New Delhi: The information and broadcasting ministry under Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore is set to restart a successful, money-making DTH service that was controversially shut down by his predecessor, Smriti Irani.
Sales of Doordarshan’s ‘Free Dish’, India’s No.1 direct-to-home television service, was put on hold at Irani’s behest in August 2017, and has since lost the public broadcaster about Rs 70 crore in revenue.
The decision, however, did not affect viewers who had bought the DTH service before August 2017 as they were allowed to continue accessing channels following the intervention of the sector regulator.
A senior I&B ministry official told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity that the service will now be “restarted within the next two weeks”. The issue is due to be discussed at a board meeting Monday before a final announcement is made, the official said.
The reasons for Irani’s decision were never made clear.
The I&B ministry had expressed concern that Free Dish, by allowing private channels to ride on the service, was creating competition for its own channels and leading to a possible decline in viewership. This was cited as a possible reason behind the decision to shut it down.
But there was also some speculation that the decision may have been influenced by private DTH players who wanted to curb the popularity of Free Dish among rural and lower-income viewers.
Irani, now minister for textiles, did not respond to requests for a comment. But the ministry official categorically denied the speculation linked to the decision to shut down Free Dish.
“If any player was being favoured why would we take the effort to restart Free Dish?” he said, while adding that “there were losses owing to the vacant slots on Free Dish” after the service was put on hold.
Doordarshan did not respond to requests for comment from ThePrint.
A popular service
DD Free Dish, earlier known as DD Direct Plus, broadcasts 80 free-to-air channels via DTH technology. An estimated 24 million homes bought the service, about 74 per cent of which are rural homes.
Free Dish left behind private players like DishTV, Tata Sky and Airtel to become the No.1 DTH service in India, with its biggest advantage being cost — customers had to pay only a one-time installation charge of Rs 1,200 and no monthly subscription fees.
The service provides 23 Doordarshan channels, Lok Sabha TV, Rajya Sabha TV, and 55 slots auctioned to private channels. At the time it was put on hold, the plan was to expand Free Dish to 250 channels.
Audit firm EY had heaped praise on the service in its July 2017 report titled ‘India’s Free TV — A game changing opportunity’.
It said Free Dish had emerged as a popular home for Hindi news channels, which were finding the subscription-free model more attractive, because they were able to protect their ad revenues and save on the carriage fees charged by distribution companies.
Free Dish also provided a cost-effective option to advertisers who targeted middle- and lower-income audiences for their products.
A real money-spinner
Despite its subscription-free model, Free Dish was a money-spinner for Doordarshan, contributing Rs 278.10 crore towards the public broadcaster’s revenue in 2017-18 – one-third of its total income.
Since Irani put the scheme on hold, eight private channel slots have fallen vacant and not been filled, costing DD between Rs 65.88 lakh to Rs 82.60 lakh a month each. In total, the scheme has cost DD a minimum of Rs 67.39 crore over the last 12 months, documents accessed by ThePrint show.
The scheme was put on hold just 10 days before an e-auction was set to be held for three private channel slots on 22 August, 2017.
The auction was expected to fetch more than the reserve price of Rs 6.5 crore per year each for news channels and Rs 8 crore per year each for non-news channels. DD had earned Rs 85.10 crore for 11 slots in auctions held in July 2017.
Why was it put on hold?
On 12 August 2017, I&B additional secretary Jayashree Mukherjee wrote a confidential email to Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati and Doordarshan director-general Supriya Sahu. The email, accessed by ThePrint, said the auction set for 22 August should be put on hold, because the “minister has desired a presentation on this subject”.
Weeks before Irani was moved out of the I&B ministry in a cabinet reshuffle in May 2018, she held a meeting with senior officials on issues concerning Prasar Bharati, where the Free Dish scheme was also discussed.
Minutes of the meeting reveal it was decided that policy-making was the domain of the ministry, and that the “limited role of Prasar Bharati was to discontinue DD Free Dish”, and it was asked to do so at the earliest. It was also decided in the meeting that the decision of “closure of DD Free Dish has to be complied without further delay”.
At this meeting, the ministry said that private channels being offered to viewers at a low cost was creating competition for DD’s own channels, and that Free Dish was responsible for the falling viewership of DD channels.
A senior DD official has refuted those claims.
“Who will subscribe to the DD Free Dish if we show only DD channels,” the official asked, saying it was irrational to link DD’s falling viewership to the Free Dish scheme.
“The ministry said private channels were gaining profits riding on the DD Free Dish’s reach, but that is false. These private channels can also be present in multiple DTH platforms which can increase their profits. To say that they gained huge profits by just paying a minimum base price to DD is untrue.”
Talking about DD’s falling viewership, another official said it was unrelated to DD Free Dish, and more to do with other issues such as poor marketing and a lack of fresh, sharp content compared to its big-budget competition.
“Also, DD is mandated to do public service broadcasting, unlike private channels,” the second official said.