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VBS 2021: The way forward for linear TV ecosystem hosted its flagship summit on 5 March

KOLKATA: The debate of over-the-top (OTT) platforms versus pay TV has been centre stage in media and entertainment conversations over the last couple of years. More recently, the subject has died down as the industry reached the conclusion that both linear TV and on-demand TV will co-exist in India for a long time, unlike the markets in the west. But the change in technology and consumer behaviour have definitely thrown challenges at the traditional TV ecosystem. At the Video and Broadband Summit (VBS) 2021, the industry discussed how to stay resilient even amid the flux.

The summit started with a welcome note by founder, CEO and editor-in-chief Anil Wanvari as the prestigious conference marked its seventeenth edition this year. Back in 2003, when the summit (earlier IDOS) was held for the first time, the industry was much more disorganised. Over the passage of nearly two decades, the industry has gone through multiple changes like digitisation, new price regime etc.

India has escaped cord-cutting, TV viewing is growing but the industry cannot afford to lean back, Wanvari said. He also cautioned alarm that despite the projections of the Indian pay-TV ecosystem reaching $15-16 billion revenue, it still stands at around $11 billion.

“Only about 800 million are being served by linear TV. Another 500 million are yet to be served. Traditional TV is definitely strong here but it has come under attack. Broadcasters have to find ways of combating the surge of edgy and almost meaningful content which has recently been brought under the regulation of I&B ministry that is being put out by OTT platforms to hook and retain customers. Now DTH operators, HITS providers, Cable TV players have to find ways of making their operations even more scalable, provide additional services,” Wanvari commented.

Post the welcome note, VBS 2021 hosted its first panel discussion, moderated by Wanvari, bringing together top executives from broadcasters and distribution platform operators (DPOs). In ‘The leaders speak laying out a profitable future’ session, Indiacast Media Distribution president Amit Arora, Siti Networks CEO Anil Malhotra, Star & Disney India- India & International TV distribution president Gurjeev Singh Kapoor, Travelxp 4K founder & CEO Prashant Chothani, Fastway Transmission & Netplus Broadband group CEO Prem Ojha, and NXTDigital MD & CEO Vynsley Fernandes discussed the industry’s recovery post-Covid2019 and the way beyond.

The leaders agreed that the industry has come out of the Covid2019 impact and is bouncing back gradually, although there are still some hiccups. “We all had to recast our business models, there were a lot of learnings that happened. One was that the government ensured that cable TV and broadband were treated as essential services,” Fernandes stated. Fastway’s Ojha added that technology took a big leap catalysed by the pandemic situation.

“Majority of content consumption still happens on DPO level. They were keeping up the service level in the pandemic. I am really amazed to see how all of them were able to put up that spirit to their team that let’s not get frightened, let’s get the connectivity going. DPOs are the real media Covid warriors. This is my learning from the pandemic – that there has to be cross-dependency and there has to be faith between the entire ecosystem, then we are going to have much bigger recovery, much bigger growth going forward,” Chothani said. While the subscription count went down during the crisis due to migration, MN Vyas asserted that the numbers are bouncing back. “We’re looking forward to the good fiscal year 2022,” Arora said.

Other than a dip in subscriber addition due to the Covid crisis, the broadcasters and DPOs could not undertake any price revision due to the lack of clarity on NTO 2.0. Kapoor said there is now competition in every genre reducing the risk of monopoly, both for broadcasters and MSOs. Hence, the pricing of content should be left with market forces rather than implementing heavy regulations.

Talking about future opportunities, the leaders agreed that the conversion from SD to HD can be one potential area if communicated properly to consumers. Along with that, wired broadband is another potential growth driver for MSOs as the penetration is very low currently. Even if deep-pocketed players like Jio starts aggressive acquisition, there will still be enough opportunities left for other players given the fact there are only 22 million home broadband subscribers currently, Malhotra noted.

Along with a robust business model, technology acts as the deciding factor in today’s fast-moving era. The second session discussed ‘Future proofing DPOs on video delivery solutions’ in the presence of NXTDigital group CTO Ru Ediriwira, Asianet Satellite Communications Ltd vice president & technology head Salil Thomas, Broadpeak Business Development vice president  Xavier Leclercq, and Planetcast Media Services founder director MN Vyas.

Ediriwira said it is important to focus on future proof technology but new technology can come anytime and disrupt the industry despite the precautions. According to her, it is important to keep abreast of current developments and be open to new opportunities. Thomas echoed a similar sentiment, saying every organisation should be ready to adapt to changes, no matter what.

“I think futureproof is something which is never possible. We have to really look at what is needed –at least what is needed in the next five years. We have to make a sea change in our distribution system. TV has to be more intelligent,” Vyas added.

The panel also discussed the possibility of IPTV as a solution to simplify the network. Although it needs long-term investment and has not been considered widely, it could be the right direction to look at. Leclercq said, “Everywhere in the cable network, efficiency is reducing, complexity is moving everything to IP based delivery. I think one of the encouraging steps in this direction is seeing some big scale MSO in Europe, US launching IP only set top boxes.”

The summit rounded off with a session focusing on ‘Customer First’ moderated by PwC India’s partner and leader - media, entertainment & sports advisory Raman Kalra. The panelists included some of the top names from the broadband and cable industry, such as JioFiber president Anuj Jain, Siti Networks ‘ DGM Strategy Anurag Nigam, UCN Cable Network operations head Debashis Mohanty, GTPL Hathway vice president Yatin Gupta and Shemaroo Entertainment broadcasting business COO Sandeep Gupta.

Kalra opened the session by mentioning how customers today are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing content to consume, what with video on demand and OTT platforms mushrooming with ever increasing channels of entertainment. Despite demands for content and internet broadband having skyrocketed during the pandemic, the challenge of remaining relevant is a concern for both the service and content provider, as well, in the highly competitive market. So the question arises on how to acquire and retain a customer base with the constantly changing customer demands and behaviour.

The panel debated the pros and cons of the pandemic and the post-Covid market scenario. Everyone agreed that the period was a huge shot in the arm to the industry as people were confined to their homes with increasing digital requirements for their work, study and entertainment. It resulted in a major spike in cable TV and broadband consumption in the initial months of the pandemic, which flattened out towards the latter half of the lockdown.

Strategies were discussed on how best to meet consumer needs and ensure customer stickiness. The session concluded by summarising that there’s a need for businesses to invest deeply in knowing and engaging with their customers. Analysing customers’ content consumption data can also lead to rich dividends.

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