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Last week, a report by broadcast sector regulator the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) said private direct-to-home (DTH) companies have lost 1.6 million paid active subscribers in the March quarter. The total active subscriber base decreased from 68.52 million in December 2021 to 66.92 million in March 2022. Trai had similarly flagged loss in paid DTH subscribers for December 2021. While the trend may be worrisome for all pay TV channels, it may be especially so for Disney Star in India, which has paid a sizeable 23,575 crore for the cricket Indian Premier League TV broadcast rights.

So far, Disney Star, which had the consolidated IPL media rights for the last five years, had made the property available only to pay TV subscribers. But the dwindling pay TV universe may birth a fresh problem for the company already faced with diminished viewership of the cricket tournament earlier this year.

Additionally, it has to compete with Reliance Industries-backed Viacom18 that won the digital streaming rights which, media experts say, will push IPL on the Jio app.

In fact, the competition almost rattled Disney Star when a release from Viacom18 a day after the IPL media rights auctions were over in mid-June, said, “With these IPL rights, Viacom18 will be able to take India’s biggest sporting event to every nook and corner of the country. It will make IPL available to every Indian in every part of India, including the 60 million FreeDish homes which today are not able to access this popular content."

Since DD FreeDish homes are basically TV households, Viacom18 representatives quickly clarified that the company intends to take IPL to each and every home via streaming.

To be sure, DD FreeDish, the free-to-air direct-to-home platform of the public broadcaster Prasar Bharati that offers close to 200 TV channels free to consumers, has become a force to reckon with.

Earlier this year, top broadcasters pulled out their Hindi entertainment channels from the platform as FreeDish was growing in popularity affecting their pay TV revenues and irking the paid DTH and cable TV companies that distribute their channels.

Yet, IPL on FreeDish may be an idea that Disney Star could explore. The importance of DD FreeDish is evident from the buzz that Disney Star, Sony, Viacom and Zee, may bring back their TV channels on the platform as they saw a big chunk of their ad revenue disappear overnight. Collectively, the broadcasters made upwards of 1,200 crore in advertising from FreeDish, though a leading broadcaster claimed its ad revenue from the single channel on the platform was 900 crore a year.

The potential of FreeDish has enticed Goldmine Telefilms to launch four entertainment channels, while Shemaroo Entertainment has put up two channels since 2020.

While the figure of 60 million FreeDish homes may be exaggerated, the platform is expected to reach 50 million homes by 2025, as per a Ficci-EY report released in March this year.

Will FreeDish be a viable option for the pricey cricket property? Well, it could access large viewership and advertising base by being on the platform. Yet, it could rile pay TV platforms – both cable and DTH – and their subscribers.

Manish Shah, director, Goldmine Telefims doesn’t think IPL will go free-to-air as it will impact its subscription revenue. But he extols the reach of FreeDish which attracts advertisers eyeing consumption growth in these markets.

“TV penetration in places like UP and Bihar is still low at 52%. There is room for growth which, in my view, will come from FreeDish and not pay TV," Shah said. Disney Star can also take comfort in the fact that TV ad spends are slated to grow in healthy double digits, as per a Dentsu ad forecast report.

Yet others warn that the FreeDish consumer has no exposure to IPL as it has been the privilege of the pay TV subscriber all these years.

IPL will need to be marketed and built for this audience which would require investment. “To put IPL on FreeDish is a strategic call that the broadcaster will need to take based on various permutations and combinations," said a broadcast sector expert. Obviously, the upside must outweigh the downside of the move.

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.

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