Will going subscription-based improve news content on Indian television?

The industry seems to have mixed thoughts.

NEW DELHI: As per a recent Media Partners Asia (MPA) report, India is going to be the most scalable pay-TV market in the APAC region, with a CAGR of 6 per cent, touching $15 billion by 2024. India will also contribute almost half of the net subscriber additions in the Asia Pacific over the next five years, it highlighted. The increase in consumer awareness, the choices they have, and growing disposable income are a few factors that are going to contribute to this. 

More and more, Indian news channels are toying with the idea that if they go the subscription way, a course correction in terms of content they are serving will also happen. 

Certain players like Times Network, Aaj Tak (SD), Zee News (SD), and News 18 Bihar Jharkhand have already made a successful transition from being FTA to pay-TV in the past few years, while still maintaining their viewership and ad revenues. And there are others who are willing to move to that model. 

Times Network MD and CEO MK Anand also advocated the subscription-based model for news channels at the recent News Television Summit.

He had said, “When you go the subscription route, there is no need to be ratings-led. The current subscription numbers are 10X of what they were in 2014 when I joined the Times. We have to benchmark ourselves on net distribution income (NDI). When it comes to NDI, a news channel should look at the top of the population pyramid more.” 

Anand had estimated that 54 per cent of the Times Network’s revenue in FY21 is going to come from subscription. “The total ratings-led business in our topline is less than 25 per cent. Earlier it used to be 90 per cent. Back then we didn’t have branded content or premium-led ground or digital business. Specifically, Times Now’s TRP-led business is less than 11 per cent of the total.”

In a similar vein, ABP News Network CEO Avinash Pandey had shared in an earlier virtual fireside chat with that he’s quite determined to make all the channels and websites in his network subscription-based – because anything free in this country is taken for granted. 

“Our regional channels were already on a pay model. We only went FTA because of the uncertain environment caused by NTO 1.0. From a carriage perspective, NTO 2.0 is favourable. In today’s world when you have WhatsApp circulating all the videos you are likely to show in the evening and Twitter already debating views and counter views, before you discuss anything on TV it’s already discussed online. In this scenario, how to build a pay channel is the challenge,” he had remarked.

Channels like BBC and CNN that have always been subscription-based also vouched for the success of the model, even from an advertising standpoint.

BBC Global News MD - India and South Asia Rahul Sood noted that having more subscription-based news channels will move it to a point where the players will have to be conscious of which space they want to be in – serious, investigative journalism, or competing with TikTok and cat-and-mouse videos of Facebook. He insisted that going subscription-based will attract the niche audience, thereby helping the pricing. 

However, the top marketing executives have mixed views on the pay-tv option for news improving editorial content. They were, however, more positive about the impact on ad revenues. 

Wavemaker India chief client officer and head - west Shekhar Banerjee pointed out that merely shifting to a pay structure will not solve the content issue on TV news channels. He said, “We have seen such migrations in the past. While the subscription model brings in a bit of cushion for the business, the dependence of the channel on advertiser revenue still remains significant and so will be the pressure to top the viewership race. We will see a real impact in editorial content only when a news channel is brave enough to only earn from subscription and not chase popular journalism.”

Dentsu International CEO - India Anand Bhadkamkar was a bit more optimistic on the impact of subscriptions on quality of content as he noted, “Yes, a course correction in the sort of content that we are seeing today will happen if more and more news channels start moving towards subscription-based entities. And the ad rates will also be reflective of that, considering bundled rates for websites and digital content. Also, it will provide a better return on investment to the advertisers as they will have more breadth to understand the sort of audience they will be getting.”

As for advertising revenue, Pay channels are in a better position to demand a premium on ad rates because they will have the niche audience, who are also going to be better spenders, according to IdeateLabs MD Amit Tripathi.

But does this entail that FTA channels will lose out on ad revenues? The industry doesn’t think so. 

Bhadkamkar said, “I don’t think FTA channels will have anything to lose even if more channels start going subscription-based. The advertising revenues will still be dependent on the viewership that they are getting and if you see the likes of NDTV and Republic Bharat, they have really benefited from being FTA.”

Hindi FTA news channels have enjoyed the privilege of quoting higher ad rates because the viewership is high there, Bhadkamkar observed. Meanwhile, it’s the opposite for English news channels. He insisted that it will depend upon the viewership in the future as well. 

Tripathi also agreed with the sentiment, adding that the type of advertisers might see a little shift with more premium brands choosing to go for the subscription-based channels. However, the final trend will only be decided by viewership numbers as certain premium customers might still be watching FTA channels. 

As advertisers and viewers alike repudiate toxic, tone-deaf content, the penny has finally dropped for news channels. They’ve realised it’s high time to switch gears and focus on editorial content, and whichever way they decide to go – whether pay or FTA – broadcasting responsibly should be their guiding principle from here on out; if news organisations serve the viewers (and not their own political agendas), they will come to the channels of their own volition.

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