Cable TV

In the brave new digital world, content could really be king

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"If content is King and distribution is God, then God save the King!" That was Prasar Bharati CEO KS Sarma speaking at a recent industry seminar.

In these times of increasing channel influx onto already overloaded analogue cable systems, the distribution God is certainly making the content king do the merry carriage dance. Reminds one of the ever-worsening infrastructural mess that is Mumbai actually, where people are paying more and more for less and worse but with a big difference. Mumbai's is a story that is looking more hopeless by the day, while in this case there is much optimism about the future.

True, for the short to medium term, it will be the distribution God in whose hands will lie the fate of the content King. But once the dust has settled on all of this and the new platforms like digital cable, DTH, IPTV and mobile TV have reached critical mass, then it will be content that will hold sway, and how.

True, for the short to medium term, it will be the distribution God in whose hands will lie the fate of the content King

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Disney's ABC network is already pointing one of the ways forward with its new online service of free programming. As part of a two-month-long experiment, Disney-ABC Television Group will be offering ad-supported, full-length episodes of four ABC primetime series online at www.abc.go.com.

What's the logic working here? Is ABC getting Get 'Desperate' and 'Lost' as regards its online strategy. Not at all. It all makes sense if we keep in mind that if there is one place where the dominant culture is to access content for free, it is the Web.

So if ABC is trying to transpose the "traditional advertising driven network model" onto the Web there is already an inbuilt advantage over television. It is that while the whole TiVo, time-shifting, DVR mentality is now carrying over to the Web, the consumer cannot zap out the ads. And since many of the ads will be interactive, advertisers will be guaranteed even greater value.

The content creators that stay ahead of the curve and the distribution platform providers most alive to the challenges and opportunities that the digital world offers will be the ones who will reap the benefits

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Closer to home, companies like Reliance and Airtel expect to start IPTV services by the end of this year. And for a basic package they are promising rates as cheap as your current cable TV charges. No one is trying to say there won't be teething problems (and knowing the ground realities here, these would probably be pretty severe). In India the biggest problem is going to be unbundling of the so called last mile, which basically means that incumbent operators like BSNL or MTNL should allow other operators to use their copper wires.

With the imminent arrival of Tata-Sky DTH, Zee's Dish TV ramping up and the big telecom players aggressively pushing ahead with IPTV and mobile TV, the value of quality content can only go up. We see some sort of shakeout --- both on the content as well as the technology side by 2008.

In the meanwhile, the content creators that stay ahead of the curve and the distribution platform providers most alive to the challenges and opportunities that the digital world offers will be the ones who will reap the benefits.

There could well be a lesson in this for the cable fraternity too. Market forces could soon make the whole CAS debate irrelevant and the MSOs may well end up "missing the addressability bus".

Maybe MSOs should instead be focussing their efforts on attractively packaging and marketing CAS to their direct points to begin with and concurrently convincing their franchisees of the need to get CAS going, government or no government.

The cable fraternity has a huge first mover advantage vis-?-vis pushing addressability because they own the last mile. Maybe they should as aggressively be chasing market-driven addressability as they are the mandating of CAS. A twin strategy would better cover their bases one would think.

As for the content game, to quote John Hendricks, chairman of Discovery Communications Inc, from a recent report: "Newly empowered TV consumers will drive networks to improve their offerings, putting a 'great squeeze' on 'marginal quality content'. They're in control now."

Not in India, they're not. But they will be. Of that nobody need have any doubt.

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