And before everything could be set right, introduction of the Goods & Services Tax (GST) on July 1, this year again forced the wind to blow against the direction of movement. Broadcasting industry which is suffering with many issues found demonetisation and GST as the two biggest hurdles as it affected the lifeblood – advertisements.
The 18% tax rate on cable TV and DTH (Direct-to-Home) services was welcomed by the industry, but what looked rosy initially turned out as ad-killer later. The industry welcomed the GST as a revolutionary one nation one tax, and stake holders started fully migrating to the GST regime. They felt that unlike the then existing Entertainment Tax and VAT regime, where different rules were used to determine tax in different regions, GST would be a single tax that should be practical and convenient to pass on to the consumer.
The broadcasters too welcomed it and said that the entertainment tax that the DTH/Cable operators were paying on the subscription income has been subsumed into GST at 18 per cent which is slightly lower than the existing levy. So, they foresaw a positive impact of GST.
Many of them thought that there would be a neutral impact on ad sales. Some broadcasters thought GST would be beneficial in terms of ease of doing business.
But whether demonetisation and GST would be beneficial in the long run is matter of speculation and discussion by the economy experts, its current impact has been very adverse on the industry. The Industry is really in bad shape and small and medium enterprises are finding its difficult to service.
According to MK Anand, MD and CEO, Times Network, GST has caused a drop of around 25% in ad revenue. Even the festive season could not bring much cheer to the industry. Sales personnel are working hard to bring in advertisers but they are facing real problem to woo advertisers despite the high quality of content.
Pawan Jailkhani, Chief Revenue Officer, 9X Media, feels that GST is worse than demonetisation in terms of impact on ad revenue.
Noting the impact of demonetisation, Pitch Madison Ad Report said that loss in the months of November and December, 2016 was around ` 1,650 crore. Although, the forecasts said that the industry would recover by April 2017, but then GST came like another blow.
Foreign players like Turner International India too registered losses up to 20%. Juhi Ravindranath, Vice President, Head Advertising Sales, South Asia, Turner International India, said: “Everything was going well till June 15. Then advertisers were grappling with GST at their end. They had to resolve pertinent issues which took a while. In the past week, people are getting ready for season time and by August 7 it has taken off again. So, the impact was felt between mid-June and first week of August.”
Impact on Radio:
Not only GST and demonetisation, but RERA too affected ad sales, as real estate has been down. Radio stations too suffered heavy losses as ad flow became too slow.
According to Satyanarayana Murthy, CEO of Radio Indigo 91.9 FM, “Q1 ad volume for radio industry must have dipped by around 15% in markets like Bengaluru and Mumbai and the impact has largely been felt in the existing frequencies and not the new ones. Existing frequencies have seen miniscule or negative growth and it has been a mediocre quarter.”
Harrish Bhatia, CEO of 94.3 MY FM, too concurs: “Across categories and industries, Q1 has been a disappointment owing to change in government policies such as GST, RERA and the effects of demonetisation. Q2 is also witnessing impact of the policies.
OTT & rise of DD Freedish pose a big challenge
Apart from GST and demonetisation, the industry also faces a stiff competition from Over-The-Top (OTT) entertainment providers. Issues like lack of any regulation for OTT players, as well as availability of pay content freely on OTT have been a big cause of concern to the whole distribution industry.
To find solutions to the issues plaguing the sector, the Distribution Platform Operators (DPOs) and the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) organized a meeting in New Delhi on 25 October. They discussed several issues concerning the TV broadcast sector. Some of the issues raised by DPOs in the meeting included the availability of pay channel in FTA mode on Prasar Bharati’s free DTH platform Freedish, availability of pay content for free on Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms owned by broadcasters and disputes related to content deals.
Those who were present at the get together included members of IBF, Direct-to-Home (DTH) Association, All India Digital Cable Federation (AIDCF), COFI and Local Cable Operators (LCOs). From broadcasters’ side, the meeting was attended by ZEEL MD and CEO Punit Goenka, IndiaCast CEO Anuj Gandhi, and Sony Pictures Networks India president sports and distribution Rajesh Kaul. Deepak Jacob attended the meeting as an observer on behalf of Star India. MSOs were represented by Hathway Cable and Datacom MD Rajan Gupta, DEN Networks CEO SN Sharma, IndusInd Media and Communications Ltd (IMCL) MD and CEO Ashok Mansukhani. Dish TV MD Jawahar Goel and Tata Sky CEO Harit Nagpal represented the DTH players.
The issue of free content hampering the subscription collection of MSOs was raised by the IMCL MD and CEO Ashok Mansukhani. He said, “Broadcasters are
offering content for free on their OTT platforms how we will convince consumers to pay if they get content for free.”
Mansukhani also said whether broadcasters will offer content free to DPOs when the latter launch their own OTT platforms to ensure a level playing field.
Defending their OTT businesses, the broadcasters said that the content on OTT is available with a time lag, while Hathway MD Rajan Gupta said that OTT is having an impact on subscription revenue.
According to DEN Networks CEO SN Sharma, “MSOs have invested ` 20,000 crore in the business however the Return on Investment (RoI) has not happened for the MSOs. The broadcasters should declare their MRP so that any increase in price can be communicated to the consumers.”
“The phenomenon of seeking hike in annual subscription is becoming unviable,” he added.
SN Sharma asked whether the broadcasters will be willing to offer content to MSOs with a 2 hour delay on the lines of OTT. IBF was called upon to establish a task force with other industry constituents to take on the menace of piracy.
They also felt that the availability of linear feed on Jio TV app is a big issue which is hampering the growth.
FTA Channels on DD Freedish:
According to EY Report, the subscriber base of DD Free Dish is projected to reach around 40 million users in the next two to three years from over 20 million subscribers at present. Currently, rural TV viewers contribute to 52% of the overall viewership. However, it is estimated to contribute 74% of the total viewership on DD Freedish.
Big broadcasters are paying huge sums to Prasar Bharati to buy FTA channel slots on its free DTH platform DD Freedish. They are not doing it with any good reason to serve the poor population with high quality pay content, but it is done only to increase their viewership which they then use to woo advertisers by offering bouquet of channels and sell ad spaces on high rates, while DD is happy just because it is getting Crores for free slots and take it as its achievement to show before the government. So, in directly DD Freedish is helping big broadcasters to monopolise markets with money power.
These broadcasters were never interested in rural markets until since rating agency Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) started reporting rural data in late 2015.
According to a report by ICICI Securities, the rise of FTA channels could adversely affect the pay-TV opportunity in urban areas and villages. The FTA ad market was pegged at ` 400-` 500 crore in 2016, and ` 800-` 1,000 crore in 2017.
The report added that this move by broadcasters to offer more FTA channels could threaten the pay-TV opportunity in phases 3 and 4 markets and could be negative in the longer term.
The report said: “DTH (Direct-to-Home) platforms have also been reactive and are offering leaner and smaller packs and FTA packages to combat Free Dish. While broadcasters have confirmed that it is a tactical move, we see such short-term approach as a matter of concern.”
Top broadcasters started their FTA movie channels in 2016 and a number of news and music channels have been converted from pay to FTA.
According to the report, “The long-term loss for broadcasters would be higher from pay-TV in the long run as compared to FTA ad pie. We showcase an annual revenue opportunity loss of ` 18 billion for broadcasters from pay-TV, assuming 30 million subscribers could have generated monthly content average revenue per user of ` 50.”
It does not mean that the country’s telecom regulator TRAI is unaware of the issues of the sector. To push reforms, the regulator will soon approach the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry to take a call on a range of recommendations pending with the Ministry since 2013.
According to media sources, “TRAI is planning to make a formal request to the ministry to consider the recommendations submitted by TRAI on multiple issues across the broadcasting sector and take a call. The reforms have been stuck for so long; it is like a black hole.”
Currently, 9 sets of recommendations are pending for approval with the I&B Ministry on multiple issues, including media ownership norms, monopoly in cable TV sector, Direct-to-Home (DTH) licensing guidelines, restrictions on ownership of TV channels and DTH platforms by certain government entities, radio audience measurement, digital terrestrial transmission and infrastructure sharing.
The recommendations also suggest the Government not to permit Central and state government-funded entities from entering the business of broadcasting or distribution of TV channels.
The media-ownership norms, DTH licensing guidelines and digital terrestrial transmission are top issues on which TRAI has made its reform recommendations. Currently, the DTH firms are running on interim licences; there are no guidelines.
Three years back, TRAI had submitted recommendations on media ownership rules across television, radio and print mediums and internal plurality of news. In 2015, TRAI had proposed increasing the licence duration of DTH firms to 20 years and reducing their annual fee to 8% of Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR) from 10% of gross revenue.
According to an industry stakeholder, “The reforms have been stuck and this is hurting the sector. The sector has not been able to attract FDI (Foreign Direct Investment). There is nobody to keep a check on quality of services and small cable operators are being dominated by big multi-system operators. There is no transparency in the sector. It is high time that the ministry takes a call on the pending regulation.”
The way forward:
The industry has already suffered enough and it is high time for the Ministry to take action regarding TRAI’s recommendations.
An urgent reform is needed to bring about the industry from its current woes. While TRAI’s initiatives for provision of infrastructure sharing and STB interoperability are good steps, the government needs to take concrete steps to help the industry sail through.
There must be some regulations for OTT operators so that TV industry’s interests are not compromised. The government needs to ensure that all slots on DD Freedish do not fall in large broadcasters’ hands only. If money is the only criteria, smaller players would be left without any platform.
Cultural loss would be another side effect if these slots are sold to foreign broadcasters as they would bring more foreign shows and ignore our history and culture.