Unbundling channel rates a danger to TV ecosystem?

MUMBAI: In the midst of the digitisation process in India, several issues continue to be left unanswered. One such being the matter of unbundling of channels for which the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued a consultation paper asking suggestions from stakeholders regarding the same but no decision was reached after that. There is however a rift between MSOs and aggregators on the issue with the MSOs favouring it and aggregators being against it.

The real question is whether or not it will benefit everyone including the broadcasters, MSOs, aggregators and finally the consumer. 

A report on the situation in the US by investment banking and asset management firm Needham and Co's entertainment analyst and MD Laura Martin says, unbundling of cable TV rates could well be a recipe for disaster for all concerned. In the report, Martin has taken a look at the issue from the consumer’s perspective and its consequences for them and for the ecosystem. 

Martin's report reveals that US households pay about $720 per year for 180 channels out of which they watch just 18. Consumers would like to pay $30 per month to watch these 16-20 channels. As compared to this, in India, annual rates are a paltry $30-$60 per annum for anywhere between 120 channels to 200 plus channels. 

Martin argues that if consumers wanted to have all 180 channels as a la carte, their annual spending would increase to $1260, i.e, 75 per cent higher than the current price. 

Here's how it goes: cable TV channels in the US generate $56 billion from advertising and $45 billion from subscribers, while pay TV distributors pocket $30 billion, if one goes by last year's figures. She estimates that if there was unbundling about 124 channels out of these 180 would be wiped out as they would not be in a position to have an average of the 165,000 viewers which Martin estimates are needed to break even on each cable TV channel's $280 million per annum investment. Her view is that niche channels would simply disappear.

The decrease in channel choices, points out Martin, would also mean that approximately $80 to $113 billion would be lost in consumer value and the government would lose $20 billion in taxes. It will also put the US, which is already dealing with a high unemployment rate of 7.3 per cent in October 2013, at a risk of losing 1.4 million additional jobs.

She also warns that if these 180 channels do not create content that is engaging young Americans in the 18-34 year age group, there might be no traditional linear television left in 10 years. Viewers are resorting to cord-cutting and migrating increasingly to online for their entertainment to services such as Hulu, Netflix, Big Frame, Defy Media, Fullscreen, Machinima, Maker Studios,etc. According to a statistics portal Statistica, 43 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 preferred Netflix as compared to 46 per cent of paid subscribers who chose cable.

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