Community Radio will dry out in India

Sevanti Ninan writes in her column Talking Media (livemint.com) about the Community Radio (CR) services affected by the spectrum policy.

A spectrum story

The ministry of I&B has been holding periodic consultations to see if it can give a fillip to the spread of CR

Here is a spectrum story that does not make the headlines. No fancy lawyers arguing on behalf of top-drawer clients, no Rs. 1,000 crore sums to bandy about, no industry associations seeking meetings with cabinet ministers, or a 2G or 3G label to guarantee page 1 when a story lands on the desk. And completely without the drawing power of Aamir Khan on Star TV to compete for media mind space.

The drama is small scale: a meeting boycotted this week with the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B) in the hope that some pressure will be exerted, a one-day no-broadcast strike by community radio stations on Wednesday in districts across the country, which will be noticed by the communities they cater to, but nobody else. Desperate consultations with each other by very small radio broadcasters catering to communities within a 5-25km radius, in scattered districts of the country.

In April, a small community radio (CR) station, run by people dedicated to the Brahma Kumaris in the hilly area of Mount Abu, got a rude jolt. Radio Madhuban 90.4 FM caters to a rural community around the town of Mount Abu. Its website has the usual pictures of happy cows and smiling people. April brought the annual licence fee invoice from the wireless planning and coordination wing (WPC) of the department of telecommunications. This is the wing which allocates spectrum and had announced in March that rates were being revised upwards from 1 April this year. The announcement had tables to help you calculate the rate for the spectrum you were using.

But until Radio Madhuban got its notice, nobody quite understood what the implications were for CR stations, which have always got concessional rates. The short-range radio spectrum for which they had paid Rs. 19,700 the previous year, would now cost Rs. 91,000 for an annual licence. That might be less than chicken feed for the Bhartis, RComs and Telenors of this world, but was bad news for a small community radio, which in any case struggles to be viable.

Why it was done is probably because spectrum rates were upped across the board after the Supreme Court’s judgement on getting higher value for natural resources. But if that is the case, it directly contradicts the 1995 judgement of the Supreme Court which says the airwaves belong to the people. Can all users of spectrum be lumped in the same category for pricing purposes? True the CR licence fee has remained unchanged since 2003, but then elsewhere in the world the trend is to bring down costs of CR to enable its spread. Some countries have a free citizen band of spectrum.

The ministry of I&B has been holding periodic consultations to see if it can give a fillip to the spread of CR. There are some 120 stations now, the majority run by universities and colleges, because that is how the policy started out in 2002. The government, always terrified of what little people might do to national security, opened up a band of very local spectrum for use by educational institutions. By 2006, they gathered courage to open it up further. But there is an impressive list of ministries who have to clear each licence. Which is why it has taken 10 years to get to 120-plus stations going operational, the majority still linked to educational institutions.

So who needs CR when we are drowning in media of all kinds, including rural direct-to-home (DTH) and cable television? Communities that need information and entertainment in local dialects in rural areas, and even on the fringe of metropolises. Communities that have learnt to create their own radio programmes. There is Gurgaon ki Awaaz and a new radio station called Radio Mewat, catering to communities outside Delhi. There is Apna Radio in Tonk, Rajasthan, Chanderi ki Awaaz in Madhya Pradesh, Radio Namaskar in Puri, and Sangham Radio, the oldest of them all, in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. They put out local news-you-can-use and music. Do they now need to become a source of revenue for the government of India?

There is a body of CR advocates called the Community Radio Forum who make a few basic points. Is this just another way of denying access by raising the barriers to entry? In actual money terms, what the government gains from charging Rs. 91,000 each from 125 community radio stations is a pittance. The bigger non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and university radio stations might survive this fee hike, but it will be the last straw for the smaller CR ventures run by local-level NGOs. They are yet to find a sustainable revenue model for CR.

There is nothing to indicate that a body like the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is seized of this issue. They have bigger fish to fry. And evidently, in the government of India, ministries such as I&B, rural development and communication and information technology don’t consult each other as to what their priorities are, when they make policy.

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.orgShe examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

US President Obama, age 21 subscribes Airtel from Nalgonda(AP)!

If the records of a private telecom operator are to be believed, then US President Barack Obama is a 21-year-old resident of Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh. In a telling laxity of the telecom service providers in granting telephone connections to all and sundry without proper verification, a Nalgonda resident by the name of M Prasad secured a cellphone connection with the number 9177523297 by passing off the photograph of the US President as his.

To prevent such ludicrous irregularities from occurring in the future, the cops have suggested that TRAI should immediately ban the telecom service providers from activating the mobile connections through third party mechanism.

Read the full news: Man uses Barack Obama’s photo to get new mobile phone connection

Digital uncertainty

The mandated digital switchover for cable homes is to be universal—implemented in the whole country by 2014, in the four metros by 30 June this year

Talking Media | Sevanti Ninan

Over the next three months, the four metros are going to see an amazing scramble to achieve a technological shift with a deadline. The mandated digital switchover for cable homes is to be universal—implemented in the whole country by 2014, in the four metros by 30 June this year. The ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) claims there will be no extensions. Come 1 July and, whoosh, the analog signal will be switched off. India is irrevocably set on the path to universal digitization.

By AFP

But is it? There is the physical improbability of what is sought to be achieved. To take Delhi, as a case study, MIB estimates 5,000 cable operators, five national-level multi-system operators (MSOs) and 3.3 million cable and satellite connections. Covering all those homes in 90 days means seeding 36,000 homes a day with set-top boxes (STBs). Even if all local cable operators (LCOs) were fired with missionary zeal to achieve this, which they are not, it would take a lot of doing.

Earlier this week, ministry officials attempted to sweet-talk an assembly of cable operators and MSOs into keeping the deadline. MIB is using everything from resident welfare associations to Facebook to chivvy the LCOs along, and get consumers to demand the boxes.

It has behind it the big service providers, some of whom have joint ventures with broadcasters. There was some significance to the fact that this meet which the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) organized in Delhi between ministry officials and the service delivery crowd was chaired by Sameer Manchanda, promoter of DEN Networks Ltd, the cable TV distribution company that has a 50:50 joint venture with News Corp.’s Star TV Group. Star DEN, in turn, has a joint venture with ZeeTurner. The Sun Network has long combined broadcasting and distribution interests, but over the past few years other big broadcasters have been getting into distribution to protect their own interests. That includes direct-to-home (DTH) operations such as Dish TV India Ltd and Tata Sky Ltd.

So far the dominant media discourse on digitization has been about broadcasters needing to get pay revenue due to them because cable operators under-declare, and needing to shed the carriage fees that LCOs levy to accommodate channels in their limited bandwidth. The industry is not achieving its potential because it is hobbled by the loss of revenue on these two counts. (Cable operators counter this argument by saying that pay channels are a third or less of all channels on offer, and free-to-air channels provide television rating points, or TRPs, to the broadcasters which get them advertisement revenue.)

Digitization is expected to bring in transparency, increase distribution capacity, and give the consumer choice, better TV signals, and price regulation, since the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India will set the upper limit for what they can be charged.

But does MIB need to hustle the process along so much? TAM figures on TV homes show that with the advent of DTH, people are opting for digitization in numbers have that brought DTH to a third of all C&S homes and 28% of all TV homes. There are now 42 million digitized homes. As people are able to afford it, they opt for digitization. So we would have got there, sooner or later.

And does digitization end carriage fee demands? No, DTH operators level carriage fees, too, as does Doordarshan’s free DTH service DD Direct. There are simply too many channels around, and too many new entrants, for bandwidth to be limitless enough to accommodate them all.

What media coverage taken up with the problems of broadcasters does not address is the issue of access for those at the bottom of the viewership pyramid.

Academic papers on the digitization experience in other countries point to the fact that it threatens two things: universal access and the public service broadcaster. So what is the score there? Doordarshan’s terrestrial service will remain analog for now, the switch-off date for it is 2017. People who cannot afford cable have the option of accessing its free-to-air signals through the antennae they now use.

Cable operators have lots of poor customers too. Can they afford set-top boxes? At the Ficci interaction, MIB additional secretary Rajiv Takru made two breezy assertions in this regard: give it to them at Rs. 30 a month rental, “anybody can afford that”. He also said, “Stop bothering about the consumer who does not want to pay for services.” Ask the cable community and they will tell you that there is enough gold at the bottom of the pyramid to make it difficult for them to shed their low-income clientele. And renting is easier said than done. What if a migrant labourer migrates with his set-top box, asked an LCO plaintively.

Are we then looking at the making of a new digital divide, this time in television access? Or should we take heart from the government’s poverty reduction figures and assume that we’ll soon be a country where the poor can afford digitization?

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch websitethehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

(courtesy: Sevanti Ninan & livemint.com)

The great Indian media story: Digitisation dream gone sour

Tata Sky

The path to digitisation has plenty of roadblocks which is affecting the revenues and profits of companies in the broadcast media 

The television media is looking forward to digitisation, which is said to be beneficial for—both channels and broadcasters. It is expected to increased revenues for television channels and broadcasters, many of which are struggling financially. But, there is ample evidence to point out that the transition is not going to be easy.

About a week ago, the ministry of information and broadcasting said that it will start with the digitisation drive from April 2012, beginning with the four metros. The ambitious process is supposed to digitise all cable and analog households in the country by December 2014. The conversion is something many experts claim to be the cure-all, in this case, helping broadcasters and channels to earn revenues and save themselves, and provide a “high-end” experience to viewers, who are still stuck with an ordinary viewing.

According to the FICCI KPMG report, India has 146 million householdsthat have television sets; and cable and satellite makes up 80% of the segment. The biggest beneficiaries from the digitisation drive may be the Direct-to-Home (DTH) service providers and Multi System Operators (MSOs).

But we see that despite a considerable rise in the number of DTH subscribers, the channels, broadcasters and DTH service providers have not made money. This brings us to the question, why?

Airtel Digital TV Review [Updated]

The answer may lie in the convoluted tariff structure and huge inefficiencies of the system. The core problem is that channels are too dependent on advertising, customers are not paying enough for their entertainment, a substantial part of what they are paying is not reaching the TV channels and there is huge oversupply of channels, many funded by slush money and controlled by politicians. This oversupply is draining everybody’s resources—pushing costs higher and dragging down everybody’s profits (or increasing their losses).

The revenues of television business are hugely dependent on advertising. They hardly make much money from subscription. Currently, the average revenue per user (ARPU) is Rs160 per month, across all platforms, according to the FICCI report. This is much lower than what other countries pay. To reach Indian homes, they are dependent on cable operators and DTH providers who extract their pound of flesh. Hernan Lopez, president and chief executive of Fox International Channels, recently said in an interview: “Indian broadcasters generate $2.6 billion a year in advertising. But they only net out $700 million in subscription fees, after accounting for the $400 million they have to pay back in carriage fees.”

Carriage fee is the fee that the broadcasters pay the cable operators and DTH operators to ensure that their channels are carried into your homes. The system of carriage fee is mystifying, and suffers from lack of transparency. The analog cable operators have enormous clout in this area, and they can raise carriage fees, and every year, channels seal deals with these cable operators at increasingly high rates. And there is good deal of revenue leakage from the system. This means, that the channels often lose out on the revenues they earn, as the cable operators do not report their total earnings. Many cable operators are opposed to digitisation because they think it will lead to their loss. It is not that DTH operators are making money either with their carriage fee system. In a recent meet, Harit Nagpal, MD & CEO, Tata Sky, pointed out, “Of every Rs100, the DTH operator has to shell out 32%-35% as taxes and the broadcaster takes about 35%. So, what am I left with? DTH operators in India have shelled out Rs20,000 crore so far towards digitisation.”

Logo of FICCI

The FICCI KPMG report says, “Broadcasters as well as MSOs expect a decline in carriage fee after the implementation of the first phase of digitization. However, there is a lack of consensus on the movement of carriage fee in the medium term. While broadcasters expect a decline over the next two to three years, some MSOs expect carriage payments to claw back to current levels.”

The biggest problem faced by the sector—and what nobody wants to talk about—is of oversupply that is forcing fragmentation. More than 600 channels are on air and government has approved more channels, which are yet to be launched. While many television channels find it difficult to manage their finances and get money for continuing their operations, channels (especially in the regional segment) funded by slush money supplied by some powerful entities get ahead. The money flows in without interruption and unregulated; while other channels struggle to raise money through painful and legitimate means and the channels with dubious means of funding further fragment the sector, and eat away at the revenues. This seamy side of the TV business escapes the fund mangers and analysts. The industry professionals cannot talk about it.

Following the global financial turmoil and inflationary pressure, many corporates have cut down on advertising costs. While the number of channels going up, advertising rates have remained flat and even shown a decline. The 2011 FICCI report had estimated that advertising will grow at 15% CAGR. But the 2012 report says that the growth has been close to 12%. Since 2009, rates have remained flat.

To combat all this, broadcasters have tried to tap into the premium payable segment, i.e., viewers who pay for what they watch via DTH platforms. But it continues to be a very niche segment, because DTH services are costlier than regular cable. Cable operators provide more channels at the same cost while DTH and high definition channels (HD) will also cost more. Convincing the viewer is to pay more will require across-the-board changes.

The FICCI KPMG report estimates that the total cost of digitisation, over four stages, would cost Rs20,000-Rs25,000 crore— excluding investments for DTH additions during the phase. While large cable operators may be able to raise the required cash, small operators and MSOs may not be able to do so. Judging the present scenario, 2014 does not seem to be a realistic deadline for complete digitisation. Information and broadcasting minister, Ambika Soni has assured that the prices of set-top boxes (which are offered at the cheapest rates by China) will come down and that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) will impose a tariff capping for subscribing to channels so that viewers do not get access to the whole bouquet of channels. But it will take more than that. Digitisation may improve subscription base, but without a thorough reform in the revenue structure of the industry (which seems impossible given the endless supply of channels), it seems unlikely that Mr Nagpal’s and his friends’ problems will go away.

(courtesy: Money Life)

Trai for Better Telly: But why stop at limiting ads on TV channels?

Some might welcome the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India‘s (Trai) proposals to limitadvertisements on the telly. Watching the idiot box often seems like catching an occasional glimpse of a programme amid the cacophony of ads. Revenue, after all, is God for channels.

And Trai might just leave them cussing all the way out of the bank. One can imagine someone at Trai, taking a break from drafting the consumer verification norms, or the spectrum auction guidelines, or the rural telephony subsidy directives, turned on a TV set, and felt more rules were needed.

Here are some additional modest proposals: if improving the TV-viewing experience is really on Trai’s priority list, it shouldn’t stop at limiting the number of ads aired per hour. A limit on the decibel levels in TV discussions comes to mind – anchors who exceed the limit can be banned from the airwaves or be forced to broadcast the quietest of their rivals instead.

Let’s also set an upper bound on the amount of screen real estate dedicated to graphics, charts, news tickers and screaming headlines. And rules for how many ‘windows’ any channel can use during a group discussion – say, two for entertainment and sport, three for general news and under half a dozen for business news. And let’s restrict the number of times ‘Exclusive’ or ‘Breaking News‘ can be used to once a day.

Trai suggests scheduling of ads only during interruptions of play on live sporting events – but why stop there? Why not schedule ads only during the boring parts of live news events? Viewers would also appreciate smaller logos of broadcast sponsors – could Trai mandate that they be smaller than the main newscaster’s head? Throw in a restriction on the number of times sportscasters can mention their sponsors, and this policy would be much improved. Savvy, Trai?(courtesy: Economic Times.)

proposal to cut ad time irks TV channels

Advertising advertising

Advertising advertising

Irritated by those frequent commercial breaks between your favourite programme on TV? The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has taken note of viewer irritation and has come up with a proposal to regulate the duration, frequency, timing and audio levels of advertisements.

But broadcasters are not amused by the proposal to put limits on advertising, contained in the telecom and broadcasting watchdog’s consultation paper on issues related to advertisements on television. They fear their main source of revenue will be badly hit.

Mr Paritosh Joshi, CEO, Star CJ and Director, Indian Broadcasting Federation, said, “TRAI has no business to meddle with the duration of ads. The objective of each channel is to make profits and it should work on the principles of free market.” TV channels get 60 per cent of their revenues comes from advertising.

But TRAI says that broadcasters are ignoring current rules. TRAI in its paper points out that free-to-air channels should not carry ads exceeding 12 minutes an hour (this includes 10 minutes of commercials and two minutes of self promotions) and pay channels not more than six minutes of ads per hour. For live telecast of sporting events, ads should only be carried during actual breaks. These limits exist in the current rules, but are observed more in the breach.

TRAI has also pointed out that news and current affair channels cannot run more than two scrolls at the bottom of the screen, occupying a maximum of 10 per cent screen space. It also says that ads should not in any manner interfere with the programme use of lower part of screen to carry captions, static or moving alongside the programme

SELF REGULATION

Ms Mona Jain, CEO, Vivaki Exchange, feels that some channels do require regulation in the way they screen ads. But the industry favours self regulation.

Mr Joshi said, “Channels will exercise self regulation as they know that consumer eyeballs will go away if they were to show more ads and less of content.”

“While there should be a guideline and cap on ad durations, broadcasters are sensible enough to know where to draw the line and not to go overboard,” said Mr Jehil Thakkar, Head – Media and Entertainment, KPMG.

WILL AD RATES GO UP?

If the TRAI proposal goes through, will it force channels to raise ad rates? Ms Jain of Vivaki says, “Channels will want to make up for money lost due to reduced air time. But to raise rates, one will need to have commensurate increase in ratings.”

Ms Jain also points to innovations that some channels have done to make the audience stay during the ad breaks, by putting a stop clock on that shows how long the break is going to be.

She says, “Channels need to figure out how to make viewers stay during the breaks to increase rates.”

Analysts such as Pinc Research say that it is unlikely that broadcasters would allow the proposal to be implemented. TRAI has asked stakeholders to send their comments to its proposals by March 27. (courtesy: Business Line)