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DTH's year of consolidation

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MUMBAI: It would be safe to say that this was the year of the big DTH challenge. India’s cable TV multi system operators (MSOs) could not go into many phase IV areas and DTH stepped in wherever analogue broadcast signals were switched off following the crossing of the digital addressable system (DAS) deadline. Whether it was Tata Sky, FreeDish, Videocon d2h, Airtel Digital TV, Sun Direct or Dish TV, they all played a part.

The going, however, was not as smooth as it could have been. High capex and opex and low ARPUs continued to dog the video distribution vertical making it an extremely low or no-margin business. While in the early days customer acquisition was the driver for most distribution platform operators, currently their eye has been on cost-efficiencies. This was evident from the ongoing overtures three of the players were making to others. Dish TV and Videocon d2h were already going through the throes of merging, the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Big DTH was shopping around having conversations with almost every player, and there were talks of Airtel and Tata Sky possibly getting into bed with each other.

The first nearly came to pass in 2017 with the two companies getting clearances from all quarters—government, courts and company law board—but getting stuck over the year end because of a technical difficulty. Reliance Big TV was sold to an IT and electronics company Veecon that sells security scanners and tablets–the wealth of its promoters is rumoured to be from selling religious lockets. Veecon said it would renew the Big TV licence by giving the requisite bank guarantees and ensure TV continuity for its approximately 1.2 million customers and jobs for nearly 500 people. It also announced that it would take Reliance Big DTH free to air (FTA) and announced a partnership with Sri Adhikari Brothers to launch a clutch of channels that would prove to be drivers of the platform. How Veecon will pay off Big TV’s payments to broadcasters was not clear at the time of writing and will decide whether the platform will ever take off.

However, its announcement came at a time when the government had shut the door for private broadcasters and DD FreeDish, which had shown gee whiz growth rates, had come up as a powerful DTH player. New Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) minister Smriti Irani refused to make channel renewals for which several broadcasters took it to the Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT). An interim order gave the channels, whose licence was soon to expire, relief that they could continue by paying similar prices till Prasar Bharat came up with an alternative proposal and a convincing explanation to throw out private TV channels off DD Free Dish. It is expected that Prasar Bharati will formulate its new policy akin to the FM radio auction wherein 50 per cent of revenue is shared, apart from the bid amount, in e-auctions. Talk internally is that none of this would happen and DD Free Dish is most likely going to be used solely to relay government channels.

Media reports also said sometime in the second half of the year that there could be more synergies between the Tatas and News Corp-promoted Tata Sky and Airtel Digital TV with possible merger talks taking place. That hasn’t happened as of now but the Airtel group did end up buying out certain telecoms asset of the Tatas.

Also, private equity firm Warburg Pincus announced its decision to own 20 per cent stake in Airtel Digital TV for $350 million, leaving 80 per cent with Airtel’s promoters. That valued the Mittal-owned DTH service at a whopping $1.7 billion, which was mouthwatering news for the DTH pioneers. By September, Airtel claimed ownership to 14 million subscribers with revenue of $550 million.

The year was significant for the fact that the DTH operators led by Tata Sky and Airtel Digital decided they had to take a tour of the court. The Harit Nagpal-led operator challenged the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) order on tariff and the reference interconnect regulations. The order stated that all stakeholders must abide by rates fixed by broadcasters. Joining Tata Sky in court was Airtel.

Dish TV, the oldest DTH player in the country, appointed Anil Dua as its new CEO even as the company’s integration with Videocon d2h was on the anvil. Dish TV’s CMD Jawahar Goel raised an alarm over Star India’s monopoly in cricket events that, after its acquisition of the rights for the Indian Premier League (IPL), would force DTH players to include Star Sports channels and result in the broadcaster pricing the sports channels exorbitantly. No government reaction was forthcoming on this issue. Dish TV also took Star channel Life Ok to the TDSAT claiming that it could not rebrand itself as an FTA from a pay channel without sufficient intimation. Life Ok is today Star Bharat and a leading channel in BARC viewership ratings, riding on the expanded viewership courtesy Doordarshan’s FTA KU-band platform called DD FreeDish.

For the quarter ended 31 March 2017, not only did subscriber additions dip drastically, but were also the lowest for a quarter in the financial year 2016-17. Airtel, Dish TV and Videocon saw total addition of just 8.33 per cent to 41.13 million for the concerned financial year. By 30 September 2017, there were just 2.47 million additions to the DTH industry as per TRAI, which was way below the 3.37 million it gained in the same six months in 2016. Moreover, active subscribers added in the July-September quarter were just 0.78 million, half of the figure from the corresponding quarter a year ago. Dish TV, Airtel DTH and Videocon d2h make up 63-65 per cent of the total active subscribers while Tata Sky holds about 21 per cent and Sun Direct 11 per cent. DD Free Dish is estimated to have 22 million subscribers and is expected to touch 40 million in two to three years.

The second half of the year saw the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) that gave a breather to those consuming cable and DTH services. Whereas customers once paid anything between 10-30 per cent as entertainment tax as well as a 15 per cent service tax, it was now fixed at 18 per cent. The Punjab government also announced that it would be adding a new entertainment tax to cable and DTH connections with the latter having to bear Rs 5 a month.

Sun Direct is a major DTH player in the south holding about 40 per cent of the area. It also makes up 97 per cent of its total subscribers. Sun Direct took up an HEVC media solution from Harmonic to increase its HD channel number to 80.

Profit after tax (PAT) for Videocon stood at Rs 168 million for the quarter ended 30 September 2017, which was just Rs 12 million for the previous quarter and Rs 148 million for the corresponding quarter a year ago. Dish TV, however, was in the red with net loss of Rs 178.7 million for the quarter as against PAT of Rs 689.6 million for the same quarter a year ago. During the quarter ended 30 September 2017, Airtel reported PAT of Rs 12,990 million down from Rs 27,350 million from a year ago.

Videocon d2h and Airtel showed good average revenue per user (ARPU) numbers in 2017. The former raked in Rs 212 for the quarter ended 30 September 2017 from 13.25 million subscribers (a 0.21 million increase from the previous quarter). The ARPU for the previous quarter was Rs 198 while a year ago quarter was Rs 209. Dish TV’s ARPU for the same quarter was Rs 149, a rupee higher than the trailing quarter. It had a total of 15.1 million subscribers. ARPU for Airtel Digital TV stood at Rs 233 in the respective quarter, up from Rs 228 in the previous quarter and Rs 232 in the year ago quarter. Tata Sky does not release its financial numbers but analysts pinpoint its ARPU to be close to Rs 300.

Dish TV introduced numerous value-added services (VAS) to encourage more viewers such as the Dance Active and Disney Active series, cardless STBs, 32 educational channels under Swayam Prabha. Early on in the year, it cut the rate of its base pack to Rs 33 a month to counter the free services by DD Free Dish. It even went to the extent of allowing people to curate their own packs by picking individual channels. Dish TV added 23 channels, which included nine HD ones.

Tata Sky came up with a Make My HD pack for as low as Rs 30 per month and a regional HD Access pack at Rs 50 per month for users subscribed to regional SD channels. The channel targeted the south market with a South special pack at Rs 290. Dish TV campaigned for HD in all homes by removing the access fee on it and advertising a cost as low as Rs 169 per month (excluding taxes). Countering DD Free Dish, the oldest DTH player also introduced an FTA pack with a price translating to Rs 32 a month.

On the technology front, Airtel’s hybrid STB was officially the first to launch in the market, bringing to consumers the best of both worlds–satellite channels and content available on the internet. The STB also came preloaded with Netflix and YouTube allowing even a regular TV to turn ‘smart’ courtesy an inbuilt wi-fi feature and Google voice search. Dish TV launched its new card-less security feature with Verimatrix as well as an artificial intelligence-enabled chatbot called ADI.

For the coming year, the industry will likely see the outcome and growth of the first merger between Dish TV and Videocon and the synergies they bring to the industry. FreeDish is expected to be a big player in the remote parts of the country, especially with FTA broadcasters dancing to their tune. DTH operators have to still work hard to increase ARPU and maintain profitability.

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