By the end of this year, the biggest bonanza for the common people of this country came from the corridor of Parliament last week, as crack of dawn, in terms of digitisation of cable regulation. The ordinance to digitise analogue cable system for greater television viewing got the nod from the President almost two months back, and now passed by both the Houses. This is a much awaited regulation for the entire cable TV network spread across the country in the last one and a half decades.
It simply means that now all TV channels reaching out at last mile through C&S (cable & satellite) networks shall be aired with better quality of transmission, enhanced value added services, scope for more glossy content and opening up better platforms for niche programming outlines for viewers; and more importantly, significant drop in carriage fees for the broadcasters. Some broadcasting experts and industry veterans even think that it will somehow reduce dependency on TAM’s (Television Audience Measurement) people meter system, popularly known as TRP/ TVR (Television Rating Points) mechanics. But the million dollar question is – really? Is it so easy to think and implement in a cutthroat competitive market?
Take a look at simple statistics. The Government has given the nod for the Cable TV Regulation Act, 1995 with a clause of sunset days – March 31, 2012, now extended to June 1, 2012 for four metros (Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai), March 31, 2013 for almost all cities that have 1 million plus population (apart from rest of the metros; all state capitals are covered in this phase), while September 30, 2014 for entire urban areas, and finally, December 31, 2014 for rest of the nation. With these framed dates, the entire nation has to be digitised from the erstwhile analogue platform to the digital mode.
A look at the current scenario
However, we need to take a glance at the current scenario in the existing non-addressable networks (analogue) volume as well. As per the latest NRS (which gives the C&S households figure) data report, there are close to 145 million (14.5 crore) households connected to functional TV sets at present across the country. Out of it, 90.4 million (more than 9 crore) are connected on C&S, while 28 million (close to 3 crore) households are connected to DTH (Direct to Home) on six major operators network, while around 25 million (2.5 crore) households are still dependent on All India All TV Homes, popularly known as the terrestrial network, means DD National and DD News channels. Interestingly, out of these figures, still we have almost 30 million (3 crore) TV households glued to their black and white television sets, still far away from any satellite channel. Hence, out of the 90.4 million C&S households, what is the percentage of digitised networks? Less than 20 per cent across all prescribed metro cities forget about rest of the country.
When Sushma Swaraj was the I&B Minister in 2001-02, she forced the C&S networks to bow down on CAS (Conditional Access System), which was a better solution to the haywire running C&S networks and was successfully implemented in entire South Delhi, parts of Kolkata and Mumbai, getting momentum down the line. But when the UPA Government came to power in 2004, it was left hanging. Therefore, this given deadline to convert analogue platforms into digital one sounds highly Utopian, though it has got some utterance within.
Secondly, if the current professional broadcasting establishment and its endeavour is passing though an extreme turbulent corridor, then distribution, at current phase, is the most responsible factor cutting down the revenue pie in a most cutthroat competitive arena. Especially, the most suffered vertical within the broadcasting horizon is news business. How does the claim come? Take a look at the instances posted by TV Today’s (Aaj Tak and Headlines Today) latest balance sheet. I was absolutely amazed to see that in the last fiscal, their expenditure on HR capitalisation was Rs 87 crore, while distribution for the same period was Rs 84 crore and Rs 60 crore in the previous year. Rs 24 crore or almost 40 per cent escalation in a single year for distribution alone! Why so? Just because you have to be placed at the top and there is fierce competition. Moreover, what is the escalating appreciation rate in HR composition? It’s less than 5 per cent hike on forwarding year!
Similarly, going through the PAT (Profit After Tax), it is Rs 12 crore out of Rs 292 crore revenue receipts, which is merely 4 per cent of the total earnings. It’s really interesting, when every FMCG, service sector, supplier, any one of the first heard exporter is posting 35-40 per cent growth year-on-year in net received PAT, then one of the strongest media houses is posting merely a net profit of 4 per cent!
Apart from TV Today, Prannoy Roy’s promoted performing assets, which are known to be good content delivery platforms with soothing eye programming parameters – primarily in the news business, NDTV Networks are also bleeding from their nose! They were forced to shut down a couple of channels, have sold off their entertainment channel to Universal and thereafter to Turner equity holders. NDTV Hindu, Chennai, is also looking for a prospective buyer.
The ground realities
Market analysts and forecasters (FICCI, KPMG, JP Morgan, etc.) ask if the industry is growing year-on-year at the rate of 16-18 per cent per annum and CAGR (Cumulative Annual Growth Rate) is more than 15 per cent, then why are the big professional news broadcasters and pioneers of the industry bleeding from tip to toe? The answer is simple and straight, wrongful proliferation and consolidation of cable networks spread across the country in 10-12 MSOs (Multi System Operators) and more than 40,000 LCOs (Local Cable Operators) or last mile providers. Then how come the Government, with only its regulatory arm, believes that it would easily enforce the regulation on the widespread networks? Have they included a sub-clause in the regulation that whosoever (MSO or LCO) doesn’t implement it within the given deadline, it would be barred from the operations permanently? No, rather very inquisitively the MSOs and operators have started sounding the bell loud that they though they agreed to the ordinance, they needed Rs 15,000-20,000 crore to implement it successfully. What do they want from the regulator? Subsidy, insecure loans or higher carriage fees from the broadcasters or increased monthly payout from the households?
If the industry has reached this peak, from a mere Rs 3,000 crore in 2001-02 to Rs 30,000 crore in 2010-11, then it is the professional players and broadcasters who have propelled the premium content and sizeable loads of programmes and niche innovations, which have finally resulted in a mature and demanding viewership profile. In between, have they demanded any subsidy and support from the Government or anybody else? Similarly, if you want to know about the Government’s role in it, then my answer is, please see the rise and thereafter, the gradual and unending downfall of so-called public broadcaster DD and the degradation of its content in a highly cutthroat competitive market.
Finally, one good development that has taken place in the last 5-7 years, thanks to the Government opening a new horizon, is the DTH platform. But one more serious question arises here (related to reduced dependency on TAM-TVR/ TRP mechanism), if 28 million DTH households are professionally and successfully running across the country, then why is the TAM People Meter System not included/ installed on those households? If honesty and transparency is the thumb rule for broadcast mechanism, then why it is still left behind at marginal bays? Moreover, very surprisingly, the whole media sector has also kept quiet on this fait accompli.
Though aMap, a comparatively latest competitor of TAM, has included addressable network households into their sample size people meter boxes and is giving a fairer data to the advertisers, its market share is less than 15 per cent as of now. Hence, it has to be given a more robust support to hasten its proliferation and stabilise the market mechanism.
In a nutshell, apart from this regulatory ordinance, the industry’s ecstatic moment is yet to come until we find a solid and grounded answer to these questions. Discussing this comprehensive market platform and its immediate remedies, I remember a great poet’s line: “Hyatt le ke chalo, kaynat le ke chalo, chalo to zamane ko sath le ke chalo!” (Whenever you move, take the people and the world along with you; whenever you move, always move with the times and space!)
(Rakesh Shukla is a senior broadcast journalist based in New Delhi. He has worked with Aaj Tak for several years, and then with a niche channel, Property TV, Singapore. He has also worked with Hindi news channel P7 News as Executive Producer, Content.)