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Public service broadcaster Prasar Bharati’s free-to-air direct-to-home (DTH) service – DD FreeDish – is on a roll. In the last two years of the pandemic, millions of viewers have migrated to the platform that offers entertainment without any monthly charges unlike the cable or DTH operators that they subscribed to. Even private satellite TV broadcasters admit to the phenomenal growth of DD FreeDish in recent years, especially during covid when economic stress pushed low-income groups, rural and semi-rural consumers to cut their cable bills and opt for a free service.

A media and entertainment industry report released by EY and Ficci in March said subscription revenue for television fell for the second year in a row in 2021 with a 6.2% decline owing to a reduction of 6 million pay TV homes and lower average revenue per user. The report added that free TV homes are likely to cross 50 million by 2025, “thereby stressing the core pay TV market."

Add to this what a senior executive of a private TV broadcaster in entertainment believes – that 10 million households have got rid of their pay TV connections in the last two years. It may also be one of the reasons for lower viewership of some of the paid general entertainment channels in the last several months, he said. On one hand are the cord-cutters in the metros who are replacing their paid DTH connections with subscriptions to streaming services, on the other are the semi-rural and rural consumers cutting off cable to get on to FreeDish.

The rise of FreeDish, however, must be viewed in the context of the government mandate to promote the platform. “To us, FreeDish is the platform for free-to-air broadcast. In the past, that role was played by analogue terrestrial TV which is now completely phased out," said Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati.

Besides all the DD channels, FreeDish offers 76 private entertainment and news channels. As of March 2022, 43 million households had FreeDish. Additionally, under a government scheme, lakhs of DD FreeDish DTH set-top boxes will be distributed free in border areas, Vempati said.

But he feels the growth of FreeDish must not be viewed from the narrow prism of consumers switching from pay to free. “There is a huge segment that took to FreeDish during the pandemic on account of the educational channels. I see this phenomenon continuing to grow, with several more educational channels slated to be added to the service," he said, adding that the platform plays both a public and a private role, and brings infotainment to practically every home.

Yet, in somewhat of a blow to FreeDish’s spirited run, a clutch of leading Hindi general entertainment channels (GECs) recently pulled out from FreeDish. Among them are GECs belonging to Star, Sony, Viacom and Zee. It was a decision taken by the Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF) even though most of these free-to-air channels enjoyed significant viewership and advertising revenue by being on FreeDish. The association ruled that networks cannot have the same channel as free-to-air on DD FreeDish and then as pay TV on, say, another paid platform. They had to choose.

So, the leading broadcasters decided to drop FreeDish as paid DTH allows them both advertising and subscription revenue. Privately, they admitted that if they feed FreeDish, its growth negatively impacts pay TV prospects.

“It was a strategic call as most channels made good ad revenue. On one hand, the TV industry has been advocating a move towards pay TV, then to sit on DD FreeDish was somewhat of a self-contradiction," said the broadcast sector executive quoted earlier.

Vempati declined to comment on why Hindi GECs abandoned FreeDish. He doesn’t think that their absence would affect FreeDish viewership either. “FreeDish as platform is for enabling competitiveness. It has allowed new and upcoming channels to challenge incumbents while enabling immense reach," he said.

Several new channels have come up the ratings chart, he said, citing the example of Dangal. “Dangal is right there at the top. Other free-to-air channels are in the top 10 as well. In that sense, the role FreeDish is playing is making the landscape more competitive where smaller channels are able to carve a space for themselves. I don’t see that going away."

Slots for onboarding more channels, as and when added, will be allotted through e-auction, he added.

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