Current Status of the Indian Television Market

The Indian television business is packed with contradictions as of October 1999. On the one hand, it has some 70 million television homes, giving a viewing population of close to 400 million individuals. They have a gaggle-bag of 100 plus channels to choose from, but on the other hand, the infrastructure is so rickety that this choice cannot be converted into a willing purchase. One the one hand, Internet Service Providers are threatening to deliver the Net to Indian television viewers, while on the other 90% of Indian TV sets have the capability to receive only 12-16 channels . The authorities make a display of frowning down upon foreign broadcasters but allows them to operate freely in the country.

It has a glut of television channels, a slowing down advertising revenue stream, a gradual opening up of the pay television market, steady but unregulated growth in cable and satellite television homes and the absence of any machinery to track misdemeanours and crack down on violators. A broadcasting bill has been pending for almost four years, Ku-band DTH television has been stalled by vested interests, and cable TV licensing has not progressed and only a rudimentary Cable TV Network Regulation Act is what governs the massive cable TV operator community.

Result: it gets away with many an activity which is inconceivable in some developed markets. Piracy of local and international movies is rampant, underdeclaration of subscribers to basic pay TV programmers, evasion of government imposts, involvement of shady elements, and a high-handed attitude in the case of some cable operators.

Not that cable operators alone are to blame: because of the relatively low incomes, some subscribers don't cough up subscription fees on time and regularly thus leading the cable operator into a tight corner. The cable operator is hard-pressed to allow many a subscriber to go scot-free without paying, courtesy competitive pressures from neighbouring cable TV operators. The absence of addressable consumer set top boxes allowing him to switch off defaulting subscribers compounds his problem.

With nearly 24 million cable and satellite homes, that is about 150 million viewers, it is a large market which has attracted many a channel from overseas. But the channels that attract eyeballs are those that offer dollops of local fare in local languages: state-owned broadcaster Doordrashan, Zee TV, Sony Entertainment, Star Plus, ESPN Star Sports, Sun TV, Raj TV, Eenadu TV, the local cable TV operator run pirated movie channel. The English and foreign language channels are niche players struggling to stay on their feet. English language channels dubbed in local languages are faring much better.

Some of the English and foreign language services like DeutscheWelle TV, RTM, TV5, Saudi TV, are pretty irrelevant to Indian viewers but they are still being beamed down by hopeful telecasters. The list of channels which are watched can be whittled down to about 50. Most of these are transmitted via satellite; the only terrestrial broadcaster operating is the state-owned broadcaster DD, which has a bouquet of 19 channels using both modes of delivery.

With ad revenues slowing down, programmers are attempting to generate revenues by charging cable operators carriage fees. But that has not worked successfully excepting in the case of cinema and sports programming. Niche channels such as Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet are bleeding and will continue to do so for quite some time.

They are also migrating towards digital transmissions which enable them to eke out savings in transponder rentals and deliver better quality of sound and picture. Almost 20-30 channels are broadcasting in digital mode. Many more are expected in the near future with existing language players launching second channels and introducing channels in other languages like Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, and Bengali. In fact, it is in regional language niche channels were the action is slated to hot up even further in the coming year.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Over the past year and a half there has been a loosening of restrictions: uplinking has been opened up to private players, private earth station ownership has also been permitted as has Internet delivery by cable operators. DTH is also likely to be opened up soon with the first licence likely to go to the platform backed by state-owned broadcaster DD.


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