The TRAI, TV channels, MSOs and LCOs, all want to make digital cable TV broadcasting a reality in India. Yet, they are blaming each other for the delay and 'manipulation' in pricing and reporting of false subscriber numbers. In the end, it's the viewer who is denied a better experience
They all want to implement it and are still finding it very difficult to come together on a single platform. This is the story of the digitisation of cable TV in India. While the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) wants digitisation to be implemented in four phases, broadcasters and distributors, including multi-services operators (MSOs) and local cable operators (LCOs) expect the government to issue an order for the immediate implementation of digitisation of cable TV.
It's a different matter, that the broadcasters, MSOs and LCOs are at loggerhead and each wants the other to bear the cost for digitisation. Unfortunately, this has resulted in viewers being denied a better experience to watch and listen to super quality telecast.
These differences between the regulator, broadcasters and operators were out in the open during a discussion at the FICCI FRAMES convention on Wednesday-Thursday. Last month, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), while accepting the recommendations made by TRAI, deferred the timeline to March 2015 from December 2013.
In August 2010, TRAI had recommended implementing the complete digitisation of cable TV network, or complete switchover from analog to digital, by December 2013, in four phases. The first phase, to be completed by March 2011 (then moved by the I&B further to March 2012), will cover the four metros, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.
In the second phase, digitisation would be implemented in all cities which have a population of over 10 lakh, by December 2011 (again shifted further to March 2013). The third phase would be completed by December 2012 (moved back to November 2014) and will cover all urban areas having municipal corporations. The last phase will witness digitisation in every part of the country by December 2013 (now moved by the I&B to March 2015).
Participating in a discussion on 'Confronting Realities In Television: Crossing Over Regulatory Hurdles', George Elias, principal advisor for broadcast and policy, TRAI, said, "TV has become the single source of information in the country and it is necessary for the regulator to make sure it is available at reasonable price to everyone in the country."
"TRAI is open for co-regulation of this industry, but all players like broadcasters, MSOs and LCOs are not united. There are over 50,000 cable operators in the country, while the number of broadcasters is around 500-600. In a democratic system, the number of cable operators outbid the number of broadcasters and it may appear that we are taking sides, but this is not the case," he added.
TV Today Network, represented by G Krishnan, its executive director and chief executive, was very vocal in protesting the role and need of a regulator in the TV business. He said that the "involvement of a regulator has put the brakes on the TV industry's growth. Inaction by the regulator, especially on the pricing, is making us to earn revenues. I feel the regulator should let the subscribers decide on content and pricing."
Earlier, Aroon Purie, chairman and editor-in-chief, India Today group, labelled the government's behaviour on the matter as 'dumb, deaf and blind'. "Cable TV is not an essential commodity, so, why then does the government want to control prices, that too when they (the government) had not invested a single paisa in this business," he asked.
Cable TV has become a distorted business model, especially for broadcasters, he said. Today, subscribers pay around Rs20,000 crore, out of which only Rs4,000 crore reaches the broadcasters. "Broadcasters are spending huge money on carriage fees, content generation and talent, why then don't we get our right share in the subscription amount collected by cable TV operators? Going forward, I think, digitisation will help increasing bandwidth, remove carriage fees and bring accountability and transparency in this business," Mr Purie said.
In the absence of an addressable system, the subscription revenue transaction between the broadcasters, MSOs and LCOs is undertaken either on a fixed-fee basis or on the basis of a negotiated subscriber base. Considering the strong bargaining power enjoyed by LCOs who own the last mile, the distribution of subscription revenue in effect remains heavily skewed in their favour. According to estimates, LCOs declare only around 15% of their paid connectivity to MSOs and broadcasters.
This not only deprives the MSOs and broadcasters of their fair share of value, but also results in service tax leakage for the government. The lack of trust and transparency in the business models of the industry has also led to frequent disputes between stakeholders and increased litigation incidences.
Regretting that over the years cable operators were being sidelined from FICCI FRAMES, Ashok Mansukhani, director, Indusind Media and Communications (IMCL), said, "During 2002, MSOs and LCOs have already suffered due to non-clarity in the conditional access system (CAS). This time also the cable industry is ready to invest in digitisation, but we need more clarity from the regulators and broadcaster on revenue sharing."
The cable and satellite television market in India had emerged in the 1990s and has since then experienced strong growth, in terms of number of subscribers having grown from a mere 4 lakh in 1992 to around 9 crore today-a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 35% over the last 18 years. With a share of roughly 40%, the television industry accounts for the largest share in the roughly Rs70,000 crore Indian entertainment and media industry, followed by print, film, radio and other media.
Currently, the television distribution network in India-catering to around 140 million television homes-is predominantly of analog type with over 60% subscribers belonging to this category, while the digital cable subscriber base remains low at around 4.5 million television homes. There are around 50,000 LCOs and 1,000 MSOs, including about 10 major MSOs in India.