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#Throwback2020: Cable operators start adapting to stay relevant

The Covid2019 pandemic has led to drop in revenue, subscribers.

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KOLKATA: Charles Darwin coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ while studying the phenomenon of natural selection in the evolution of life. This concept applies to the inanimate world, too – as exhibited by the Indian cable industry. With changing consumption patterns, advancements in technologies, there are few consistently profit-making cable TV service providers left in the market.

Then came Covid2019, affecting the supply chain and normal operations. More people turned to online platforms for entertainment, further imperiling the industry. In order to survive, it became vital to adapt – and many large and mid-level cable operators did just that, by innovating business models for sustainability.

As the countrywide lockdown was implemented, cable TV operators encountered multiple roadblocks. For instance, a part of the workforce in big cities, and students who went back to their hometowns or native villages did not renew their subscriptions. The closure of commercial establishments like hotels and offices also impacted the subscriber base along with financial stress among lower income groups. Due to lack of fresh content on major entertainment channels, live sports content, a number of subscribers downgraded their subscription packs. All of these factors caused a difficult first half of FY21 for consumers.

The sales of new set top boxes dropped for 75 per cent of cable TV operators during Covid2019, while nearly 84 per cent operators reported a drop in collection, a survey study by INTIN said. And it’s not just for a brief period – 77 per cent multiple system operators (MSOs) expected a decline in revenue in FY21 and some of them even estimated the drop to be greater than 25 per cent.

Along with subscriber loss, local cable operators faced the issue of payment collection due to restrictions during the stringent lockdown. While it initially led to a drop in revenue, it compelled most MSOs as well as LCOs to adopt digital payment practices. Major MSOs like GTPL Hathway, Siti Networks, IMCL acknowledged that more consumers and local cable operators embraced digital payment options post-Covid2019. However, some of the LCOs who are working on ground also cautioned that the number of consumers paying digitally is still not substantial, albeit the noticeable improvement during lockdown.

The pandemic has further solidified the need to adopt hybrid boxes among MSOs. Hathway Digital, Den Networks, Siti Networks, IMCL, GTPL Hathway have already launched or are working on rolling out hybrid boxes. Although the roll out has been delayed due to the Covid crisis for some companies, they have set the target of finishing the task within this fiscal itself.

In addition to providing OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar on their boxes, foraying into the OTT space could be a big gamechanger for the industry, Intin recommended. Large MSOs often have upwards of 80 local cable channels, which can be readily primed to their own OTT platforms. Currently, only 24 per cent of cable TV players have their own OTT platforms offering pure-play cable content.

Moreover, the operators who will be able to skinny bundles with an internet connection will thrive in this changing ecosystem. As more people worked from home, attended e-classes, consumed more online content, the demand for high-speed wired broadband has gone up rapidly. The wired broadband sector has continued to grow throughout the year, standing at 21.51 million subscribers as of October. The cable operators have gained from this growth substantially, as all listed MSOs have reported an increase in broadband subscribers.

But while it is easier for larger players to invest in new technologies, it could be a challenge for the minnows to survive. According to a report from Omid, the number of local cable operators has gone down by 30 per cent between 2015 and 2020. Number of local cable operators is predicted to fall to around 20,000 by 2025, down from about 40,000 in 2019. It also mentioned that consolidation between larger pay TV players like Airtel TV, Dish and TataSky is also possible following the merger of Dish TV with D2H and the acquisition of cable operators Hathway and DEN by Reliance Jio.

Like other sectors in the media and entertainment industry, cable operators also witnessed some significant changes in regulations. As part of the government’s move to decriminalise smaller offences, the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) proposed to remove jail terms for violating Cable TV Networks Regulation Act. Punishments for offences committed under the act would be limited to seizing the equipment of the operator, cancellation of the license, a ban of up to 30 days on the broadcasting of the channel, forcible running of apology scrolls and so on.

The operators started off 2020 with the amended new tariff order (NTO 2.0) wherein they had to adjust network capacity fee and multi-TV connection charge. In the middle of the Covid crisis, TRAI recommended that all STBs provided to customers must support interoperability and urged the MIB to make it mandatory by introducing the requisite provisions. The viability of the move was questioned and stakeholders warned that it would be a very high-cost operation.

On the bright side, MIB permitted infrastructure sharing between HITS operators and MSOs, meeting the long-pending demand of the TV distribution sector. The amended guidelines also allow sharing of transport stream transmitted by HITS platforms, between HITS operators and MSOs. As many MSOs across the country are facing a cash crunch, the infrastructure sharing could help them reduce operating expenses.

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