If you are one of the 197 million homes who pay for and watch TV instead of live streaming your daily fix, your life changed when the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai) new regulation on channel pricing became mandatory. Trai has changed the way you are billed for the channels you consume.

Effective 1 February 2019, you will now have the freedom to pay for only what you watch from an a la carte list. Wednesday was the last day to make your decision before your service provider migrates you to a default set of channels and pricing based on what plan you were already on. But will this regulation really reduce your TV bills? There are some winners and some losers.

But first let us understand the charges. Trai mandates that every channel should either be listed as free-to-air (FTA) or have a fixed maximum retail price across all platforms. Every subscriber will pay a flat 130 plus taxes as network capacity fee every month. The 26 Doordarshan channels come free and are mandatory, which means among the 100 free channels, spectrum space worth 26 channels is reserved for Doordarshan. This leaves you with 74 channels (excluding Doordarshan) that are called FTA channels. This is the flat cost. Note that these FTA channels include obscure options such as Dangal, Satsang TV, Masti and Divya TV.

Now comes the choice. You now need to pay 20 as spectrum fee for every 25 SD channels you want to add. Each HD channel takes the spectrum of two SD channels, reducing the total number of channels in the spectrum band. For example, if you take four HD channels, then you can only choose 17 SD (25 minus 8) channels in the 25-channel band. Even if you choose less channels than the allowed 25, you will still pay the flat 20 spectrum charge. The next 25 channels you choose, will follow the same formula.

Next comes the channel pricing. Trai has fixed a maximum price for every channel you choose at 19 if it is in a bouquet. There is no upper price cap if you are choosing channels that don’t come in a bouquet and the prices really vary. For example, there are 24 channels that cost 10 paise and the most expensive channel costs a huge 1,800. You can then choose the channels you want and pay for what you use. Instead of choosing individual channels, you can also choose a bouquet that is put together by the broadcaster. For example, Star’s premium HD pack which consists of 22 channels is priced at 120 plus GST at 18% per month. The cheapest bouquet in the market costs just 4 and the most expensive one costs 145.

Winners and losers

But has the intent of Trai to reduce the TV bill for Indians actually worked out? According to a report by global analytics company Crisil, prices could actually increase by 25% for most TV subscribers. The big losers will be those on the cable TV network. Sunil Kumar, secretary of the Telangana Cable Operators Federation said that Trai is trying to benefit broadcasters and multi-system operators and not the consumer. “Earlier, for 150-250, we were giving you around 350-plus channels and you had the freedom to watch whatever you wished to. Now Trai is saying not more than 50 channels are viewed by a customer and this could be right. But in a family not all people watch the same channels," said Kumar.

Under the previous regime, cable TV consumers in urban areas paid up to 250 a month and rural consumers paid up to 150 for cable TV for 350-plus channels. Under the new regime, if the cable TV subscribers opt for more than three pay channels, they will end up paying more. The Crisil report says that if you opt for three pay channels along with the fixed base price of 130, your total bill including taxes would come up to 192 a month. This may be higher in some locations than what customers currently pay.

The winners are those who are on existing high-value plans from direct broadcast satellite television providers such as Tata Sky and can now curate their play lists according to what they will actually watch. “Consumers who restrict themselves to 100 SD channels are likely to see their TV bills reduce. However, consumers who opt for the top 10 channels and up to 100 SD channels may see their TV bills going up by 25%," said Sachin Gupta, senior director, ratings, Crisil.

The top 20 channels account for over 80% of the total viewership. So even if you rationalise your consumption, you are likely to opt for at least 10 of the top 20 viewed channels. Top 10 channels plus the fixed base price and taxes would push up your bill to 298 a month. If you’re in a big family and have people across age groups who prefer watching different kinds of content or prefer having many options, restricting your consumption to top 10 channels may not be possible. In such a scenario, if you opt for 25 top channels, you’ll end up paying 438 a month. The price will further increase if you add more HD channels and pick more paid options. But in some cases this will be cheaper than the higher value plans subscribers were on.

What can you do

You can take the default package constructed by your service provider based on your choice. Or you can take the recommended pack they suggest. You can curate your own channel list. Or you can opt for the bouquets that are put together by broadcasters who are bundling a set of channels and pricing them between 4 and 145.

Your TV bills could reduce if you’re a single-person household or a two-member family. If you are subscribing to the higher value packs or want more options and have people who prefer watching different kinds of content, your monthly TV expense is likely to shoot up under the new Trai regime.

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