The DD Free Dish phenomenon
In early July, state broadcaster Doordarshan’s free-to-air (FTA) direct-to-home (DTH) platform DD Free Dish earned Rs85.10 crore in an e-auction of its slots to private broadcasters. This was the highest amount earned by Free Dish in an auction.
Although its earlier auction this year failed to elicit any response owing to high reserve prices, DD has finally managed to sell its slots for a higher sum. That Free Dish is in the pink of health is evident from its annual numbers—In 2016-17, DD Free Dish recorded revenue of Rs264.17 crore, a 47% increase from a year ago. Free Dish’s success can be gauged not only from the revenue it earns from slot sale but also from the number of subscribers it has managed to enrol. The platform boasts of 22 million subscribers in India, according to estimates from television viewership measurement agency Broadcast Audience Research Council (Barc) India. These are estimates as the hardware to receive Free Dish signals is available at different sales points and the data is not easy to collate.
The reasons for Free Dish’s success and popularity are not hard to find. First and foremost, as the name suggests, DD’s Free Dish DTH service is free. This means that if you buy the equipment (a set-top box and a dish) to receive signals of DD Free Dish, you do not have to pay a monthly subscription fee thereafter as is the case with private DTH platforms. “That is the single biggest reason for its success,” points out Ashish Pherwani, partner, media and entertainment at consulting firm EY. EY, has, in fact, published a report on Free TV viewership which is set to register exponential growth to reach 46 million households by 2020. The report titled India’s Free TV—A game changing opportunity also takes note of the phenomenal success of DD Free Dish.
The other reason for the popularity of Free Dish is its attractive content. Thanks to private broadcasters who are on DD Free Dish, the DTH platform boasts of films, general entertainment programmes and news. Currently, the platform hosts 80 channels including Star India Pvt. Ltd’s Star Utsav, Sony Pictures Networks’ Sony Pal and Rishtey from Viacom18 Media Pvt Ltd. It also broadcasts news channels such as Aaj Tak, ABP News and News 24. Going forward, DD plans to add 24 new channels to Free Dish, taking the total count to 104.
To be sure, the general entertainment channels (GEC) on Free Dish are the siblings of the flagship channels of broadcasters and carry their old content library. “But Free Dish viewers don’t seem to mind if their show Naagin, for instance, lags by a few months,” says Pherwani. That the content being offered is popular is evident from the fact that last week, Rishtey, the FTA channel of Colors was among the top 5 most-watched channels in Hindi GEC in both urban and rural India. Explaining why Free Dish is gaining in strength and stature, Pherwani says that often it rides on the back of poor cable television infrastructure in rural areas.
While some areas are found wanting in cable access, others that do have cable provide an insignificant number of channels. Private broadcasters say that the government is clearly building a great revenue model for Free Dish. They feel Free Dish is gaining traction and increasing its penetration thanks to content provided by them. “We are not only driving its penetration, but paying for it as well,” says the head of a private TV channel, requesting anonymity.
Free Dish, on the other hand, can argue that its platform allows a channel to gain a national footprint overnight. The channel head says that although it is a win-win situation right now, Free Dish should not raise its reserve prices again.
According to the EY report, DD Free Dish, the state-run DTH provider is the largest TV distribution company in the country. The subscriber base of DD Free Dish is projected to reach 40 million users in the next 2-3 years.
It can be argued that Free Dish can only grow in the future. In the absence of rural viewership data earlier, both broadcasters and advertisers were forced to focus on urban audiences. “However, with ratings agency Barc India now reporting rural viewership data, broadcasters have opened up to the idea of providing their content on FTA and pay channels, which cater to the rural segment,” says the report.
As more free-to-air channels are launched, they would aim to be on Free Dish. Currently, rural TV viewership contributes 52% to overall viewership. However, it is estimated to contribute 74% of the total viewership of DD Free Dish. Free Dish may further grow thanks to mandatory digitization where government has shut down analog cable transmission as of April 2017. This will drive consumers to look for alternatives— either the more expensive cable or private DTH options or the DD Free Dish option. “Given that they would have to invest in hardware (an STB or set-top box and perhaps also a dish), the more price-conscious customers may opt for free television services in the immediate term,” says the EY report.
This may lead to a staggering rise in DD Free Dish viewers.
Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Respond to this column at email@example.com.