DD Direct Plus, (recently renamed DD’s FreeDish) is India’s only Free-To-Air (FTA) DTH platform. Fully owned by Government broadcaster – Prasar Bharati, it cannot officially be termed a DTH platform, since the DTH license norms specifically state that no broadcaster can have more than 25% stake in a DTH platform!
The free-to-view service was launched by Prasar Bharati in 2004. The public broadcaster obtained funding for the service, on the basis that it would be much cheaper to cover the sparsely populated and remote areas of the country, via DTH than install additional terrestrial transmitters. DD already had almost 700 terrestrial TV transmitters – the largest network in the world. As part of the program, Doordarshan even distributed free TV sets and DTH reception antennae to several thousand remote villages and communities, in the country.
Since the transmissions are non-encrypted, any Indian home can purchase their own Ku band Dish + LNB + STB and perpetually receive approximately 60 Free-To-Air channels. The Ku band downlink transmissions all utilise MPEG-2 compression. Now a mature technology, FTA MPEG-2 receivers are available for4 less than Rs. 1,000 each, in the retail market. “It is almost impossible to ascertain the total number of viewers because we have never marketed the dish or set-top boxes. More than 90% of the boxes are from the grey market,” says Jawhar Sircar, CEO, Prasar Bharati.
Of India’s 234 million homes, television currently reaches 153 million. FreeDish hopes to reach the remaining 81 million homes. In this respect, the service is on the right track. Industry estimates are that more than 70% of the homes that FreeDish reaches, never had television in any other form. “These are homes and towns that Zee, in spite of being around for 20 years, has never reached,” says Bharat Ranga, chief content and creative officer, Zee Enterprises. He cites places such as Phulpur, Shahjahanpur and Jhunjhunu – towns with populations of around 40,000 but outside the ambit of TAM’s coverage of towns with one-lakh plus inhabitants. That is why advertisers, desperate to reach small-town India, love it.
THE FTA MARKET
In 2013, Free-To-Air channels had a 4% to 9% share of total TV viewership.
FTA channels received more than 20% of the Rs. 18,000-crore ad money spent on TV advertising. This figure has been growing in double digits year-on-year.
FreeDish is the largest FTA channel platform and private sector broadcasters have bid high in DD’s auctions, to get carriage on FreeDish. Infact, Zee had even gone to court when it was refused carriage!
Today, more than 30 FTA channels including Star Utsav & Zee Anmol pay between Rs. 3.25 crore & Rs. 6 crore a year as carriage fees, to be on FreeDish. “The cost is well worth it,” opines Zee’s Bharat Ranga.
Prasanth Kumar, managing partner, South Asia, central trading group, GroupM, a media buying firm opines “If an advertiser is looking at Tier II and III markets, then FTAs are critical.”
With such lucrative carriage fees (several times the transponder capacity cost), the cash strapped Prasar Bharati has realised that its FreeDish service is a cash cow. Even the Pitroda Committee has recommended increasing the number of private channels on FreeDish and simultaneously reducing the large number of DD terrestrial transmitters in remote areas, to financial restructure Doordarshan.
However, Ku Band satellite transponder capacity is an extremely scarce resource for India. To use this capacity optimally, Doordarshan has, more than 2 years ago declared that all its new channels will utilise MPEG-4 compression that provides twice as many channels per satellite transponder, compared to MPEG-2.
However, MPEG-4 satellite receivers are substantially more expensive, and consumers who want to view the new private channels to be added on FreeDish will have to buy the more expensive receivers.
Doordarshan has ensured that all its own channels will continue to be downlinked with the older MPEG-2 compression, so that all legacy receivers and consumers continue to receive these channels on their older MPEG-2 STBs.
Currently, FreeDish’s downlink signals are FTA, without any encryption. As a result, DD is unable to quantify and provide and rectifiable viewership statistics, against the carriage fee that it charges.
To overcome this, DD has taken a decision to encrypt all its MPEG-4 channels. The encryption is only to quantify the number of viewers (atleast initially) and there are currently no plans to charge Pay TV subscriptions.
The encryption system has not been named. Maybe Doordarshan will utilise the low cost Indian Conditional Access System (CAS) being developed by DeitY (Department of Electronics and Information Technology) ? (see article elsewhere in this magazine).
On the downside, the Indian CAS is planned to be marketed only to Indian STB manufacturers. This will severely restrict FreeDish STB choices for millions of Indians. Doordarshan’s decision on the encryption system is eagerly awaited.
“We will launch call centres and ensure that customers get a one-stop solution for purchase and service concerns,” says Ranjan Thakur, Additional Director General, Doordarshan, and the man running DD’s FreeDish.
“We will launch 120 channels (an addition of 60 channels) from July 1, 2014, encrypt them and move to the MPEG4 format,” DD’s Ranjan Thakur promised the press.
Ofcourse, during the past 2 years DD has made many such commitments – all unkept.
The I&B ministry has made a public statement that it is in talks with ISRO to increase Ku band transponder capacity. Clearly a new satellite is planned, but no details are available.
However, Doordarshan has declared that FreeDish will shift to a new satellite within the next 2 years, and offer a total of 250 Channels. We can only hope that Doordarshan maintains its commitment, this time.