging narratives have often created much uncertainty to understand the nuances of the ongoing practices of digitalization as well. As I grapple with such pressing concerns, I am able to recognize that ethnographic writings can become a dialogue between conflicting narratives, partial truths and diverging opinion,s which in turn may provide a framework for studying them.
Sushmita Pandit is an Assistant Professor at the Future Media School, Kolkata, and is pursuing her PhD from Jadavpur University, Kolkata