The Informal Media Economy
The Informal Media Economy
Formal and Informal Media
Television is a strongly regulated and centralized medium that has long been crucial to modernizing projects. From the early state control of television broadcasting before the Second World War, to technological developments drawing on wartime research and development, and the medium's mass appeal in postwar consumer economies, television was born in a period of remarkable formality. Today, many of these formal features are still in play. Broadcasting is a clearly defined global business with high barriers to entry and a limited pool of competitors. It attracts considerable scrutiny from state regulators, civil society groups, unions, business competitors and consumers. In most nations, broadcasters adhere to strict conditions regarding content and advertising and pay licence fees to the government. States control their radio spectrum and, in many cases, fund, or otherwise expect public broadcasters to fulfil, cultural policy objectives. Commercial television is the province of large, consolidated and diversified companies like Comcast and BSkyB (controlled by News Corp). These are among the most profitable, stable and regulated media companies in the world.
But this is not the end of the story. Throughout the television sector there is a wide variety of informal actors, from unlicensed broadcasters to pay-per-view pirates and grey hardware vendors. Anyone who has ever downloaded Breaking Bad , purchased a smart card from a stranger or leeched off a neighbour's cable connection has, wittingly or not, encountered the informal TV economy. Sometimes this informal economy dwarfs its legal counterpart, effectively becoming the norm. India is famous for its intricate system of off-the-books cable connections, run by local entrepreneurs - cable wallahs - who provide cheap, customized programming to their neighbourhoods. Pirate DVDs provide a bounty of content, and homes are connected using intricate networks of DIY wiring. Revenues - if declared at all - are underreported, and retransmitted content is probably unlicensed. Nonetheless, this system is massive and ubiquitous. More Indians get their TV from a local cable wallah than directly from any corporation. Nobody really knows how many viewers the informal cable economy serves in India; nor do we know how many programmers, card vendors, installers and repairers it employs. But the numbers are likely to be higher than the equivalent numbers for the legal cable business. Ravi Sundaram describes this economy as a form of 'pirate modernity': 'private enterprise without classic capitalists, or classic workers, or legal industrial estates, without brands or legal monetary rents to the state' (2009: 104).
It is perhaps tempting to think of these two worlds - the formal economy of corporate broadcasting and the informal, off-the-books TV economy - as existing in parallel, like train tracks that never cross, but this is not the case. Formal and informal economies are connected by exchanges of personnel, ideas, content and capital (we call these interactions ). If we look back at the history of television we see that many formal companies started out as signal pirates before transforming themselves into legitimate operators, some even changing the rules of the game to suit themselves. Other formal companies rely on informal agents for market intelligence, technological innovation or free labour. Conversely, pirates depend on formal businesses for most of their content. Many also aspire to a career in the legitimate media sector, and frequently collaborate with established players when it is mutually beneficial to do so.
Understanding informality and formality in this way - as connected and co-dependent - invites us to view media in a new light. Too often, media industry change is presented as a singular trajectory: according to one reading, a one-way process of conso