THE WARNING WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO MISS. Throughout October, television screens in Delhi would go out for several nerve-racking seconds every day, before resuming with a stern reminder from the broadcasters’ association: install set-top boxes if you want to keep watching TV.
Leading up to the digitisation deadlines—1 November for the metros, next April for the rest of India—broadcasters will begin to black out entire categories indefinitely to give you a sense of how serious things are. The sequence planned for these blackouts is revealing of relative popularity: English movie channels will be the first to go, then Hindi movie channels, followed by news channels, and finally Hindi entertainment channels. So if you don’t buy a set-top box before your deadline, you’re staring at a lifetime of blank screen.
If you do go digital, then the options, they promise, are unlimited. Since digital signals can carry a lot of data at a time without distortion, a lot more will be on offer in news and entertainment than we presently have. But before you make that decision, and imagine that future, take a detached view of where television stands 20 years after satellite TV began to broadcast into India, and cable channels expanded rapidly across the country, spurred on by our desire for more entertainment options than Doordarshan could offer. Its physical growth is easy enough to see (500 channels, more than 100 million households), but how did the liberalisation of the broadcasting industry shape TV entertainment in India? What we like to watch says a lot about us, whether we like it or not. Any leap in TV entertainment, irrespective of the carrier, will be based on what our prevailing ideas are of a good show—so let’s review what those are.