Targeting the rural rich



INDIA's rural rich have a new status symbol: a dinky little dish antenna which announces that they are subscribers to Direct-to-Home (DTH) television. For Rs. 7,000 and a monthly instalment, they are hooking up to a multi-channel universe that has been, to date, mostly an urban privilege. Some eight years after it successfully scuttled Star Television's DTH foray, and for about a hundred crore rupees less than what Star was preparing to spend then, a sister company of Zee TV, New Era Entertainment, has become India's first DTH provider with a brand called Dish TV. It had a soft launch last October.

Prasar Bharati is scheduled to begin its own DTH service next week, but has not, at the time of writing, made a firm announcement as yet. It will be on the same satellite as Dish TV, NSS 6. Assuming that it enters the field soon, by the end of this year there will be three DTH providers when Space TV, the joint venture between the Tatas and Star, is scheduled to start. To date there are 1,50,000 subscribers for Dish TV, but if you look at the figures, the scope is about 50 per cent of the country's television owning population, covering more than 200 million people. Currently there are an estimated 85 million TV homes, but only 43 million cable and satellite subscribers. There are areas that are cable dry, cable frustrated (poor connectivity because of terrain) and cable rich. It is the first two categories that will comprise the initial market for DTH.

What the new entrant has rapidly done is to begin reconfiguring the map of who was media rich until now and who was utterly media deprived. The army and the air force are delighted to have some 400 dishes installed for their men in Siachin. The North East is up on top as a plum market, Guwahati is currently the second highest subscribing city in the country after Ludhiana. (It is urban cable operators who are signing up subscribers in the rural hinterland.) A remote district like Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh has four DTH dealers. And dealers are signing up news subscribers in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Assam.

What do subscribers get? A basic package that varies from 48 channels in Punjab for Rs. 140 a month, to 29 in Kerala, for Rs. 107 a month. Sounds good until you discover that the packages do not include the Star or Sony bouquets. It is a bit of an irony — in 1996-97 Zee lobbied and connived to scuttle the DTH entry being planned by Rathikant Basu who then headed what was called Star TV. Today Star has declined to be on the Zee platform but its channels are the most in demand from would-be DTH subscribers. Sony has stayed out because it is allegedly demanding "tough terms". Says a dealer in Tura in the West Garo Hills in Meghalaya, the maximum demand is for the Star and Sony bouquets because these also include National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet. "If I had these I would have been able to sign up more subscribers."

A farmer subscriber in Jind in Haryana has no such demands. He is happy with what is on offer, his family doesn't even watch any of it. With sound entrepreneurial instinct, he has used his DTH connection to provide a cable service in his village: Quila Jawahargarh now has some 250 to 300 of its 4,000 odd households rigged up with a 10 to 12 channel cable service, according to the farmer's contractor brother.

Usually we hear less about the rural rich than about the rural poor. But the former's numbers are substantial enough to make a great deal of investment worthwhile. By the end of next year it could be 2,000 crores from all the players combined. Though the Essel group (which owns Zee) is tirelessly working out marketing ploys including extended monthly instalment schemes, more than one dealer in Meghalaya, for instance, tells you that money is not a problem for would-be subscribers. There are contractors who do business in the cities and live in the village, there are MLAs who want to watch all the news channels. There are well-to-do farmers. Power is a problem though: in Bihar for instance there are fewer subscribers because whereas people have money, power supply is abysmal. Currently DTH set top boxes here run on automobile batteries.

DD has announced that it will be spending Rs. 500 crores initially on its DTH foray, and the idea is more to buy itself an audience for its own satellite channels than to become a serious DTH player. It has mentioned an initial package of 30 channels, and though there will be installation charges, there will be no monthly subscription fee. If it is able to do what Zee has failed to do — get Star and Sony on board — by persuasion or arm-twisting, it will have an advantage over Dish TV's package. The latter is meanwhile hoping the State broadcaster will fight its battle for it: There has been some talk of Prasar Bharati using the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to decree that nobody can refuse to go on a DTH platform.

All the mountainous areas are a virtually untapped market for DTH which supplies the TV signal from a satellite with a Ku Band antenna, compared to the `C' band-equipped satellites that satellite and cable TV normally gets its signal from. Ku Band gives powerful transmission signals in a narrowly focussed area, such as the Indian subcontinent. Jawahar Goel, youngest brother of Zee chairman Subhash Chandra, who heads the Dish TV DTH foray says it is the potential in Kashmir that has made him include two private channels from Pakistan — Geo and ARY — in his package for that State and Punjab. The list of top 20 cities so far includes Jammu and Srinagar, as it does Dehradun.

New Era Entertainment has now deployed some 60 video vans equipped with satellite dishes and plasma screens to travel around villages demonstrating the quality of reception with DTH. It is busy working out EMI schemes and discount packages to pre-empt the competition.

The slim set top box is Korean. By the time the competition is in place, DTH could be entirely affordable for a large number of people. The sole player today began by targeting outlying rural areas and is now moving inward seeking urban subscribers.

The transmission quality is sharp, and additional packages on offer include those for news and cinema, or others for foreign channels that cable operators do not give today. DTH works on centralised subscriber management: every single subscriber, wherever he or she may be, is tracked through satellite from a central point in Noida, near Delhi, where 150 people in three shifts monitor subscribers, their payment status, and their complaints.

Doordarshan may have the money (our money) to make the foray into DTH. Will it have the rural marketing muscle and the service culture to succeed?

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