Mumbai / New Delhi: The country’s largest mobile phone company, Bharti Airtel Ltd, formally launched its much anticipated digital television service, a direct-to-home (DTH) service branded Airtel Digital TV, but its ad blitz was somewhat undermined by rival Reliance Big TV Ltd.

Airtel Digital TV had been running teaser commercials for the past week on national television that didn’t identify the brand in an ad that ended with a voice-over saying: “See you at home."

Reliance Big TV, part of the Anil Ambani-run conglomerate, ran a strikingly similar television commercial, including the red sofa in Airtel Digital’s ad as well as a voice-over that went: “See you at home". Big TV touted features such as 200-plus channels, 32 cinema “halls" and digital quality audio and video.

Click here to listen to how the DTH war is hotting up in India

e151f4ce-948b-11dd-b538-000b5dabf613.flv“If you (Airtel) are going to tease people, we (Big TV) are going to feed their appetite," said Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer of Mudra Group, which created the Big TV campaign. “The brand is called Big (TV) and we don’t do things in half measure."

Big TV also notes that Airtel had no copyright claims since the teaser ads ran with no brand logo or name.

“It’s an open market and every player is expected to respond to competition. The campaign also gave us an opportunity to make specific claims on the product," says Sanjay Behl, group head (brand and marketing) of the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group.

Big TV hopes to grab a 40% market share and is distributing its service through 100,000 outlets across 6,000 towns, piggybacking in part on affiliate Reliance Communications Ltd, which ranks behind Bharti Airtel in the country’s bitterly competitive mobile phone services business.

Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications have tangled before in various industry takeover battles as well as fights over industry standards and spectrum.

The ambush is similar to what PepsiCo Inc.’s India unit did for the 1996 Cricket World Cup when Coca-Cola Co. had touted the official drink status of Coke at the tournament. Pepsi countered with a “Nothing Official About It" campaign. And more recently, in 2005, publisher Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd grabbed a teaser campaign that was being used by new newspaper Daily News & Analysis in Mumbai.

JWT India, Airtel Digital TV’s agency, mocked Big TV’s attempt. “I thought Big (TV) was big enough to have ideas of their own," says Agnello Dias, chief creative officer at JWT. “If Big (TV) thinks that Airtel DTH’s launch depends solely on a red chair, they will be very surprised when the campaign breaks."

Airtel Digital TV’s campaign, replete with a cricket and Bollywood ensemble, features actors Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan, cricketers Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan, as well as current Airtel ad stars Madhavan and Vidya Balan, and music composer A.R. Rahman.

Bharti Airtel becomes the fifth player in this nascent business after Tata Sky Ltd, an 80:20 joint venture between the Tata group and Star Group; Dish TV Ltd, an Essel Group company; Sun Direct TV Pvt. Ltd, a joint venture between Chennai-headquartered SunTV Network Ltd and Malaysia’s South Asia Entertainment Holdings Ltd; and Big TV.

Public broadcaster Prasar Bharti runs a free service, called DD Direct.

India has an estimated seven million paying DTH customers and this number is expected to grow to 25 million by 2012, according to a report by industry lobby Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Airtel executives claimed the phone company’s large subscriber base of at least 75 million, its brand strength and a large distributor network will give it the edge in gaining market leadership, claims similar to what Reliance made when it launched Big TV in August.

“India has 225 million households and the DTH penetration is barely 3% of that," says Manoj Kohli, chief executive officer and joint managing director at Bharti Airtel. “At Airtel, we didn’t want to miss this opportunity, and that’s how we decided last year to enter this segment and add media and entertainment to our portfolio."

“The entrance of every new player into the segment will help expand the market and that is good news for the industry and consumers," says Rajesh Jain, who heads the information, communication and entertainment practice at audit and consulting firm KPMG.

Airtel Digital TV will be offered in 62 cities in the first phase and will eventually be available in 252 cities. The service offers 175 channels through different packages ranging from Rs2,499 to Rs3,999. The company said it will also offer a universal remote control for the television and a set-top box as well as a dish antenna that is 20% wider to ensure better reception during rains, a major problem with DTH services.

R. Jai Krishna contributed to this story.