Broadcasters race to fill gaps in India

Shows aim to lure nation's 116 million TV homes

Half an hour of channel surfing in metropolitan Mumbai can leave a foreign visitor bewildered and exhausted — but in no doubt of the Indian TV scene’s fast-moving vibrancy.

No wonder, then, that Mipcom is celebrating India Day and feting two of Indian entertainment’s biggest execs, Zee founder Subhash Chandra and UTV boss Ronnie Screwvala.

Skeins crackle with energy. They stretch from tearjerking soaps and Bollywood movies to manipulative reality shows and addictive talent contests. Network choice ranges from dedicated sportscasters with myriad onscreen stats and garish interactive features to polished 24-hour news channels that have learned all the best bits from older foreign pioneers. Though the mix also includes some staid state channels, the overall scene is young, competitive and increasingly professional.

India’s broadcasters have been promised a new broadcasting bill and threatened with a new content code. Both may emerge this year — or not. What is abundantly clear is that TV players are not standing around waiting to be regulated. Rather, they are getting on with the more exciting business of beating each other up and expanding the TV universe.

Biggest single booster to the industry is the country’s demography, which is expanding in size, wealth and sophistication.

Although the notion of 116 million TV homes dwarfs that of any European country, that figure is only 52% of households and 57% of the population.

TV’s first challenge is to shake off print and movies and assert itself as the biggest media money-spinner. The industry should achieve revenues of $11 billion and subscription income of $3.6 billion, according to Zee Entertainment Enterprises prexy of international business, Bharat Kumar Ranga.

Historically, development of the industry saw pubcaster Doordarshan’s (DD) state monopoly broken and foreign direct investment encouraged, but only up to a point.

Deregulation let in channels including the BBC, MTV and Cartoon Network, while also opening the door for foreign congloms to be involved in two of the three market leaders, Star and Sony.

Cable and satellite duly arrived, but government strictures meant that distribution became dangerously fragmented and open to piracy. It is estimated that at one point India had more than 60,000 last-mile players, often illegal, often delivering services to as little as one building or one block.

In the past year, the government has finally insisted upon rollout and enforcement of its legislation requiring set-top decoders (known locally as conditional access systems or CAS). This offers broadcasters a potential hike in their share of cable and satellite revenue from roughly 10% to nearly 45% and a larger number of households watching legal, rather than pirated, feeds.

Simultaneously, local media groups have grown bigger and more sophisticated, and industrialists from other sectors have sought media plays.

Country recently went from two satellite platforms (one of which was DD) to three with the launch of Tata Sky, which teams News Corp. know-how with coin from the massive Tata group. Four more, including two backed by equally muscular Indian congloms, are set to launch in the next 18 months.

Is the growth potential really there?

“We certainly believe so,” says Puneet Garg, general manager of the IPTV initiative for cable group Bharti Airtel. He sees hope for both IPTV and mobile TV as Indians joining the consumer classes skip straight to the most modern devices.

“First target is the 38 million homes that only receive DD. Then there are the 110 million non-TV households. CAS is already expanding the market,” Ranga adds. “Real growth will come from rural content.”

Meanwhile, the lineup of channels and content is becoming more fragmented and sophisticated. Top-rated shows are still soaps, talent shows and gameshows — with 340 channels on offer, any program with a 4.0 rating or better can get into the top 10. Market share for general Hindi-language entertainment programming, as offered by Star and Sony, is declining and may now account for as little as 32% of viewership. (Sports, more especially cricket, are also a massive draw.)

These groups are struggling to reinvent themselves and have launched “flanking channels” intended to complement and protect their mainstays from the onslaught of new channels expected from NDTV, 9X, Imagine and TV18.

Simultaneously, they are expanding into regional-language programming, either through launches or acquisitions, in pursuit of less sophisticated auds in smaller cities.

Although foreign-made content to date has fared badly, programming innovation is the order of the day. Like the all-powerful movie industry, which thanks to a combination of demographics and a multiplex-building surge is cracking opening the door to Hollywood movies, Indian TV could finally be ready for more diversity.

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