Regulators

A wrong to correct a wrong

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MUMBAI: If you look back a few years it was the MSOs who were arm twisting the Broadcasters and carriage subsidies shot up to an estimate of about 1800-2000 crores so it was but obvious that the broadcasters had to resort to some countervailing power and adopted the age old saying of ‘in unity there is strength’ to fight back. Hence, the mergers and partnerships to create the Aggregator now termed the Aggressor!

But the battle here is not between the MSO and the Broadcaster. Unfortunately, both have been caught in a situation and a created one at that. Both are responsible for this situation. The Broadcaster wanted distribution beyond available bandwidth, the MSO but naturally driven by common supply – demand market dynamics fleeced exorbitant carriage fees. To demand higher shares of which he started grabbing more territory. For doing so he gave significant concessions towards the subscription collections. Soon it reached a stage that they began to subsist on this easy money and forgot about the upward flow of subscriptions. So, the broadcasters were giving and getting back their own monies and plus or minus a little depending on the so called legacy of the channels rather than any rationale of popularity. That is where the business model started floundering. It’s not that the subscriber was getting a free view. Sure 20,000 + crore was getting collected and of course most of it in cash.

So, where did all this money go? And why are both the Broadcasters and MSOs bleeding. One has to examine the value chain and leakages in the upward flow. The interface to the customer is the LCO/LMO the one who is making the collections. A reasonable share of this will need to flow upward to the broadcasters. Content too with all the competition is only getting more expensive especially with international formats and Bollywood hosts.

How much should be a fair share is secondary. First, one needs to ensure that there actually is a streamlined reverse flow. The bottlenecks and leakages lie in the value chain and systems created by both the MSO and the broadcasters. In addition to the MSO in the middle between the LCO/LMO at one end and the Broadcaster at the other end, there are at least three more middlemen in the current system that prevails. The agent aggregator, their dealers and the distributor/JV partner of the MSOs. The money the consumer pays goes through five hands before what’s left will eventually reach the broadcaster. Obviously there are not one but two too many middlemen and this is where the ecosystem needs change.

Now in all of this, how’s the consumer or subscriber faring? We are the cheapest cable market in the world and honestly without an iota of debate our consumers have been spoilt. For three to five dollars a month subscription, we get the most premium of content. (Given the way our rupee is depreciating we’ll soon be down to $2 subscriptions!) And for that an abundance of choice with half a dozen channels per genre. Live sports of pretty much every event around the world and movies within two months of theatrical release.

Wow! Even if the Govt. is floundering in providing Roti, Kapda aur Makaan nobody is complaining about the 4th essential – Entertainment. Sure everyone’s complaining about the cost of electricity and fuel and multiple taxes but no one’s saying cut off my cable!

Fortunately, we are also the 2nd largest cable and satellite market in the world and so can provide affordable entertainment and the best there is to offer. There’s enough to go around for legitimate stake holders we just need to get the business model right. Imbalances will correct themselves over time.

As to the regulator and regulation, digital addressable system (DAS) is great, but for now let’s just focus on getting the boxes. Let it just be an exercise in technological evolution. Enjoy the digital experience and abundance of choice. We are a privileged lot. Trying to introduce addressability and ‘pay for what you want’ is only going to increase the consumer’s monthly outflow or severely restrict choice. When DAS gets to that stage of choosing and billing, it is not going to be a populist regulation.

So Mr Khullar Sir, the aggregator has been disarmed (agent regulation), the MSO reigned in (max 50 per cent of state control) and the broadcaster chastised (12-minute ad cap). The LCO is still trying to figure out how by merely putting a box, the MSO claims the home whereas he’s the guy who has been upgrading the cables and amplifiers for over two decades. Let’s not add a confused customer to this. He’s happy leave him alone for now. Let the market dynamics come into play and let it all settle for a while. Average Revenue Per User (ARPUs) will increase but not at the cost of denying the consumer what he is already used to. Niche content, value added services and TV on the go are new revenue streams and customers will be willing to pay more for these. Affordable internet access is the key to this next phase of growth wherein traditional media and what we call new media need to converge. What will certainly be interesting is to see who will be the players here to emerge.

(The author is a media observor and consultant, and the views expressed are his own.)

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