Recalibrating India’s DTH sector after Airtel DTH-Warburg Pincus deal


MUMBAI: For long, investors have given India’s DTH sector a pass-by saying the TV distribution sector (read cable TV) is rickety and has been digitised in a hurry to meet government mandates without too much thought and planning of the back end. Often times, DTH players have been bundled with the cable TV lot and considered a not-a-very-attractive investment.

That was until last week.  The announcement that Warburg Pincus was picking up 20 per cent stake in Airtel Digital TV (DTH) -with around 14 million subscribers - for a staggering $350 million at a valuation of $1.75 billion or Rs 11,204-odd crore should surely come as a shot in the arm for those distributing TV and running DTH platforms.

Right now, there are six of them: Tata Sky, Dish-Videocond2h, Airtel Digital TV, Sun Direct, DD Free Dish, and the floundering-now-waiting-to-be-resuscitated Reliance Big TV.

Most of them have been burning cash. Folks have been saying there are too many DTH operators in India. They have pointed towards the UK that has one, the US that has just two.  And questions have been asked if India has too many vanity plays in both television and distribution.

A senior investment analyst unwilling to be identified says last week’s Warbug Pincus vote of confidence in DTH highlights how upbeat the sector looks as an investment destination and how different it is from India’s cable TV scattered majors.

It also raises questions around whether the Videocon management could have got a better deal when it decided to merge Videocon d2h with DishTV.  Was Videocon d2h a tad undervalued? After all, the difference in EBITDA between Airtel and Videocon d2h alone runs into Rs 170-odd  crore only. For FY 2016-17, Videocon d2h had an EBITDA of Rs 1018.1 crore as against Airtel DTH’s Rs 1222 crore. For fiscal 2017-18, Videocon d2h’s half yearly EBITDA stood at Rs 529.5 crore as against Airtel’s Rs 681.7 crore. Dish TV's EBITDA for FY 2016-17 was Rs 972.8 crore, while it's half yearly EBITDA for fiscal 2017-18 was  Rs 417.3 million.

At the time of the merger, the combined entity’s valuation was placed at $2.7 billion for around 27 million subscribers of Dish TV and Videocon d2h. Combined the two would account for 16 per cent of the total 175 million hoseholds in India with around 2.80 million HD household and a combined proforma  EBITDA of  Rs 1826.2 crore. Going by the Airtel-Warburg numbers, the value of Dish TV-Videocon d2h should have been closer to $4 billion.

Another senior industry observer opines that the Airtel-Warburg Pincus deal has opened up investors’ eyes all over the world about the growth potential in India’s DTH vertical.  The deal is probably one of the first-ever major large-ticket private equity placement deals in Indian DTH.

What has changed in the past one year? And what is exciting investors to look at the sector differently?

FreeDish to go away

Indications are that the DD Free Dish threat is dissipating with the implementation of the new policy that the government has put in place with no renewals of slots taking place for private players. Industry professionals point out that the government is seeking to enhance the reach of its own channels on Free Dish.

“It had deviated from its mandate–which was to reach out to all the rural areas where there are no transmitters and make the government’s voice reach those people. DD National was hurt because they gave slots to private GEC channels. The national channel’s viewership and revenue have since plummeted,” says one of them. “From Rs 1,400 crore in ad revenue, the figures came down to Rs 500-600 crore, out of which Rs 400 crore is from government enforced spending on the pubcaster. Its ad revenue is a measley Rs 200 crore and no private producer wants to produce for DD as it does not have the reach. With DD FreeDish likely to stop trading in bandwidth and not airing GECs, a window of opportunity for private DTH players to offer another option to rural and smaller town audiences will open.”

Cord cutting - a hyped-up phenomenon

Another senior industry researcher says that the phenomenon of cord-cutting has been hyped up by new entrants in the OTT space such as Netflix and their backers from the analyst community and investors in both the US and India.

“Comparing the US and India is absolutely fraught with disaster. Even in cord cutting,” she says. “India has a very deep urban population and a very deep rural populace. The TV in the living room is still the centre piece of Indian homes; it is also moving into the bedroom. There will be no cord cutting; we will have both in India, the Netflixes as well as TV subscriptions.  Jio, too, has expanded the consumption of mobile bandwidth and nowhere is it posing a threat of cord cutting.”

The impact of TRAI’s tariff order, GST and introduction of transparency

The DTH industry has an estimated 90 million subscribers; the net figure is 65 million and the active is 52-55 million. The net sub number includes those subs who have been suspended for up to 120 days for non-payment; whereas actives are those who have subscribed and paid to for between zero and 30 days.

Industry veterans point out that DTH operators are better placed to implement the TRAI’s new tariff regime which has been held up in courts.  One of them points out that the higher content costs that they have been paying to broadcasters will simply go away. “Our infrastructure allows us to permit millions of subscribers to unsubscribe online very easily and watch the channels and the shows they want to,,” says he. “Because of transparency our costs will go down with the execution of the tariff order.”

Cable TV content costs, however, he points out are set to go up as under declarations of sub numbers to the tune of 50-60 per cent by LCOs to MSOs have been rampant. “After digitisation and GST, every connection is being reported to the MSO as everybody in the chain has to pay taxes. With this, the broadcaster will understand how many subscribers are actually there and he will charge transparently per sub basis. Based on that the fixed deals will happen,” he says.

That should be good news for industry observers and naysayers who have been waiting like Godot for India’s TV content and distribution to unlock its true potential and value.

Also Read:

Warburg Pincus to buy 20% in Airtel’s DTH arm

Reliance Big DTH to take FTA route under new management?

STB import duty doubled to 20%

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