The myth of the missing DTH subscriber

Topics DTH players | DTH operators | DTH

When there is bad news about traditional media, the reaction from analysts and social media experts is almost predictable. Everything is promptly attributed to “the digital revolution”, “cord cutting” and what not. 

That is what happened once again, last week. A report in The Hindu Business Line on October 2 highlighted that DTH operators lost 20 million homes after the New Tariff Order or NTO was implemented by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) in February this year. The report used Trai data.

This raises three questions. 

Question one, why did the number fall? Because the yardstick used to report DTH numbers has changed. For many years Trai used net active subscribers for 120 days as the basis. This is because operators shared it that way. This included subscribers who had been inactive and had not recharged in 120 days though they still owned the DTH box. That is how DTH homes were pegged at 72.44 million in the quarter ending March 2019. However for internal monitoring and calculating payments to broadcasters DTH operators have always used average active subscribers based on four specific days in a month. This builds in recency. After the NTO which pushed for complete transparency the Trai too has used average active subscribers which is 54.36 million homes, a difference of a little over 18 million homes. 

Now check the Broadcast Audience Research Council or BARC’s overall TV data. India has 197 million TV homes — 105 million on cable, 55 million on DTH, about 25-30 million on DD’s Freedish. Rough estimates put the terrestrial homes (the ones that get only Doordarshan) at 8 odd million. Plus there are a few Internet Protocol TV or IPTV homes. So the overall math holds.

The “120 day” versus “active last night” debate is a bit like Total Readership (read a newspaper in the last month) versus Average Issue Readership (read yesterday) in the print industry. Total Readership is usually three-four times more than Average Issue Readership, the standard used by advertisers. The DTH industry should have dropped the net active measure long back. 

Question two, If they are missing where are the 18 million? This is where the report is partially correct. The NTO has led to a price increase of anywhere between 40-400 per cent. Therefore some homes may have shifted to free DTH or cable which is cheaper or to OTT or may simply be inactive. Note that many homes take a break during holidays, exams or for other reasons. But it is debatable that most have fallen off the grid or cut the cord as the Twitterati love to say. Think about it — 18 million homes is about 76 million people. Of a total TV audience of 836 million if 76 million people stop watching TV then television viewership should have fallen significantly. However viewership in the first 39 weeks of this year has already crossed total viewership in the same period in 2018 going by BARC data.

If anything, anecdotal data suggests otherwise. The NTO stipulates all kinds of dos and dont’s on choosing channels and bouquets. Cable operators, who control the largest chunk of 105 million homes do not have the flexibility or backend to make one channel-at-a-time changes across millions of subscribers. The resulting consumer frustration is leading to a migration to DTH.

Question three, why is there so much uninformed glee about any bad news from TV or newspapers? 

India is one of the fastest growing markets in the world for digital but all media is growing simultaneously: Some more some less. Newspapers remain one of the most profitable segments of the media industry though readership growth is now slowing. TV viewership, homes and revenues are all growing in double digits. More than 594 million Indians with broadband connections spend about 50 minutes a day watching online video. It is way below the average 3 hours and 45 minutes (and growing) on TV by 836 million Indians. Note also that films did well at the box office in a year when OTT has taken off. Therefore the growth of online has been supplementary not cannibalistic. 

Why then is there this big need to see digital gobble up other industries? And if that excites you as a futuristic thing, think about this. More than three-fourths of the world’s digital advertising revenues are controlled by the Google/Facebook duopoly. Is that what the Indian media market should become? 

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