The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) in November 2019 announced its recommendations on the platform services (PS) offered by Direct-to-home (DTH) operators which included capping of such services. In its recommendations, the authority suggested that the platform services be limited to 3% of the total channel carrying capacity of an operator and to a maximum of 15 service channels. While the industry opposed the recommendations from Trai, several months later, the COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in DTH operators to identify the maximum potential of such services. Several DTH operators including Tata Sky have provided the subscribers with free access to the platform services. Specifically, Tata Sky Fitness, one of the services of Tata Sky that was offered for free to its subscribers was recognized by Minister of State for Youth Affairs & Sports Kiren Rijiju. While urging the citizens to stay at home during the lockdown, Rijiju tweeted in support of the service. With that being said, TelecomTalk looks at the free services offered by DTH operators during the current COVID-19 lockdown and what it means for the sector in the long run.
Trai Found No Pressing Requirement for DTH Operators to Carry Large Number of Platform Services
Trai in its recommendations said that it found “no pressing requirement, as such for a large number of PS channels to the DTH operators.” Tata Sky in particular was found to carry 43 service channels and had no room to carry any of the other permitted satellite TV channels. According to data from Trai, India has over 900 satellite TV channels and the total channel carrying capacity of Tata Sky was found to be 758 channels.
Trai said that the operators carrying a large number of platform services “defeats the principles of ‘must carry’ obligation of the DTH operators.” Crucially, Trai said that the “DTH operators are primarily to carry the content produced by the broadcasters, and not to produce the content on their own.”
Further, it was said that the platform services should not include Doordarshan channels and registered TV channels along with forgeign channels not registered in India. The content of the platform service was also recommended to be exclusive to the operator. Finally, it was said that the regulator or if the ministry finds content shown on the platform service elsewhere, the ministry reserved the right to cancel the registration of such service.
While DTH operators provided multiple reasons for opposing the recommendations from Trai, one of the crucial factors was the revenue from such services. In its consultation paper released in August 2019, Trai noted that such services “results in an additional source of revenue” not only from subscription but also from advertisements on platform services.
The revenue from platform services was said to be crucial to the operators especially with the sector reporting changes to its finances due to the new tariff order implemented by Trai.
In its previous year third quarter result ending December 2019, Bharti Airtel said that the average revenue per user on its Digital TV services was down 29% year-on year (YOY). However, the company said that the segment revenue was up 15.6% YoY on an underlying basis. Bharti Airtel said that on a reported basis, the segment witnessed 23.3% decline “due to reporting changes in DTH pursuant to the new tariff order.”
COVID-19 Lockdown Could Determine Fate of Platform Services
With several restrictions placed on the platform services along with changes to tariff order, many reports suggested that the DTH operators could be forced to tie up with over-the-top players for content. KPMG in its media and entertainment report said that the DTH platforms would be tapping into the popularity of OTT platforms. The report highlighted Tata Sky Binge and other similar offerings from DTH players who collaborated with OTT platforms to offer broader services to consumers.
However, the COVID-19 lockdown could prove to be a blessing for the DTH operators as they offered the platform services for free to the subscribers. With several of its users forced to homes, the BARC data reveals that the TV usage has surged among the subscribers. The DTH operators are offering several of its services for free with Tata Sky in particular offering 10 of its services to users. Tata Sky Fun Learn, Smart Manager, Vedic Maths, Cooking, Classroom, Dance Studio, Beauty and Fitness are amongst the services offered by Tata Sky for free. It has to be noted that several of these services from Tata Sky are usually charged Rs 60 per month.
Airtel Digital TV on its part enabled access to four service channels including Airtel CuriosityStream, Airtel Seniors TV, Aapki Rasoi and Let’s Dance.
Meanwhile Dish TV is currently offering Ayushmaan Active, Fitness Active, Kids Active Toons and Kids Active Rhymes for free to its subscribers.
It remains to be seen if the operators have gained enough subscriber interest on these platform services in the current lockdown period and if these users would subscribe to the services post lockdown period.