When the opening ceremony of the next Commonwealth Games is broadcast from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium on 3 October 2010, it will also mark another first for television in India. The Games will formally usher in high-definition television, or HDTV, into Indian homes as Prasar Bharti, or Broadcasting Corp. of India, the public broadcaster, will use this latest technology to bring clearer, sharper images to the small screen. “This is going to be the next mega event after the Beijing Olympics (in 2008) which is going to be shot and broadcast in HD (high-definition),” says Sujit Panigrahi, head of technology (additional director general, technology) of the Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi organizing committee.
The last time Indian television made a comparable technology leap was in 1982, when the ninth Asian Games were broadcast in colour, a first for the country. “Before colour broadcast was done by Doordarshan, there was no colour TV in the country. It was the Asian Games which brought about a big change,” says Suresh Khanna, secretary general, Consumer Electronics and Appliance Manufacturers Association, or Ceama. Colour television became the rage as viewers ditched their old black and white sets to see their favourite sports in Technicolor.
Gearing up: Rajesh Sheshadri of the National Geographic Channel says the coming of HD channels in India will completely change the viewing experience. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Television makers, broadcasters and content makers are hoping that the Commonwealth Games will trigger a similar trend in favour of HDTV. “HD broadcast of the Games will act as a catalyst in increasing the sale of HDTVs, and will also create temptation for content providers to develop HD content,” says Khanna.
HDTV offers higher resolution than SDTV, or standard-definition television, the technology currently in use, providing a far better viewing experience, with crisper picture quality and sound. The number of vertical lines of resolution in HDTV format is 720 or 1,080, so there is more sampling of visual information, which in turn provides high-quality video. In contrast, SDTV has 480 or 576 vertical lines of resolution.
In order to get the actual HDTV experience, all three links in the chain—HDTV content, HDTV broadcast platform and HDTV hardware (television set)—have to be in place. Already, various players in their respective segments are gearing up to be a part of the expanding HDTV infrastructure in the country, though experts believe it will take some time before India gets to experience it.
It’s not that the country is unfamiliar with the technology. The Indian Premier League, or IPL, cricket tournament held in South Africa in April-May was shot in the HDTV format, though it was not broadcast to Indian viewers in that format. “Yes, DLF IPL matches were shot in HD. Channel 10 in Australia transmitted HD coverage of DLF IPL,” says Andrew Wildblood, senior vice-president and corporate director, International Management Group, or IMG, India. IMG is a sports, entertainment and media management company that was hired by IPL. “Other broadcasters will be encouraged to develop their HD channels as more sporting events are produced in HD.”
Rohit Gupta, president (network sales), Multi Screen Media Pvt. Ltd, or MSMPL, which broadcast IPL matches in India, believes the country is still in a transition phase when it comes to HDTV. “Over 95% TVs in India are not HD-compatible yet, and there is no broadcasting platform. The shift is not going to happen immediately,” he says. This was why IPL matches could not be shown in the HDTV format in India, though the technology was used to record the matches, he explains.
Similarly, Neo Sports Broadcast Pvt. Ltd, which operates two sports channels, Neo Cricket and Neo Sports, shoots all sports events in HDTV but is unable to transmit in the same format because of lack of infrastructure.
“In the case of our channel, the production is done in HD but for transmission, we have to downgrade it to standard-definition,” says Harish Thawani, CEO, Nimbus Communications Ltd, the promoter of Neo Sports Broadcast.
Another obstacle is the dearth of technicians well-versed in HDTV production. “We (in India) still do not have experts to handle HD cameras; most of them are not comfortable handling HD equipment. Also, it is a very costly technology, almost double the cost of SD (standard-definition),” says Simi Karna, former head of programming at IMG India. “Although we have started doing work in HD, and I am going to shoot a musical event in July in HD, it will take at least 8-10 years for HD to become a reality in India,” adds Karna.
Though it’s not clear yet how much end-consumers will have to pay for HDTV services, experts believe there are huge costs involved at every stage.
“That (cost) is the reason why DTH (direct-to-home) players such as Bharti Airtel Ltd, Tata Sky Ltd and Dish TV India Ltd are not launching (the) HD platform,” says Thawani. “Only a couple of players are talking about it, with a clear objective of raising valuations. Currently, an HD decoder costs about $300 (around Rs14,220). Even if it comes down to $200 in the next 10 years, and let’s assume that the number of cable homes will become 100 million, then also it would require an investment of at least $20 billion to switch to HD,” he says. “People in India are not buying set-top boxes... Who will invest money in an HD box?” he asks.
Echoing his view, Farokh Balsara, partner at consulting firm Ernst and Young India, says globally, only 5-10% of subscribers opt for HDTV broadcast even when it is available because of the price factor.
“Right now, I do not think broadcasters in India will want to invest in launching high-definition services. For any broadcaster to provide HD service, there will be extra cost involved at every step on content, post-production, transmission, cable network and others,” says Balsara. “In India, it is at a very nascent stage. It will take at least three-five years for the entire value chain to get digitized.”
Thawani, too, thinks HDTV is not very big globally. “The penetration of HD is very low. It’s about 2% in the UK, negligible in Europe, and even in the US, it has just begun to scratch the surface. So even in the most advanced nations, HD is not present in a big way. So obviously, India will take at least 10-15 years (to adopt it),” he adds.
However, there are others who are convinced about the benefits of HDTV. “HD production is marginally more expensive. (But) this is a very worthwhile investment,” says Wildblood. “HD is the way of the future and the benchmark for major global sporting events such as DLF IPL. The (picture) quality is astonishing.”
Many broadcasters and content providers are preparing themselves for the new technology. For instance, DTH service provider Dish TV, part of Essel Group, is talking to various channels to roll out HDTV content. “The problem is that we do not have (any) HD content in the market to broadcast. Currently, we are talking to several television channels for rolling (out) of advanced (HDTV) versions which viewers will be able to enjoy through the Dish TV platform,” says Anjali M. Nanda, vice-president, marketing, Dish TV. “Within this year, we expect to begin transmission of HD channels.”
Scaling up: Anjali M. Nanda of Dish TV says the company is talking to various channels to roll out HDTV content. It plans to begin transmission within this year.Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Similarly, National Geographic Channel Network (India) Pvt. Ltd, which had announced the launch of a dedicated HDTV channel last year, is waiting for the government’s nod to get a broadcast licence. “The coming of HD channel to India will be a revolution of a kind, as it will completely change the viewing experience. Last year, we had applied for the licence and it should be round the corner,” says Rajesh Sheshadri, senior vice-president, content and communication, National Geographic Channel. “This is the perfect time to launch HD channel in the country, when hardware and other components are coming in,” he adds.
The company claims that the channel will come with an enhanced picture-frame composition, sharper picture quality and surround-sound system to deliver more intimate, closer-to-life and unsurpassed theatre-like experience.
DTH service provider Sun Direct Pvt. Ltd, which has around three million subscribers, announced in April the launch of HDTV broadcast on the DTH platform. It has already started broadcasting Tamil and Telugu movie channels in the HDTV format and plans to soon broadcast a Hindi movie channel in HD, followed by National Geographic Channel, the company said.
Even cable operators are hopping on to the HDTV bandwagon. “HD can also be carried on cable. We have applied for a licence for downlinking Luxe TV channel, an entertainment and lifestyle channel, but haven’t got the permission yet. We have plans to keep Luxe SD free some initial two-three years and charge money for the HD one,” says Vicky Chowdhary, president, National Cable and Telecom Association, a cable operators association, declining to share details on the pricing structure.
The final link in the chain—TV set makers—are also expanding their portfolio of high-definition-compatible TV sets. Samsung Electronics India Pvt. Ltd, the Indian arm of Korean electronics giant Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd, plans to launch a range of new HDTV sets in India this year. “Globally, the portfolio of full HD contributes about 50% to the total portfolio. Even India is catching up very fast. Last year, about 20% of TVs sold here were HD, but this year, it is likely to go up to 40-45%,” says Ravinder Zutshi, deputy managing director, Samsung Electronics India.
Other consumer electronics goods makers such as Sony Electronics India Ltd and LG Electronics India Pvt. Ltd also market their HD range of televisions in India.
While television makers and broadcasters may be trying hard to push HDTV into India, it will take some time for the demand to build up. “The consumer is not completely aware of the technology yet. A majority of people ask for affordable products,” says an LG dealer, who did not want to be identified. Besides non-availability of HDTV content in India, the price, upwards of Rs40,000 for a 32-inch screen, is another reason why HDTV has not been able to make inroads into the mass market. In 2008, 14.5 million TV sets were sold in India, of which HD-compatible sets were only a minuscule 120,000, according to Khanna.
“HDTVs are a part of the LCD TV category, which is very technology-oriented,” says V. Ramachandran, director, marketing and sales, LG Electronics India, who is hopeful sales will pick up as broadcasters increasingly adopt this technology. “Though we do not have HD feed in India currently, it is a developing technology, and in the next two-three years we (India) are likely to see some progress in terms of HD content. So when consumers spend money on electronics items, they plan keeping the future in mind.”
Till HDTV broadcast starts in India, electronic equipment such as gaming consoles, blu-ray discs, DVD players and personal HD camcorders are driving the passion for HDTV among people. “People are watching HD movies and personal videos on HDTVs. Even Sony’s Playstation 3 is a big driver,” says Rajesh Dewani, director, Avit Digital Pvt. Ltd, a distributor for Sony in Delhi.
Dish TV is also likely to soon launch digital video recorders, or DVRs, for the home theatre segment. “It’s advanced equipment which is capable of scaling up normal signals. It will change the quality of output,” says Dish TV’s Nanda.
But everyone agrees it will take some time for HDTV to catch on in India. A lot remains to be done at every level—content, broadcast and hardware. “The marriage is yet to happen,” says Nanda.