On the face of it, India’s television industry is one of the most vibrant, competitive and innovative ones in the world. With close to 200 million TV households served by 866 private TV channels, six direct-to-home (DTH) platforms and tens of thousands of independent cable TV operators, it’s quite breathtaking in size. In terms of revenue too, it brought in Rs 66,000 crore ($9.1 billion) in 2017, which is expected to hit Rs 86,200 crore ($12 billion) in 2018.
But scratch the surface, and you realise much of it is just a veneer painted over an outdated, opaque and shady structure. Consumers still don’t have any real and meaningful choice about what channels they want to subscribe to. TV channels need to pay cable and satellite operators extortionate fees (called carriage fees) in order to get carried by them. And every now and then there’s a who-blinks-first standoff between different sides around the pricing of channels, often ending in channel blackouts.
Almost all of these ills can be traced back to a dark void that exists at the centre of the industry—subscribers don’t have a real say.
Meanwhile the “subscription era”—a direct relationship between producers and customers—has dawned over other entertainment platforms, both globally and in India. Such as Netflix, Spotify, Hotstar, and Gaana.
India’s TV broadcasting industry, however, has been running on its hamster wheel with the same age-old rules of TV channel pricing, packaging and distribution.
But someone has finally had enough. India’s telecom and broadcasting regulator, Trai, which has spent the last two years trying to drag the industry into the present, kicking and screaming. And after years of being stymied in courts, it will finally have its way.
The tariff order that could
Last month, India’s Supreme Court finally paved the way for the implementation of far-reaching Trai regulations that are couched in their typical soporific fashion as “tariff and interconnection orders.” The Supreme Court came into the picture due to a plea brought against Trai by leading TV broadcaster Star India. Star has been fighting Trai’s regulation tooth-and-nail since 2016.
Star India’s opposition becomes clear as soon as you understand the biggest changes proposed by Trai.
- All broadcasters will now need to declare “maximum retail price” (MRP) for their channels, whether sold individually or as part of bundles, the way products sold in the real world need to. Distributors cannot charge customers a higher MRP than what is offered by broadcasters.
- Bundles cannot contain both standard and high-definition versions of the same channels; premium channels or free-to-air channels cannot be part of the bundle.