TRAI’s new cable TV pricing plan, the death of appointment-based content consumption, end of serendipity in content discovery and Netflix’s Bandersnatch

I pay about Rs.750 to Tata Sky for a LOT of TV channels I/we do not watch. So, in principle, the new TRAI order that lets us pay only for those channels we want to watch sounds fantastic, at least on paper.

So, wife and I had a serious discussion on how to go about it, even though we haven’t got any intimation from Tata Sky yet, beyond a scrolling text that they will reach out to customers soon, in the default (100) channel. We started with what she watches on TV (since I watch precious little TV as such beyond random, pointless surfing that lasts all of 15-20 minutes, where I look at older Hindi movies). But she had to, for the first time in her life, really put in some effort to recall which channels she watches frequently – beyond the usual Sun TV, Vijay TV, Masterchef that were specific names of channels or TV programs, all her names were genres: English movies, Tamil movies, news and so on.

My son and daughter were more focused – specific channels and programs, and timings, because they are allowed (by us, of course) to indulge in small time bands (chosen by them) of 30 minutes at one go usually. When time is limited, you try to make the best of it by being specific, as the kids do. But for us adults, the options are technically unlimited – time and channels. Because it seems unlimited, we don’t have the compulsion to pick specific things to watch except for rare exceptions which are determined by perceived quality (Masterchef, that wife watches; or Koffee With Karan, that we watch together, for example).

The bottomline is that for most adults, we are spoilt with unlimited choices when it comes to cable TV. The monthly fee could be anywhere between Rs. 300-1000 (more or less) and we seem to have an endless list of channels to browse from. That illusion of choice takes a hit with the new TRAI plan (see more: Bloomberg Quint | Best Media Info), that, at least on paper, seems to be intended right. What it does away with is the unlimited’ness of what we pay for – it is definitely an illusion because we don’t even know how many channels we get in ‘bouquets’ (as they are sold to us by channels). But it is a good illusion, however irrational, to pay for, much like the jargons and abbreviations that brands add to their products to somehow convince us that we are getting something darn good!

The larger hit seems to be for appointment-based content consumption.

I have been conducting day-long workshops to CXOs (since I quit Ogilvy in March 2018) on personal branding using social media. One crucial backgrounder I offer towards the larger change in the communications landscape is the move from appointment-base content consumption to on-demand content consumption.

The earlier thought of spending 15 minutes on the newspaper in the morning, and some time on news at night (prime time) is a thing of the past. If we need news, we look it up on our phone, when we want it. And not during a time decided by content creators or content owners. Live sports is probably the only exception to this new evolution, along with topical, breaking news.

When I recently conducted a series of training sessions to middle-level employees as part of an large organization’s employee advocacy program (over 20-25 participants per day, across 4 days in one phase), every time I ask who reads newspapers every day, literally 1-2 hands went up!

So, broadly assuming that appointment-based content consumption is on the wane, and we seem to be gravitating towards on-demand content consumption, the new TRAI plan would perhaps usher broader interest towards the streaming apps, fuelled also by cheaper broadband prices. Why? Because, one, the internet offers that perfect illusion of ‘unlimited’ things to do. Two, the Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, ALTBalaji, SunNXT etc. offer what cable TV once (before the TRAI change) offered – a LOT of things to watch for a flat monthly price, and that too, across devices (something TV was never good at offering).

In a way, the streaming choices are the new TV. That impression is now accentuated by the new TRAI rule that forces us to pick from the unlimited’ness of TV and also pay more (eventually, if we are unable to be judicious about our choices).

The other, interesting aspect about all this is the death of serendipity. Channel surfing is often a serendipitous chance of discovering something one may like, and indulge in it for a few fleeting moments. If we pre-determine the stuff we want to watch on TV, selecting specific TV channels or programs, we are, in some way, killing serendipitous discovery of what we ‘may’ like.

On the other hand, Netflix and Amazon Prime, engineer serendipitous discovery with technology. They use data, derived from our own viewing experiences, to make us navigate towards a few choices from the ocean of their larger pool of options. To be sure, this is manipulative – an illusion of serendipity. But, at the very least, we are given some choice to explore newer things and not gravitate only towards specific, familiar, comfortable things.

Going back to the new TRAI rule, we are considering if we need cable TV at all, and if we can manage with just internet and streaming apps alone! I’d love to see the data on streaming apps’ traction as a result of this TRAI notification – if it increases, perhaps the TRAI’s new rule had something to do with it.

And finally, Netflix’s new Black Mirror film, Bandersnatch goes back to Famous Five’s Choose Your Own Adventure series where you decide the course of a story’s flow and it moves based on the choices you make at each point.

Netflix makes the same thing available on a Black Mirror film, using your remote as a way to manage the flow, based on the choices you make. In just one film, you get the illusion of many films, many experiences. Something seemingly worth consuming over and above other conventional films that expect you to only sit back and watch.

In a way, you are both the content and the creator (curator) for Bandersnatch. Your choices allow Netflix to know more about you (you kill a character, thereby making your choice, and let Netflix know that you might like certain other kinds of films and TV series). You are also the creator/curator, because you make your own movie, from the limited set of options. Yet another reason why conventional TV that now pigeonholes your choice to specific channels may seem less interesting in the overall scheme of things.

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