The show must stream on: Media firms ensure connectivity in lockdown

Gurdeep Khanna was really upset. The 82-year-old former volleyball player lives alone in New Delhi's Rohini. With the coronavirus scare looming large, her son asked her to move into his house in Greater Noida for a few months. He suggested she carry her Tata Sky set-top box and plug it into the TV in her room. She did that on March 21, but couldn’t get a signal.

On March 22, as the janta curfew and subsequently the complete lockdown began, Khanna got stuck in a loop of calls, WhatsApp messages, and Tata Sky’s inability to send a service engineer. Finally on Saturday (March 28), an anguished Khanna wrote to Harit Nagpal, managing director and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Rs 6,148-crore firm.

By Sunday (March 29), an engineer guided her on the phone and helped her reset the box. She is back to watching “America’s Got Talent, English movies, and, of course, sports".

Khanna’s is just one among the many calls Tata Sky gets in a day from its 18-million subscribers. To reduce this volume, it has put 14 services, such as adding and removing channels, on WhatsApp. Even then call-centre agents working from home are able to take only 30 per cent of the diverted calls.

“We aim to take that to 50-60 per cent calls. A bunch of field service guys has been identified to look after the senior customers. They go in with gloves, masks, and disinfectants. We are managing only 700-800 repairs (against a usual load of 4,000-5,000) a day, just for senior citizens,” says Nagpal.

About 35 employees living at its Chhatarpur uplink centre and 15 at the Bengaluru information technology hub have ensured that the 600-odd channels it retails are still on air.

Tata Sky is just one example. Dozens of India’s media firms face a piquant problem of plenty – more audiences at a time when there are restrictions on normal operations.  In a normal year (say 2019), over 836 million Indians watched TV, more than 390 million of them accessed news online, while a similar number read newspapers, and over a billion film tickets were sold.

Now, in March 2020, as 1.3 billion Indians are locked down, they are turning to mass media more than ever.The amount of time people spent watching TV grew by 8 per cent after Covid-19 (March 14-20), compared to pre-Covid-19 (January 11-31) says a Broadcast Audience Research Council India report. This, even as the average number of people watching it daily grew from 560 million to 592 million. The visits to general news sites and apps jumped 61 per cent in March over February, according to the comScore data.

However, the daily challenges of transmitting TV signals, streaming shows online, being on air or getting the newspaper out every day is making the Rs 1.82-trillion Indian media and entertainment firms rethink and question everything - back-end processes, communication, and product offering. Not surprisingly, it is coming up with some interesting answers.

Watching television, reading a newspaper

Newspaper firms such as DB Corporation (Dainik Bhaskar), for instance, are sanitising the entire supply chain as fears of infection through newspapers rises. To tackle patchy supply chains, most major newspapers offer the e-paper free for a month.
PVR has begun a conversation with its 20-million registered users on cinema to ensure they are engaged with the brand while multiplexes remain shut.

Viacom18’s 1,600-strong workforce is working from home, with only 20 people spread across various offices in India keeping critical functions running.

“The production of TV shows stopped from March 18-19. We will have a bank till this week. Thereafter we will go to repeat,” says Sudhanshu Vats, group CEO for the Rs 3,667-crore Viacom18.

One of Applause Entertainment's ready shows, Mannphodganj Ki Binny just dropped on MX Player, while another one, Hasmukh, will be on Netflix later this month. Three in the middle of production and another three post-production are frozen for now. However, developmental work – the writing, thinking through, and pitching of ideas to broadcasters and over-the-top players – continues, since it is about individuals or teams that can work with each other long distance.

“Suddenly we are discovering that we don’t need to meet,” says Sameer Nair, CEO, Applause Entertainment.

“Why do I need to go to work five days a week? Why do I need to travel to Delhi or Bengaluru for 30-minute meetings? This is a paradigm shift. It will trim costs and time,” says  Nagpal. He points to the ad film Tata Sky released this week to announce that 11 of its services on education, fitness, cooking were free for a month. It was directed via phone and shot across seven homes in different Indian cities over three days.  Notice that much of the innovation on processes and the can-do stuff is coming from the larger firms (Viacom18, Tata Sky), or the well-funded ones (Applause is backed by Kumar Mangalam Birla).

This lockdown and the 20-50 per cent hit it is estimated to bring on growth and revenue will have a deadly cascading effect on the smaller firms attached to the big ones. Many one-man production firms and single screens are expected to fold up if the crisis lasts beyond April. Others could become distress sellers.

Some of the big firms are supporting their smaller suppliers and partner firms either through the Producers Guild of India’s relief fund or by paying their dues on time to partners so that they, in turn, can pay their salaries. Others are doing it directly.

“At production houses that work on our shows, we have agreed that people below Rs 30,000 a month in Mumbai and people below Rs 20,000 a month outside of Mumbai won’t see any cuts. This covers 1,500 people. For these people, 60 per cent of the cost will be borne by us and 40 by the production houses,” says Vats.

Much of the tinkering is driven by the hope that this crisis will go away by May-June.“People would have run through the Netflix and Amazon library three times over. Big films will be bunched up for release in the second and third quarter. And the pent-up demand will mean we see more occupancy than normal. That is our hope,” says Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures.
Meanwhile, for millions of viewers, subscribers, listeners, and surfers, the show must go on.


Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel