Cable TV

MCOF's Arvind Prabhu on post-NTO era, LCO concerns, OTT regulation

LCOs are still not happy with the revenue-sharing business model

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The cable and broadcasting ecosystem started the year 2019 with a disruption – the new tariff order (NTO). With the implementation of NTO, the most dissatisfied section of the ecosystem was local cable operators (LCO) as they found the revenue-share business model would make their survival difficult which caused massive protests from LCOs. As months passed, the turmoil settled, but the ecosystem is yet to benefit from NTO, according to Maharashtra Cable Operators Foundation (MCOF) president Arvind Prabhu.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com, Prabhu spoke on major challenges faced by the ecosystem after NTO, how the industry evolved post-NTO, how LCOs can survive in the future with upgradation in technologies amid OTT onslaught, etc. Prabhu will also share his insights on the current state of industry at Indiantelevision.com's Video and Broadband Summit 2019, India's definitive Pay-TV and video distribution get together. 

Edited excerpts:

Has the industry settled down after the NTO was implemented?

The industry has settled down but not the benefits of the NTO as envisaged by TRAI within the ecosystem. Consumers are not getting the benefits of the NTO. So the actual implementation of NTO is still found pending.

What are the major changes you noticed post-NTO?

What we would like to highlight is that because of the lack of proper implementation, the consumer is still not getting his choice of channels. There has been an increase in the monthly rates and we still feel the transparency is not there. The transparency which was required is still not there. Also, earlier there were two TV sets in households. Now, the second TV is still not active in post- NTO era. Only the primary TV set has been activated in the new tariff order. So, almost 20-25 per cent of our connections have still not activated.

Initially, local cable operators showed strong disagreement to the revenue sharing model with MSOs. Has the situation changed?

The situation has still not changed. The local cable operators (LCOs) are still not happy, especially with the network capacity fee (NCF) factor. We are still demanding the entire NCF should be given to LMO. So, the sharing with the broadcasters, the sharing of 80-20 is still not agreeable to us. There was an open-house discussion recently where lots of suggestions were given, therefore we are awaiting that to come.

If the model does not change, have you thought of alternatives to prevent the loss?

The revenue share model has to change. It looks like the broadcasters are going to be reducing the charges. Earlier, we thought broadcasters inflated their charges. From Rs 19 to they have gone down to Rs 12. Obviously, the ARPU is going down. If the ARPU is going down, then the revenue share also needs to be relooked and everyone in the ecosystem has to survive. If the cable operators do not get their fixed price, then they would not be able to survive. We are seeing a lot of cooperative head-ends coming up, a lot of infrastructure-sharing happening. But traditional TV is also now aligning with telcos. BSNL has opened its doors to providing its services as also Reliance Jio. There is going to be a little bit of turmoil in the market. The traditional linear viewing is changing.

What are the other major concerns of LCOs?

,One of the major problem is who is the owner of the set-top box. Even today, the set-top box is given by the MSOs to LCO at Rs 1,150 or Rs 1,200. The receipt they are giving is the installation charge. As per TRAI, the installation charge is Rs 300 and registration charge is Rs 100. So, they cannot charge more than Rs 400 at any case. But they are giving the box at Rs 1,150 and saying it's installation charge. This is a violation of GST they are doing and the ultimate ownership of the box is still a question mark because the Multi-System Operators (MSOs) are taking money from LMOs, keeping the money to themselves, getting the depreciation themselves and also not paying GST.

Also, the grievance is we are not given the choice to choose the channel that a consumer wants. As a consumer, I should have freedom of choice. But the DPOs are selling their packs, broadcasters selling their packs. I have no mechanism where I can sell my own packs. So, these all are part of NTO that was supposed to happen and that has not happened and the  tariff has gone up. So, now we are at a cross-roads.

If you ask me whether NTO is a good thing, I will say NTO is a very good thing. It is bringing a lot of transparency, it gives equitable revenue to everyone but broadcasters and MSOs both are flouting the rules. Broadcasters are still doing fixed fee deals and MSOs are still not giving the actual audits. TRAI had also mentioned consumers be offered both prepaid and postpaid options. Now, as an LMO, LCO I am a consumer to the DPO. I have only got a prepaid option whereas my consumer is postpaid. So, what has happened is the entire liquidity of cable operators goes into prepaid mode whereas when the MSOs have to make the content  payment they make, they are easily getting three months of payment difference. So, basically MSOs are sitting on  cash. They are under-reporting to broadcasters, they have done fixed fee deals, they are not paying broadcasters also on time but they are taking prepaid from cable operators for the entire universe. The MSOs are benefitting more than anybody else.

During the first phase of NTO implementation, a large number of consumers complained against LCOs for not giving a-la-carte channels? Why did this occur?

Again, there was no awareness then. LCOs cannot give a-la-carte channels. Who gives a-la-carte channels? It is an MSO who has to facilitate the LCO to pass on the a-la-carte channels. MSOs are not giving a-la-carte channels, only DPO packages or the broadcaster packages. Earlier consumers were not getting that facility. Now, consumers thought the LCOs were not giving. Unfortunately, MSOs were not doing their duties and cable operators were facing the wrath of customers.

As LCOs work on-the-ground, they are generally aware of consumer feedback. Do they think consumers are happy with the new price regime?

Few consumers are very very dissatisfied because we are forcing packages on them and the prices have increased. Few of them - who were very very smart and educated and understood -  are very very happy with what is happening. A lot of awareness needs to happen. True pictures will emerge when we allow  consumers to select the a-la-carte channels. By and large, the ratio is 50-50.

There are other changes in the ecosystem as well. How the OTT onslaught is affecting LCOs?

OTT is making a lot of inroads. That is one of the points we are trying to make to TRAI that they have to bring OTT under this ambit. Because you are seeing a channel which is Rs 90 on cable or IPTV or DTH, on OTT it's available for free. And most of the people are now watching on their handheld devices. If they are getting all their entertainment and sports on an OTT platform that is not charged, it is not fair. It has to be charged and it has to be brought under regulation.

Has Jio’s entry impacted the LCOs?

Not much. Because they are struggling to reach a critical point. The pricing they have done also is quite affordable for LCOs to match and at Rs 699 for their basic internet charges, you know only cable operators can match those. Not much but it can be a threat.

Why did LCOs lose a huge amount of subscribers during this phase?

25-30 per cent of second  TV set owners may have gone to OTT or IPTV or they are not just renewing. They are finding it a luxury. Earlier they could get two TV sets coonections in Rs 300-400. Now, it's going to Rs 800-1000.

With all the changes in technology, the emergence of new players, how do you foresee long-term future of LCOs?

Those LCOs who upgrade themselves and do FTTH, will survive in the long run. Those LCOs who are not upgrading and think they will only do what they were doing and not invest in infrastructure, they will vanish. 

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