Indian Television has witnessed dramatic changes in the history since the inception of private television in India (1991 by ZEE TV). The private channels took DoorDarshan a run for their money and entry of other players like Sony Entertainment Television and Star Plus actually set the sun for DoorDarshan in the last decade of the 20th Century. But many private players found it difficult to sustain as a free channel and opted to become a pay channel, led by Star Plus in 2000. The TAM ratings also showed favored their decision by showing data of only what is watched in 4 megacities of India, thereby neglecting the rural markets. In 2016, BARC (BARC Ratings) rolled out rural data showing that an equal number of households in urban and rural areas watches TV i.e. 75 million each summing up the total viewership base to 150 million households. The emergence of rural data stated that rural India still watches Free-to-Air (FTA) channels, thereby forcing large networks to think over their strategy to cater these audiences. In this post we will discuss the strategy of large broadcasters to cater the rural audiences.
Let’s get back to some basics
Before scrutinizing how the Free-to-Air GEC space evolved, let me speak a bit of what India wants. Until the end of the 20th Century, most of the private channels were free of cost to be viewed by Indian viewers both in the mainland and abroad (let me restrict it up-to the Persian Gulf in the West, Thailand in the East, Sri Lanka in the South and Nepal and some areas of Pakistan in the North) from different transponders of various satellites orbiting the earth close to the Indian mainland. The channels were transmitted along various servers to a dish which would serve the purpose of entertainment. I still remember, when I was small my building of over 30 families were given entertainment from a large dish as large dishes tend to acquire a lot of signals from various satellites.
Channels until the 21st Century weren’t making money due to losses incurred in producing new programming with significantly less viewers and lack of an audience measurement system in place. The channels started to convert their Free to Air channels into subscription-based channels on cable/MSO in India and abroad to cover the programming costs and ad revenues would help them break-even their investments. This was supported by a ratings system under the brand TAM (Television Audience Measurement) which gave ratings of what major cities in India watches as what the entire India watches. Soon many channels followed the bandwagon led by industry leaders Star Plus, ZEE TV and Sony Entertainment Television. Their purpose was served with the advent of paid DTH services in the market.
TAM led to the complete ignorance of rural markets and no major media analyst analyzed what the larger part of India watches. Star India was the first channel to telecast re-runs of successful shows on its network on Star Utsav which was a free to air channel.
By the end of 2004, most of the channels had developed a subscription based model, thereby DD FreeDish (then known as DD Direct +) came to the rescue being a government agency launched India’s first and only Free DTH service in December 2004. Many channels who couldn’t afford to get good response from paid markets joined this network to launch a unified digital up-linking/down-linking for the audiences who don’t opt for the paid DTH service.
To cut it short, in 2016 BARC released rural data which stated that rural India still watches shows on the Free-to-Air neglected channels of large networks thereby leading the emergence of FTA GEC space
Why doesn’t rural India watch subscription-driven channels
For this, I have listed down two theories why rural India doesn’t watch pay channels
Affordability: A basic annual pack of a DTH service would cost you around Rs.2500 which would be a very small amount of people reading this post, but in a family of 5-8 people in rural India, this amount can get them rice/wheat at a subsidized price for the entire year. Secondly, the initial investment would also amount to be around Rs.15000 (including TV set) which is quite difficult to arrange for mere entertainment.
Dark areas: Let’s take for an example of 5000 rural areas in a particular region (irrespective of states). Of that, more than 3000 odd towns won’t have a cable operator in those areas. Even in my village back in Udupi (22km from the main city) doesn’t have a cable operator. You may suggest a DTH service. South Indian rural areas may even afford to buy these services, but the regular payment of these services is mostly online so it is difficult to recharge in a village where mobile network is bleak, banking is next to zero and internet is a distant dream. Then they may go to the outlet to recharge? Come on, who would have the patience to go 5-7 km for a recharge that too of TV when mobile recharge is done at the nearest kirana store. Private DTH players should have door-to-door collection agents to tap these sectors where affordability is possible, but lack of convenience hinders their access to a large variety of TV channels in India.
I hope after the above discussion, you must have got a brief idea on why rural India was relevant to any broadcaster, but was ignored due to various technical limitations and lack of proper on-ground research.
Free-to-Air General Entertainment Space (FTA GEC space)
Until week 41 of 2015, the FTA GEC space was generally termed as a DD FreeDish network where large broadcasters had re-runs on neglected channels on the network. But on week 41, the entire industry came to a shock when Zee Anmol jumped to the number 2 spot and DD National was the most time spend GEC in the industry.
These ratings led to the evolution of a completely new space (highly competitive) GEC separate from the pay market GEC space. Earlier there were channels on the DD FreeDish but the competition between the channels was very less as most networks did not invest to build their portfolio in this genre.
What is a GEC Space?
General Entertainment Channel is a channel which caters the needs of entertainment of the viewers it targets with its offering on the channel. General Entertainment space is a broader name to a set of channels on a basic model of business.
On the basis of monetization, there are two GEC spaces, namely Pay GEC and FTA GEC space
GEC covers a lot of genres under it like Entertainment, Sports, Kids, News, and Infotainment (modern terms Lifestyle), Cinema, Regional Entertainment, etc….
Let me explain the competition in different genres and who the leading players are in their specific genre.
1. Hindi Entertainment
This is considered to be one of the most competitive spaces where large networks are ready to shell out a lot of money to gain loyal viewership. Like Star Plus has achieved targeting women audiences, similarly Sony Entertainment Television is able to do so with male audiences in metro cities.
In this space the first entrant was Star Utsav in 2004 followed by ZEE Anmol in 2013 as an FTA. Sony Pal entered in 2015 due to the failure of the network’s ambition into converting it to be a successful mainstream GEC to complement the existing SET India and Sony SAB. Rishtey was launched by Viacom 18 in 2012.
Star Utsav’s strategy mainly revolves around targeting women audiences. But after the launch of Life OK (rebranding of Star One), it has started to target male audiences with shows like Savdhaan India.
Zee Anmol’s strategy mainly revolves around targeting women audiences of the Hindi heartland and with the launch of &TV the today’s youth who don’t want to watch the saas-bahu sagas. The re-runs of shows from &TV is applauded for its appealing content.
Sony Pal’s strategy mainly revolves around targeting the male and family audiences with re-runs from SET India and Sony SAB respectively. This channel has created a niche for itself in such a way that the entire channel can sit and enjoy the shows (re-runs from SAB TV) along with target of male audiences who love action packed shows like CID, Yudh, Crime Patrol, etc…
Rishtey’s strategy revolves on replicating what Colors is doing in the GEC space. Being a late entrant in the market, it has only one mainstream GEC which’s content is re-run on Rishtey.
Big Magic is the flagship GEC channel of the Reliance Broadcasting Network Limited which got converted into a free channel in late 2015, is now ready to challenge the re-run channels with its new, comedy centric and rural audience strategized content. It is slowly growing its loyal viewership base and is expected to become a serious challenger to the GEC toppers Star Utsav/Sony Pal.
Kid’s audience is very important for any network to flourish in the GEC space.
For this genre in the FTA GEC space, I have written a complete detailed post on how large networks are catering child audience. Check this post by clicking this link.
The third most important genre is News. News channels are the least earners in the GEC space and have an excessive competition with more than half of the channels in the GEC comprising of news channels.
Mostly this genre comprises of Hindi channels which targets most of the audiences who are politically affecting the vote shares of major political parties in India. In India, North India is considered to be crucial for any political gains for any political party in India. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the news is biased. When most of the viewers for these news channels are from rural sectors, political parties would give more preference to give their opinion on a popular channel targeting majority of the audiences rather a pay TV news channel catering only the urban sectors. Outside the political news, the Hindi news broadcasting industry is irrelevant thanks to the entry of business channels (catering only urban audiences), English News, etc… which need not shed their pay TV status to win over audiences as rural markets have no viewership for these kind of channels.
Why did most of the Indian news channels turn pay earlier in the industry? This is quite a good question cracking into everyone’s mind. The news channels weren’t impacted by the TAM ratings, but by feasibility. News channels earn the lowest per 10-second slot in Industry (even below kids’ genre sometimes). As making profits/break-even through ads is difficult, they started converting their channels into pay channels to cover the production, research and editorial costs and earn out of the advertisements.
When the BARC ratings were out, India News (Kartikeya Sharma) was looking good on their numbers being the lone private channel in the FTA space. India TV (promoted by Rajat Sharma) also a free channel since its launch garnered highest ratings leaving behind its competitors like ZEE News, ABP News and NDTV India.
ABP News and Aaj Tak shed its pay TV status in early 2016. NDTV India (struggling unit of Dr. Prannoy Roy controlled NDTV Group, which runs NDTV Profit, NDTV 24X7 and NDTV Good Times) which earns close to Rs.60 Crore/annually has decided to give it away to increase its ratings and make it available on all base packs of paid DTH platforms so an increase in ratings would cover their losses in subscription-model.
ZEE News also entered the FTA space by giving up its Rs.100 Crore/annually so that its minuscule subscription revenue would be covered by an increase in advertising rates due to wider reach. Recently, it has been voted as the most trusted brand in News space, making it more justified and marketable to win loyal audiences on its channel. Being one of the last entrants in the News Genre (FTA), it can cover with high advertising on its sister channels on the FTA space by promoting itself to be most trusted brands in the Indian News Broadcasting Space. It is planning to cover the revenue by its new English news channel WION (World Is One News). It has India 24X7 on the FTA since a long time.
Channels like News Nation, India News are in the FTA space since its launch thereby may pose a threat to the new channels in the FTA space.
India has been a fan of cinema and has witnessed various good films in different languages on the national broadcaster’s network. A Sunday’s cinema used to have a record viewership regardless of it been black&white/color/comedy/romance/etc…
But if we see in the real sense, due to neglected channels by large private networks on the FTA the people couldn’t watch good movies/latest flick/blockbuster/etc… on their favorite channels.
Rural Data came with hopes for the FTAs. Viacom18 launched its first movie channel under the brand ‘Rishtey’ as ‘Rishtey Cineplex’ on May 8, 2016. It is the first time in the Indian broadcasting industry that a large network (i.e. with a mainstream entertainment GEC or a news channel) to launch a movie channel as a Free-to-Air (FTA) on the DD FreeDish.
This came as a surprise to many in the industry as Viacom 18 instead of competing with the likes of Sony Max, Star Gold and Zee Cinema went on to create a space which had been untouched since generations.
Star India and Sony Pictures Network weren’t behind to follow the trend and soon joined the FTA movies space on May 21, 2016. Star India extended its FTA brand Star Utsav (like Viacom 18 did with Rishtey) to name the movie channel as Star Utsav Movies.
Sony Pictures Network, did follow the same strategy to not launch the channel with much fanfare (like its previous channel launches; the channel believes that content pulls people not the hype to a channel) naming the movie channel as Sony Wah.
There are other movie channels too in the movies bandwagon, making it a competitive space.
EDIT I: Dated – 13-Sept-2016
Zee TV has strengthened its FTA brand Zee Anmol by launching a 24-hour FTA Movie channel named “Zee Anmol Cinema” in the last week of August 2016 competing with the likes of Sony Wah, Rishtey Cineplex, Star Utsav Movies, etc….
Something that compliments movies is the music. Good music is watched a number of times even before the movie is premiered. Some songs live in our hearts for a longer period than usual.
The FTA GEC space has got good channels on-board like Sony Mix (SPN), Mastii (Shri Adhikari Brothers), MTunes(Pioneer Channel Factory Pvt Limited), etc…
These channels are available at a nominal fee on all basic packs of paid DTH services in India.
6. Bhojpuri (An GEC space other than Hindi on the DD FreeDish)
The DD FreeDish is mostly concentrated to the Hindi Speaking Markets due to lack of technical facilities to access pay channels. Bhojpuri is targeted to regions of Bihar and Jharkhand where more than 50% of the region doesn’t have access to cable television.
The need of Hindi Speaking Markets was identified by Hindi News Channels which made them go FTA. But people in this region love entertainment in their own mother tongue. Bhojpuri accent is loved by all in India; this language is the life of all Biharis.
Almost all Bhojpuri channels are in the FTA space with the market leader being Big Magic Ganga (Reliance Broadcasting Network Limited), Dangal(re-runs of successful shows in Hindi and Bhojpuri), Dabangg (owned by the Shri Adhikari Brothers), etc…
The only language which features a competitive space (in June 2016) other than Hindi is Bhojpuri. It seems that many other regional languages may follow the suit to win the hearts of different audiences in various sectors of India.
7. Sports and Lifestyle
Sports especially cricket is a religion in India. This is where the FTA GEC space is still to grow.
People love cricket so that DoorDarshan has the rights to telecast cricket matches of national importance on its channel for the audiences on the DD FreeDish market.
Other private networks have experimented with non-cricketing events like the Pro Wrestling League and Syed Modi International on Sony Pal; Indian Super League and Pro Kabaddi League on Star Utsav to gain initial traction and viewership to these newly formed leagues.
This is where large network disappoint me. To get initial traction and instant viewership rise for getting good advertisement rates, they use FTAs to do the job. But major cricketing events loved by all aren’t telecasted on these channels.
If the channels are using subscription and carriage fees to run the shows, they can launch a sports FTA channel, add the subscription and carriage fees on the advertisements on those channels. Like for example if an advertiser wants to advertise on the Indian Super League on the Star Network, he can do so on Star Sports at a fee and on Star Utsav at a premium to the existing fee promising more reach and wide reception by all. Why must these networks deprive the rural markets of good sports? Sportsman’s spirit doesn’t always need to come always from the players but also from the broadcasters and the advertisers too.
In the lifestyle space, there isn’t much competition to DD Bharati, which may develop soon as time follows.
Why wasn’t the FTA space developed till now (2016)
DD FreeDish has been active since late 2004. Large networks should have come forward with a strategy to develop this space too. Some laggards into doing so:
- The advertisements were based on guesstimates on the FTAs:
Why was it so?
Because there wasn’t any currency to determine the viewership
Large networks should have come down to ground zero to understand the FTA market to convince their advertisers.
- Advertisers showed no interest
Why did they not do so?
If advertisers would have entered to understand how the rural India watches television, they wouldn’t have ended up selling Re. 1 shampoo/jam/ketchup packets on premium pay channels like Star Plus, ZEE TV, Colors, SET India, etc…
Secondly, as the TV broadcasting industry wasn’t interested in creating a different currency to understand the rural markets, if advertisers would have done so they would have got a right deal at a cost effective price
I really pray that these large networks don’t convert the FTA GEC space into a clone of re-runs of the mainstream GEC space in the future. FTA GEC space has a bright future if tapped well. I had a neighbor. He used to use the WinnerSat set-top-box to watch TV channels in the late 1990s. When he bought a Tata-Sky in 2006, I suggested him to dump the old set-top-box. He told me that one day this world would realize the value of free channels and that day I will use this set-top-box. I may not be possible to use the set-top-box again (Analog signal based) but yes, we may see a better brighter future in the FTA GEC space again.
We may see new Hindi GEC channels to be launched on the FTA as a free channel and in the pay markets to get subscription revenues to fight the market share of the industry leaders. It is worth noting that except for Big Magic no other channel in the Hindi language GEC is producing original content and Big Magic is slowly growing its numbers and expected to topple the likes of Sony Pal, Zee Anmol and Star Utsav.
Hope you liked my post. We may see a different Hindi GEC space with unique channels and content on the FTA too, making a broad division between pay and free markets in India which is very fruitful for large TV networks and advertisers. Hindi GEC space resembles a Gujarati Thali today.
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