DTH focus shifts to ARPU from subscriber numbers


MUMBAI: In the last six months, the direct-to-home (DTH) industry has faced lots of challenges. The industry saw big DTH players consolidate, shutting down of a player and fights between DTH operators and broadcasters.

In the early days, customer acquisition was the key for most distribution platform operators but, currently, their eyes are set on cost-efficiencies.

An industry source tells Indiantelevision.com, “The biggest worry in the market right now is the elephant in the room, which is Reliance Jio. In the last three quarters, DTH growth has been very muted and is not growing as actively as it should have. The challenge for DTH players right now is pushing up the average revenue per user (ARPU) and push high definition (HD) subscription. Tata Sky, for instance, is pushing HD channels to 110 and trying to create HD packs. It is not trying to increase the subscriber base but planning towards increasing the ARPU.”

Tata Sky came up with a Make My HD pack for as low as Rs 30 per month and a regional HD Access pack at Rs 50 per month for users subscribed to regional SD channels. The channel targeted the south market with a special pack at Rs 290. Dish TV campaigned for HD in all homes by removing the access fee on it and advertising a cost as low as Rs 169 per month (excluding taxes). Countering DD FreeDish, the oldest DTH player also introduced a free to air (FTA) pack with a price translating to Rs 32 a month.

After more than a year of twists and turns, Dish TV and Videocon d2h are set to formalise a merger to create India's largest DTH company valued at around $2.4 billion and the world’s second largest in terms of subscribers with 29 million, just behind AT&T’s DirecTV. According to the original plan, Dish TV shareholders will own 55.4 per cent in the combined entity, to be named Dish TV Videocon, while Videocon d2h shareholders will hold 44.6 per cent in the company.

“After the deal, there will be group content deals since they are thrice strong with Dish TV, Videocon d2h and Siti Cable. If they go to the broadcaster for the content deal, the pricing leverage will be much higher,” the source adds.

India accounted for 65 per cent of revenue for regional pay-TV channel groups in 2017, led by large local channel businesses owned and operated by 21st Century Fox, Sony and Viacom as per a Media Partners Asia (MPA) report.

“The whole landscape is undergoing a change. The cable operators are facing many challenges and are punching back hard. They are focussing on growing ARPUs from the rural market in phase 3 and 4 and the subscriber base. ARPU in the rural market is still very low which is around Rs 40-45. If they make it equal to urban around Rs 70-75 with a subscriber base of 1 million, then also it will give them an extra Rs 35 million every month. So everyone is working on a strategy, but they are not saying it upfront,” the source points out.

Videocon d2h saw ARPU at Rs 208 for Q3 2018 (September – December 2017), higher than the Rs 212 in the previous quarter. Dish TV’s ARPU stood at Rs 144 for the same quarter, lower than Rs 148 in the trailing quarter. The highest ARPU among listed companies was with Airtel Digital TV with Rs 233.x

Dish TV CMD Jawahar Goel says that the industry is on the pay channels’ side. “The MSOs have different pricing in the market. Whereas for DTH it is a very steep charge and this is the reason for the shutdown of Reliance BIG TV,” he says.

KCCL CEO Shaji Mathews says that if DTH had been launched in India in the year 1997 as envisaged by some of the leading media companies, cable TV would have been a minority player today. "Ever since its launch half a decade later, DTH thrived on the deficiencies in analog cable. Another decade later when digitisation commenced, again DTH pitched to take a share from cable and become the majority player. However, cable withstood the challenge and retained its position at the end of 2017," he says.

The scenario emerging is that of media players consolidating to face the challenge from telecom. However, Mathews says that in this fight, historically, cable TV has been the partner that media companies can rely upon. "The polarisation is evident from the exit of non-media Videocon and Rcom, though the latter has other reasons also," he highlights.

Media Partners Asia VP Mihir Shah shows two reasons for growth in the industry. “As BARC continues expanding its coverage, it has pushed up the value of rural reach for broadcasters, which today is primarily delivered through DTH. With this merger, the DTH market has consolidated with top three players accounting for 90 per cent share of the paying subscriber base. These two structural developments will improve DTH’s subscriber economics in the coming year,” he said. “Warburg Pincus’ investment in Airtel Digital last year and now Dish TV-Videocon d2h merger going through serves as a confident booster for the sector.”

The active DTH subscriber base in India is over 50 million as of December 2017. Sun Direct is a major DTH player in the south holding about 40 per cent of the area. Southern subscribers also make up 97 per cent of its total. Sun Direct took up an HEVC media solution from Harmonic to increase its HD channel number to 80 recently.

On 16 February, Star had issued a disconnection notice to Bharti Telemedia for non-signing of the subscription agreement, non-payment of subscription fees and non-submission of subscribers reports. However, even before the broadcaster gave effect to its disconnection notice, the DTH operator decided to temporarily discontinue Star India channels from its subscription packs from 8 March as it had not been able to arrive at mutually acceptable terms with the broadcaster.

“Due to failure to arrive at mutually acceptable terms with Star India, with effect from 8 March 2018, all Star network channels will be temporarily discontinued from your packs,” the DTH operator informed its subscribers.

In the latest update, the Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has asked Star India and Airtel DTH to negotiate and enter into an agreement. The tribunal also directed the DTH operator to pay all lawful dues in accordance with the agreement by the due date as indicated in Star’s letter dated 7 March, except the amount of Rs 9.8 crore.

As competition within the industry as well as the fight for the pie continues with MSOs, DTH players will have to focus on giving value add at reasonable rates. Increasing ARPUs will also enable the red to turn black on the company balance sheet, which is what most of them are currently sweating about.

Also read:

TDSAT tells Airtel DTH, Star to negotiate

Airtel Digital TV disconnects Star India channels

Madras HC gives split verdict in Star India versus TRAI case

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