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2016: The Year of Disruption: Growth, revenues, M&As, new techs, flip-flops in times of demonetisation

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Year 2016 was a rare instance when the Indian government and a global company’s projections for the Indian media and entertainment industry seemed to be matching for a large part of the year. Almost. Considering the differences in parameters that the government adopts for economic outlook calculations, convergence on data (give and take a few billions here and there) was startling --- and pleasant too.

PwC’s mid-year Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2016-20 said India’s entertainment and media sector was expected to grow steadily over the next four years and exceed US$40,000million (or US$ 40 billion) by 2020.

Ditto for the government’s predictions, which were looking as pretty, but then came demonetisation and the figures have since been revised.

The website of India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), a think-tank established by India’s Ministry of Commerce, states that the media & entertainment sector is expected to grow at a CAGR of 14.3 per cent to touch Rs 2.26 trillion (US$ 33.7 billion) by 2020; revenues from advertising are expected to grow at 15.9 per cent to Rs 99,400 crore (US$ 14.82 billion).

Even though these numbers may seem fabulous for many in snail like growth economies, the fact is that the government seems to have moderated its outlook as the website was updated in December 2016.

These projections, coupled with some bold regulatory and policy initiatives in 2016, stll indicate a fairly good pace of growth this year and continuing momentum over the next few years.

The goals seemed achievable and an easy cruise till Prime Minister Modi’s currency demonetisation bomb exploded on 8 November and resulted in the shifting of various goalposts.

Despite lofty ideals of fighting the menace of black economy, of enabling a digital cashless society, and enriching the poor via the demonetisation move, uncertainties over policy decisions, are gradually sinking in and slowing down various segments of the economy, including the media and entertainment sector.

public://dishtv-videocon_1.jpgAs India grapples with challenging times, we at indiantelevision.com bring to you the first episode in our year-ender 2016 series, which will look at various segments of the M&E industry; especially the broadcast and cable segments. Presenting to you the 2016 Big Picture.

Mergers & Acquisitions and Consolidations

The year saw some big mergers and acquisitions (M&A) moves, subject to regulatory approvals, of course, but also signalling that the highly fragmented Indian broadcast and cable sector was witnessing some consolidation, which has been talked about for over five years now.

For example, an oft repeated question of overseas media observers tracking Indian media sector was: even if  India is a huge market, how long can it sustain six private sector DTH services and pubcaster Doordarshan’s free DTH service FreeDish in terms of  burgeoning subscriber numbers and also rising expenditure on servicing them?

The question got answered when Zee/Essel Group’s Dish TV and Videocon D2h announced that the latter would merge with the former under a complex share swap with the merged entity --- to be called Dish TV Videocon Ltd --- becoming a cable and satellite behemoth serving 27.6 million net subscribers (based on September 30, 2016 numbers) out of a total of 175 million TV households in India.

In the combined satellite platform, to be led by India’s DTH pioneer Jawahar Goel, Dish TV would be holding a 36 per cent stake with Videocon D2h promoters owning a 28 per cent equity stake. Later, the two announced that the former has agreed  to buy an additional 9.90 per cent equity in the company in two tranches from the promoters of Videocon d2h going forward within the next two years.

Not content with grabbing access to additional DTH homes, the Subhash Chandra-led Essel group went on an on an acquisition spree. In two separate developments in November, through two different corporate entities --- Zee Entertainment and Zee Media --- Zee took  full control of the general entertainment TV business and a 49 per cent stake in the radio business of the Anil Ambani-led Reliance ADA group, respectively. Both these acquisitions have not only given the Zee group access to a few Indian language GECs and 59 FM radio channels, but also scope for monetising additional eyeballs, ears and reach.  

 Zee Entertainment shed some weight and agreed to sell its sports TV channels, marketed under the Ten Sports brand name, to Sony Pictures Network leaving the 21 st Century Fox owned Star (which was earlier this year valued at $14 billion by financial services firm Edelweiss Capital) and Sony-ESPN combine to slug it out in the sports broadcasting ring. Of course, Nimbus Sports continues to hover around as a comparatively small player.

Cable TV’s tough road; the struggle continues

It was a year of deja-vu for cable TV firms and broadcasters as the effort to eke out more subscription revenues from the ground met with limited and marginal success. That meant those in distribution continued to struggle to get their acts together even as those companies which were listed had their stocks being hammered as cable TV digitisation in Phase III areas stalled because of a legal stalemate and a court decision which took a long time a-coming.

With limited leeway in bringing about change in things cable TV, the MSOs  upped their investments in the higher ARPU delivering broadband and focused on signing on subscribers for the same. With much succees.

In times like this, companies such as DEN  Networks  brought back veteran cable TV executive SN Sharma as CEO and even raised $21 million through a private placement with Goldman Sachs.

 On the other hand, leading MSO Hathway Cable worked on a management restructuring with old hand CEO Jagdish Kumar parting ways and Rajan Gupta being appointed in his place.

Speculations in media circles regarding Zee’s sister MSO company Siti Networks acquiring fully or partially DEN continued for the first half of the year, but they were  officially scotched. However, the national MSO swallowed a few smaller cable TV operations across India.

There could have also  been a few other small M&As in the cable sector with big regional MSOs gobbling up smaller LCOs, but they failed to make much of a blip.

Hopes were high that the digital rollout would commence with great gusto followed the court dismissing petitions favoring  the Phase III DAS stay and the sunset date of 31 December 2016 approaching for Phase IV. But, much to media observers and industry’s consternation the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) announced that the Phase III sunset was being pushed forward to 31 January 2017 and Phase IV to 31 March 2017 two days before Christmas. 

Hopefully, the government will not once again backpedal and go for another postponment when these dates near. India’s cable TV sector needs some desperate measures and they need to be taken.

Demonetisation

On 8 November 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the biggest-ever demonetisation exercise India has ever seen by abruptly withdrawing Rs 500 and Rs1,000 notes from public use in a bid to clamp down on black money, fake currency menace, terror funding and corruption. Clap, clap. Only the brave dare to tread the path even angels fear and for that PM Modi should be applauded.

public://1K6A2295_1.jpgBut the policy flip-flops that has been following that announcement, coupled with inadequacies in implementing a good-intentioned scheme and large-scale insensitivity of the ruling class to inconveniences caused to the general public, has started claiming collateral damage --- including that on the economy, which seems to be slowing down sending out cascading effects on various other industries.

The media industry was no exception. With cash hard to come by courtesy the shortage of currency notes, consumers went easy, spending only on essential items. Additionally, cash has been the lifeblood of the entire product distribution chain right from wholesalers to retailiers for most product manufacturers.

 Advertisers and brands - fearing that with cash drying up and consumers wary of spulrging  - believed there was not much purpose in promoting on television or other media.  Hence, they immediately tied the knot on their ad spend budgets. Net result: almost everyone in the media ecosystem was yelping in pain right from broadcasters to TV producers.

From initial estimates made by media stakeholders that demonetisation of high currency notes would lead to a loss of Rs. 8,000 million, including advertising segment, the number has soared. Recent ad industry estimates fear the loss could be as high Rs. 25,000 million --- unless the government gets it act together like Usain Bolt running in the last Olympics.

The changes in buying and consumption patterns of people have resulted in lesser revenues, compelling companies to slash their promotional and marketing budgets.

The news channels seem to have taken a big hit. Ditto with the GECs. Small regional TV channels, depending a lot on local advertising, too are getting hit as those advertisers are drying up.

TRAI’s Push for Ambiguity-free Regulatory Regime

 Widely criticised for over regulating the telecoms and broadcast & cable sectors, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) stuck to its avowed and stated aim of attempting to create a regulatory regime that would reduce ambiguities and create a level playing field for all stakeholders.

From trying to deal with issues in a piecemeal fashion to smoothening the road ahead for the players via its various guidelines and recommendations, TRAI, under chairman RS Sharma, has not shied away from confronting any bull (like Facebook) --- some players, however, say it acted like a bull in a China shop.

Whether it was the issue of Net Neutrality or zero tariffs offered by telcos for certain services or tariffs, interconnect and quality of services in the broadcast carriage sector or pushing MSOs on digital rollout or suggesting free limited data to rural India to give a fillip to digital economy or cracking the whip on mobile phone call drops, or on interoperability of DTH and cable TV, TRAI has quite ably been walking the tight rope between regulations and industry and political lobbying.

A Government In Search of Investor-Friendly Policies

When the ministry of commerce mid-year announced a slew of steps aimed at liberalising foreign investments in broadcast carriage businesses, amongst other business segments, it was hoped FDI would flow in quickly. But that did not happen as envisaged.

The MIB did manage to shave to an extent the time period taken to obtain a licence for uplink or downlink for TV channels and teleports, but failed on many counts to be proactive on developing issues (like controversial appointments in several MIB-controlled media institutions and attempted content regulation by non-authorised organisations, for example) and its reactionary approach complicated matters further.

But now it’s incumbent on the MIB to push through some big ongoing reforms like  rollout of  digital TV services in India. With the judiciary having cleared the cobwebs around digitisation by dismissing cases on implementation processes and TRAI aiming to remove remaining potholes, it’s to be seen whether MIB can withstand pressures arising out of demonetisation and from political allies going forward in 2017.

Government Attempts On Content Regulation, Censorship & Flip-flops

In a year when media, in general, went hyper on nationalism --- Arnab Goswami, notwithstanding --- and floated a narrative that it was questionable to question government directives and actions, developments highlighted that the MIB and its allied organisations could oscillate between being a facilitator (after all PM Modi and his Finance Minister were working towards the ease of doing business) and playing Big Brother.

From the film certification board (helmed by a self-confessed Modi fan) trying to censor what Indians should see or shouldn’t in films ( for instance, clipping of kissing scenes between James Bond and his girlfriends in the last 007 flick) to suggestions that even TV content should obtain certification to paid news to cracking the whip on a news channel for allegedly  flouting content norms related to national security, it has been an eventful year when the need for stricter self-regulation by TV industry couldn’t be more visible.

That the MIB had to keep aside a one-day blackout order handed to NDTV India for allegedly airing security details relating to terrorism activities and anti-terror ops is a story in itself. But the message that the government could attempt a back-door entry intocontent regulation was driven home effectively.

The year also saw the Indo-Pak faceoff leading to a ban on Indian DTH dishes and on content  in Pakistan. India too retaliated but with a hesitant ban on Pakistani artistes working in India.

BARC India Measures Up To Transparency, Credibility

The two-year old new age TV audience measurement regime of India, complete with water-marked channels, hack-proof gadgets and alert number-crunchers keeping tabs on unusual spikes and blips in viewing habits, has not only managed to open up new monetisation avenues for its subscribers, but also ruffle some feathers in the process.

The rural India audience data being now supplied by BARC for a year continued to throw up surprises in ratings and it also highlight India’s viewing patterns.

However, towards the end of the year, BARC’s search for truth, transparency and data credibility created a few headlines, but in a still highly-fragmented and complicated market like India, it, probably, was expected.

Mushrooming OTT Players, Arrival of 4G and Disruptive Tactics

Interestingly in a country where bandwidth is still patchy, data cost high and ambiguous norms relating to online content make things interesting, OTT players seem to be mushrooming all over hoping to get a slice of the El Dorado someday, if not today.

public://AAA_0.jpgWith Amazon Prime too launching in India in December, along with many other parts on Planet Earth, India continued to be a playground where global and home-grown players are rubbing shoulders attempting to differentiate themselves and carve out a subscriber base and some revenue.

The list seems interesting. Indian players (some of them extensions of established broadcasting companies) like Hotstar, Voot, dittoTV, Savvn, Box TV, Alt, Eros Now, etc are all there in the Indian ballroom tangoing with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hooq, YouTube and Viu.

Is there money to be made? Certainly, yes. Are the ARPUs worth speaking about now? Oh, shut up as these are early days. Is the consumer biting? Yes, but mostly urban-centric. What are the differentiators in services? Let me think. What about (impending) regulations? We’ll cross the bridge when it comes, but hush; don’t give ideas to the regulator. What’s so interesting about India despite various challenges? Oh boy, don’t be dumb, it’s a huge market and the pace of penetration of mobile devices is phenomenal. Final outcome? Hmmmmmmmm!

Many of these hems and haws, probably, saw a ray of light when 4G services rolled out this year. It meant less buffering and a more enjoyable consumer experience (read more subscription money). But true to a style, honed to the level of being a talent, Reliance came with its Jio 4G service, announced free unlimited data (subsequently toned down for fair usage by all consumers) and a host of other freebies that wiped out billions of dollars in market capitalisation of existing telcos, all of whom have fat budgets, indifferent services. Each one of them scurried to roll out their own 4G services and freebies.

If a marketing guru said Reliance managed to disrupt the market good and proper, it wouldn’t be an observation much off the mark.

But then 2016 has been a year of disruptions and disruptive tactics all around. But we at indiantelevision.com wish you Christmas cheer and  a disruption-free Happy 2017!

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