Mumbai: While the world continues to hail India’s rapid rise as the second largest and fastest growing smartphone market globally, advertisers to the rural market may continue to rely on an age-old medium: television.

According to market research firm Kantar IMRB, the television set continues to be the dominant information medium for the rural consumer, even though mobile phones are growing at a rapid rate in India, with 5.2% growth in calendar year 2016 (according to the International Data Corporation).

In a report titled STAR 2017, focused on data from rural Indian markets, Kantar IMRB said it found that 59% of all rural consumers surveyed watched television in the previous week before respondents were questioned for the survey, even though penetration of mobile phones among these consumers is high.

The report found that 79% of rural consumers now own a mobile phone, including 79% of those living in towns/villages with a population of 2,000-5,000, among the smallest in the country.

The penetration of mobile phones is highest in the north and south of the country, at 80%, while 78% consumers in the east and 75% in the west reported owning a mobile phone. 

But television remains the dominant advertising medium. Kantar IMRB found that only 22% of rural consumers surveyed read a newspaper or a magazine in the four weeks or seven days preceding the survey. And, only 4% of consumers polled said they listened to the radio in the week preceding the survey. 

This is in line with data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council (Barc) India. It collects data on TV viewership and the top advertisers on television across languages and genres, in both rural and urban India. 

According to Barc’s Broadcast India Survey 2016, the number of television households in rural India is 18% more than in urban India, up from a 50-50 split between the two regions the previous year.

Close to 46% of urban Indian homes—84 million—have a television while there are 99 million rural television households, which is about 54% of all homes.

More rural homes watch television than urban ones do. There are a total of 183 million television homes in India, up 19% from 154 million the previous year.

What’s the secret to rural India’s television addiction?

“TV viewing still remains a collective activity in the rural family," said Alpana Parida, managing director of brand consultancy DY Works. “There is time allocated for the television in the rural home. Besides, even in our rural study (Emerging Rural Consumer Behaviours), we found that there is a flat-screen TV in rural homes. There is tremendous aspiration in television as a marker of rural (wealth and progress)," she said.

Television channels are also keeping rural viewers hooked by focusing on new content and providing popular shows to them for free.

“Star, Zee and others have started airing their old programmes for free, making them accessible to rural families," Parida said. “There is now availability of good programming."

Besides, these television channels have found an easy access to a large rural viewer base with free-to-air (FTA) channels using state broadcaster Doordarshan’s DD Free Dish—a direct-to-home satellite TV service which does not charge a monthly fee unlike its private competitors such as Tata Sky and Dish TV.

“If you look at the number of FTA channels coming on board in the last 24 months, with DD Free Dish moving as a huge platform, these channels are enabling a lot of marketing dollars from advertisers, particularly from FMCG firms in the last 18 months," said Baskar Subramanian, co-founder of Amagi Media Labs, a geo-targeting TV advertising solutions firm. “Freshness of content is also helping growth in rural television. For instance, Star has been talking about launching a new FTA sports channel," he said.

In fact, Zee Anmol and Rishtey have remained among the top channels for Hindi general entertainment in rural areas for the last several weeks, as per Barc data. Both are free-to-air channels owned by Zee and Viacom18, respectively.

Meanwhile rural users still lag in the use of the internet—largely driven by smartphones—even as they report high use of mobile phones (which includes feature phones). Data is still too expensive and too low in quality for a large number of rural consumers to shift to online viewing. “You get smaller bites of a programme on your phone than you do on television," Parida said. “Data is not on that kind of speed or quality yet."

Data from Kantar IMRB’s report also show very little laptop or personal computer usage in rural India, at 3% overall in 2016. Most of this is in south Indian rural areas, where 6% of consumers surveyed said they had access to a personal computer. 

This leaves television as the dominant means of communicating with rural audiences for large firms such as Hindustan Unilever Ltd, which was the top advertiser on Indian television for the week of 12-18 August 2017, as per Barc data.

Barc’s weekly data found other dominant advertisers on Indian television for this period included Reckitt Benckiser (India) Ltd, ITC Ltd and Patanjali Ayurved Ltd.

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