Last month saw the launch of a couple of products that promise to turn your idiot box into a smart TV. First came the hybrid set-top box from Airtel Digital TV, the DTH (direct-to-home) arm of Bharti Airtel Ltd, which offers both online content and satellite TV channels. The hybrid set-top box transforms any TV into a smart TV and allows users to switch between online and linear content with a single device. The device comes preloaded with Netflix, YouTube, Google Play Music, Google Play Games, Airtel Movies and much else. It also allows users to download their favourite apps, content and games on to their TV with the help of a broadband connection.

On 19 April, Amazon Prime Video announced the launch of its Fire TV stick, a content streaming device resembling a pen drive that also comes preloaded with Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar, Voot, Netflix, and Eros Now among others. The stick allows you to watch your online video library on your television with the help of a working wifi connection.

So both the products allow streaming of content directly onto TV.

It’s not difficult to see why Airtel DTH may have thought it important to launch a hybrid box. With over-the-top (OTT) video streaming catching on among consumers, Airtel is perhaps keen to hold on to its customer base by offering additional services. This column had earlier mentioned that DTH may be feeling the heat as consumers choose to binge-watch their favourite TV shows or originals on video platforms. The viewing experience on these services has been facilitated and enhanced by the penetration of smart devices including smartphones and improved broadband speeds.

In fact, a recent global report by consulting firm Accenture says that consumers prefer laptops and desktops over television sets to watch TV shows. The number of people who prefer to see TV shows on television sets has declined 78% (from 47% to 10%) in India in the last one year. The report, titled ‘Winning Experiences in the New Video World’, is based on a global online survey of 26,000 consumers in 26 countries including India. Globally, there has been a 55% drop in consumers who prefer to watch television shows on TV sets. The report attributes this change in consumer behaviour to a surge in online video streaming services in the past one year aided by higher Internet penetration and availability of content.

Online streaming platform Amazon Prime Video, meanwhile, is probably trying to expand its customer base by engaging consumers who are used to watching television by offering its own content on TV. To make its offer lucrative, it has also preloaded several rival apps on its Fire TV stick. Media industry experts say that even consumers who watch online content want to watch it on the big screen. While web content is popular, a big screen is desirable. According to a recent research report by Chrome Data Analytics and Media, a primary research and data analytics company, the Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 cricket tournament is watched most even now on TV despite its popularity on the live-streaming digital app Hotstar. In a research survey in urban markets, 72% of the respondents said that they watched IPL on TV. About 70% of these said they preferred watching IPL on TV as it has a bigger screen. Nearly 35% see IPL on TV as they watch it in a group. The sample size of the survey exceeded 3,000 people in the age group of 15 to 40 years.

According to Salil Kapoor, managing director of HOOQ India, a video streaming platform, television still drives more engagement with audiences. So the new devices are keeping TV central to their plans. “We have experienced that consumption which happens on the large screen is more engaging. Of course the number of people logging through different apps is much higher. But the duration of the engagement is more on the large screen," he says.

Besides, television needs to be connected to the web because consumers are getting a much bigger choice of content on the web. In fact, these devices increasingly make sense as the cost of data goes down; one can watch all content via Internet on the big screen.

That is not all. Companies are launching the smart new devices because the user interface on these is much better. “It is a much better experience as opposed to, say, using a mobile interface for connectivity to TV," says Kapoor.

Last but not the least, these preloaded devices are important as the owner of these devices will become the distributor of apps and indirectly control what you as a consumer watch. It becomes the gatekeeper of the last mile. For instance, the owner of the smart device pre-burns several apps on the media player even as customers access those and start watching. Of course, customers can download more apps, but it is cumbersome.

Clearly, the power is in the hands of the device owner. Tomorrow if a company wants its app to be on that box, it will approach the owner of the box. So in a way this is a battle for control as well.

C.V.L. Srinivas, chief executive of the media agency GroupM, says that content owners are looking to engage their audiences across multiple touch points. “It’s not a case of either/or today but how multiple platforms can be leveraged to drive reach and engagement. Viewers too switch between screens, catching a lot of content on the go but turning to TV once they get home. The habit of TV viewing on an overall basis is still growing."

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.