Cable TV

Carriage fee on a rise again?

MUMBAI: Delayed digitisation of phase III and phase IV areas have marred the hopes of broadcasters, multi-system operators (MSOs) and the local cable operators (LCOs) alike. With implementation of digitisation in phase I and II, while broadcasters were enjoying the reduced carriage fees, MSOs were hoping for better on-ground collections with increasing transparency. But all this has taken a U-turn with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announcing 2016 as the year when India will be fully digitised.

The MSOs who have invested heavily for digitising phase I and II markets are still waiting for reaping the benefits of it. And now even the broadcasters who saw some reduction in carriage fees (industry sources peg it between 10 per cent to 30 per cent) during the first two phases have gone back to basics.

If one has to go by the Media Partners Asia (MPA) report, the cable TV industry has seen a 14 per cent jump in carriage fees. The reason for the jump in carriage fee could be many. Here are a few reasons which we understand could be playing a role in the changed carriage fee pattern:

1)    Delayed digitisation: The MSOs have already invested heavily in phase I and II and have also borrowed money for phase III and IV markets. Now with the government announcing the final dates for digitisation as 2015 for phase III and 2016 for phase IV, MSOs fear that the LCOs will not increase their collections from the ground.

2)    Low ARPUs: Even in phase I and II areas, the ARPU hasn’t gone up as expected by the MSOs. And so they haven’t been able to recover the money they had invested.

3)     New channel launches: Broadcasters launching new channels need greater reach and visibility and so pay more in order to get carried by the platform and also to ensure that it is available to all the subscribers of the platform. This in turn sets a benchmark for the other players also.

4)    Lack of transparency: Even though one of the aims of digitisation was bringing in transparency and addressability, both haven’t happened as yet. The cable operators have not been able to get the consumer application forms filled and thus, are still unaware of the choice of consumer. Also, there is still under declaration of consumers. 

“This is true especially for news channels, niche channels and the new channels that have been recently launched. While the existing channels have not seen any hike in carriage fees, broadcasters that launched new channels in the different genres, right from GECs to regional to music and movies have seen a jump in carriage fees, which ranges from 15-25 per cent,” says a distribution head on condition of anonymity.

Another source close to the development agrees and says, “Yes! The carriage fee for broadcasters launching new channels have gone up. This can be anywhere between 20-25 per cent, depending on the distribution strategy of the broadcaster and the visibility it is looking for.”

Many in the industry blame the new channel launches for the increase in the carriage fee. “While for the news channels the carriage fee had seen a drop by 10-15 per cent, the new channels that are being launched every now and then, sets a different benchmark. Since broadcasters want better reach for their new channels, they pay huge sums as carriage fee to MSOs and this affects the news channels as well,” says a news broadcaster.

Even at the recently concluded MIPCOM 2014, Colors CEO Raj Nayak during a panel discussion had stressed that there needs to be complete implementation of digitisation. “While in the phase I of digitisation, the carriage fees had come down by 20 per cent, it has now gone back to square one and this is a dangerous trend,” he had then said.

Viacom18 group CEO Sudhanshu Vats feels no different. In his recent interaction with he had said, “Carriage, rather than continually coming down, has begun to rise again in recent months.”

According to India TV chairman and editor-in-chief Rajat Sharma, when digitisation kickstarted, news broadcasters expected consumers to get better quality channels and carriage fees to disappear. “For the MSOs, it is the carriage fee from the news channels that helps them sustain, since they pay the GECs huge sums for getting their programming on their platform,” opines Sharma.

Unlike the expectations by many, carriage fees haven’t yet been abolished.  “When phase I of digitisation was implemented, carriage fees did come down in terms of what was being paid in the four metros. The national level MSOs saw the benefits of digitisation and passed on some of that benefit to broadcasters. However, with phase II, it hasn’t happened. On the contrary they are going up and extortionist demands are being made again. Perhaps because in other parts of the country the MSOs are in partnership with local or regional players who do not want to let go of carriage fees even though that was meant to be a natural outcome of digitisation,” informs NDTV executive vice chairperson KVL Narayan Rao.

Rao further adds, “It is impossible for news broadcasters to withstand payment of high carriage fees. Other components of digitisation like buoyant and fair subscription revenues, have not kicked in either. Something needs to be done about these aspects immediately. Carriage fees in particular have to be rationalised.” Rao also pegs the carriage fee increase between 10-30 per cent.

As for Focus Network group CEO Neeraj Sanan, carriage fee revenues for MSOs are likely to reduce. “However the carriage paid by a broadcaster to an MSO, will increase post first year of DAS due to aggregation at MSO level and the ever increasing number of channels," he adds.

Even the MSOs agree that the carriage fee has seen an upward trend. “This is true mostly for the new channel launches. Broadcasters want better reach for their new channels and are ready to pay more carriage fee for those channels. The new channels are seeing a hike in carriage fee by about 20-25 per cent,” concludes the MSO.

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