India: Who wants to win over millions of viewers?

Article  by  Hélène LECUYER  •  Published 08.10.2014  •  Updated 08.10.2014
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In India, the television industry is counting on digital technologies to finish off the conquest of a country that it has only been able to partially occupy in 40 years of analog technology.
 

A number of Mumbaikars[+] NoteName given to residents of Mumbai.X [1] remember the year when the first television antenna was built in Mumbai, along the sea. It was in 1972, 13 years after the first attempt to broadcast a TV program via Hertzian waves in Delhi in 1959. During these 13 years, television, which was subject to the suspicion of the authorities, stayed stuck in an experimental and subsequently restricted phase. Initially limited to two hours of programming per week, strictly consisting of educational shows geared for schoolchildren in the Delhi region, daily broadcasting emerged in 1965, but continued to be limited to inhabitants of the capital and its surrounding region alone. While on July 20, 1969, the western world gathered around the small screen to watch Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, Indians were stuck reading the newspaper headlines the following day – or, for the lucky few, the best-equipped or most determined, listening to live radio commentary on Voice of America.  While on July 20, 1969, the western world gathered around the small screen to watch Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, Indians were stuck reading the newspaper headlines the following day.  In 1973, Amritsar, spiritual capital of the Sikh community, and Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, both got their own TV antennas. In 1975, residents of Kolkata, Chennai and Lucknow joined the exclusive club of those receiving TV channels. In 1976, 45 million Indians were able to receive shows on Doordarchan, the country’s sole public channel – so long as they has access to a television, which was extremely rare at the time, given that only 675,000 had been sold since the beginnings of television in India. It must be noted that programs didn’t encourage would-be buyers to take the plunge: the few movies and series (those who were children in Mumbai in the 1970s remember religiously watching the Spiderman series in black and white[+] NoteWhich could furthermore explain the unusual media coverage for a Hollywood blockbuster that surrounded the May 1, 2014 release of the latest Spiderman.X [2], but above all, educational and traditional shows, hardly elicited excitement on the small black and white screens of Indian televisions.
Three elements changed the situation, signaling the beginning of a veritable love affair between Indians and their televisions. The first was the government’s decision to authorize the import of 50,000 color TV sets in 1982, when the Asian Games were hosted in Delhi. The wealthiest viewers equipped themselves, paying heavy taxis, while on the black market, the first VCRs appeared. This went hand in hand with the emergence of pirated films, and when one household became equipped, generally the whole neighborhood would buzz with excitement, with everyone gathering in the living room – or even behind the windows – to take in the latest Bollywood film in color.


The second element was the launch of series, and more particularly, the mythological series Ramayan and Mahabharat. Enthusiasm was so great among viewers that the time slot when Mahabharat was aired on Sunday mornings quickly became known as the “thieving hour”, when the attention of entire households was focused on the small screen. Indians’ newfound passion for television series didn’t dwindle, with shows continuing to pull in viewers and encourage buyers to invest in sets. The third element, which ultimately allowed television to truly take off in India, was the partial privatization and opening up to other countries made possible in 1991 through an ambitious program of economic and social reforms. Since 1955, foreign investment in the media had been forbidden in India, and the management of televisual broadcasting was reserved for public players alone. Soon after the opening up of the economy, Sashi Kumar, formerly of Doordarshan, launched Asianet, a Malayalam-language news channel and the country’s very first private station. Foreign channels such as CNN and Star TV quickly followed, and in 1996, 50 channels were broadcast throughout India, compared with only two in 1991.
 

Today, 823 channels coexist in India – including 184 pay channels – and half of the country’s households now own at least one television set. This rate of ownership may seem low, but beneath it hides an immense market with massive growth potential.  Half of the country’s households now own at least one television set. This rate of ownership may seem low, but beneath it hides an immense market with massive growth potential.  According to 2011 census figures, 134 millions Indian households have a television set. Some 103 million have access to cable or satellite TV, and 20 million subscribe to direct satellite broadcasting. These figures, which reveal the prospect of a great many households still to be equipped, encompass stark disparities between rural and urban areas. In the latter, the rate of television ownership stands at 85%, and over 70% of households get cable or satellite television. Many a traveler arriving for the first time on the landing strip in Mumbai – the one that crosses the shantytown depicted in Slum Dog Millionnaire – is surprised to see satellite dishes rising from the makeshift roofs, which multiply with each passing day. Venturing out in the little streets of Dharavi[+] NoteGuided visits exist.X [3], you can see televisions flickering within one-room houses, devoid of furnishings apart from a narrow bed serving as a seat.

Sector professionals predict annual growth of 8 to 10% for the television market, 15% for cable/satellite television and 30% for direct satellite broadcasting. This latter market is whetting the most appetites, with players multiplying rapidly. Tata Sky, the first operator launched in 2006, is now facing six other competitors, all of which are Indian. The development of direct satellite broadcasting is not simply an economic opportunity; it is also bringing about deep social change. In a country marked by the caste system, persistent inequalities between urban and rural areas, accessibility issues and difficulties in controlling certain areas[+] NoteThe government is unable to control large stretches of India, which are in the hands of Maoist guerrillas – a fact that is often unknown in Europe.X [4], direct satellite broadcasting is something of a social equalizer: whether they live in the high-tech megalopolis of Bangalore or a remote area of Himachal Pradesh, viewers are equidistant from the satellite signal. Even soldiers stationed at the snowy, isolated border posts separating India from China and Pakistan are able to benefit. Operators are now seeking to conquer this whole new frontier of areas that were never connected to cable, forced to settle for the public television channel Doordarshan for nearly 50 years. In response to the arrival of this varied new offer, Home Theatre sales are booming in well-off households in rural parts of Punjab, Rajasthan and beyond.
 
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has the ambitious goal of bringing digital television to the whole of India by March 31, 2015. The transition from analog is occurring in four phases. The first phase concerns New Delhi, Bombay, Kolkata and Chennai, and should have theoretically been completed by October 31, 2012. In reality, the digitization process has hit a number of obstacles, notably that of being able to meet the demand for decoders. In the face of hoards of furious viewers, the cities of Kolkata and Chennai were thus forced to switch analog signal transmitters back on. Despite government guarantees, Mumbai alone succeeded in completing the digital transition – although several pockets of pirate analog signal transmitters still appear to linger.  Mumbai alone succeeded in completing the digital transition.  The government also claims to have successfully completed the second phase, completing the transition to digital in 38 cities of over one million residents, and has voiced confidence in its ability to respect the deadlines for the third and fourth phases. Sector players are more skeptical, or at least aware of the difficulties, while expressing their wholehearted desire for this digitization.

The current system, combining multisystem operators (MSO) and local cable operators (LCO), is severely problematic in terms of transparency, and money appears to disappear from the system, creating a loss of income for both the MSOs and the government – which doesn’t get the tax money. Local operators are suspected of only declaring a fraction of subscribers to their access suppliers, and many of them don’t even legally exist, with a system of subcontractors in charge of the “last few meters” leading up to viewers. The government thus views the development of direct satellite broadcasting favorably, as it offers both transparency, notably in terms of tax collecting, in addition to facilitating its objective of digitizing the network. The government furthermore estimates that in 2015, direct satellite broadcasting should represent 30% of the digitized market, and is relaxing regulations for direct foreign investments in the television operator sector. Previously limited to 49%, these may now reach 74%. This should represent an opportunity for foreign players, as it is said that India could become the second most-lucrative market in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of pay television by 2019.
 
Translated from French by Sara Heft
  
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Photo credits :
Karhik Pasupathy / Flickr
Jason Diceman / Flickr
Abrinsky / Flickr
clara & james / Flickr
  • 1. Name given to residents of Mumbai.
  • 2. Which could furthermore explain the unusual media coverage for a Hollywood blockbuster that surrounded the May 1, 2014 release of the latest Spiderman.
  • 3. Guided visits exist.
  • 4. The government is unable to control large stretches of India, which are in the hands of Maoist guerrillas – a fact that is often unknown in Europe.
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