"Are you HDed yet?" enquires Shah Rukh Khan from the television screen in an advertisement for Dish TV, which offers you 30 high definition channels on its DTH platform. As the people from the TV programmes swirl around SRK in the ad to the peak moment when he puckers up to kiss the glam doll sitting next to him only to realise she is on his TV screen, you may well wonder, "But isn't that supposed to happen with 3D?"
Dish TV is not alone in promoting HD with so much drama. All DTH service brands are doing it, offering HD set- top boxes at Rs 2,300-4,000, compared to the basic DTH box priced less than Rs 1,000. All for actually viewing three channels — National Geographic, Discovery HD World and Movies Now — that actually have programming shot in HD. All the others are "upconverting" their regular programming to HD.
Much ado about very little? No, says the DTH industry. While HD is the icing on the fast-growing DTH cake, it is helping to bring DTH itself and its benefits to viewers into focus: considerably superior viewing quality, freedom of choice on programmes and channels, films that reach you faster after their box office releases, and a number of value added services. Broadcasters earn from the subscription revenue stream, breaking their sole dependence on advertising.
Getting back to HD, Salil Kapoor, COO, Dish TV, asserted: "If you receive your feed in 1080i, then it is HD. High definition is defined by the reception of 1080i. We are getting feeds for all 30 channels in this format directly from the broadcasters."
Competing DTH services don't exactly agree. An industry expert said that there will be a difference in viewing quality between upconverted HD programming and content shot in HD. Content has to be produced in HD, uplinked and delivered in HD and the television set has to be HD-enabled for the true HD effect, he said.Rahul Johri, senior VP and GM, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, India, pointed out: "When change in technology happens, all kinds of mixes — such as the upconverting for HD — will happen. It still is exposing the viewer to HD quality, and HD is the future."
He said that all movements happening in the DTH space are steps in the right direction. Discovery has its channel, Discovery HD World, as the gold standard in HD.
Consumers seem to be taking to the HD idea. Tata Sky said this has been helped along by the ongoing ICC Cricket World Cup, which ESPN-Star Sports is offering in HD as well, which DTH services are showing subscribers in an ad-free environment. Tata Sky claimed that this has boosted the sales of it HD set top boxes. It has the "Billu" TV ad campaign, riding on the Cricket World Cup, currently on air.
Ajai Puri, director and CEO, Airtel Digital TV, Bharti Airtel, said, "Of our set-top box sales in metros currently, 20% is coming from the HD boxes." Dish TV's Kapoor expects at least 10% of Dish TV subscribers to be "HDed" in the coming fiscal.
Puri said, "We will see at least eight, if not 10, HD channels in the next 45 days, spanning general entertainment, English entertainment, and Hindi and English movies. And there are still more being planned."
Harit Nagpal, MD, Tata Sky, added, "The HD inventory is getting created. Bollywood has started shooting movies in HD. Guzaarish and Dabangg are examples. Television soaps will start getting produced in HD when broadcasters will earn from them."
And that's where the DTH industry is really excited. Comprising of six brands — Dish TV, Sun Direct, Tata Sky, Reliance Big TV, Airtel Digital and Videocon D2H — DTH is looking to close fiscal 2010-11 with over 3.1 crore subscribers. It is adding over 10 lakh subscribers every month.
"We are already on the hockey stick growth curve," said Kapoor.
The tipping point, agreed everyone, would be when the DTH subscriber base touched five crore which, the industry estimates, should be possible by March 2012 or just a little after. By 2013, the industry anticipates, digital (led by DTH) and cable services will share the subscriber market in a 50:50 ratio.
"The biggest benefit will be to subscribers on quality and range of viewing," said Kapoor. He added that DTH companies will go cash positive. Broadcasters will earn from subscription revenues in a transparent system. Retail will benefit – there are two lakh re-charge outlets and 50,000-60,000 dealers selling set-top boxes. Government will benefit through taxation. Homeshopping companies will benefit. Film producers will be able to screen their films on TV within three-four weeks of box-office release. On the periphery, partners — such as monster.com and ICICI Bank, who are with Dish TV in this space — will be able to reach the larger universe of TV homes as compared to broadband homes. "There is a small but growing universe of video-on-demand, which will benefit."
Is DTH beginning to look attractive to advertisers? Ask the media agency experts. Manas Mishra, EVP and country head, Mudra Connext, commented: "Advertising opportunities will depend on broadcasters. Some part of the DTH consumer universe would want an ad-free viewing environment; others may want lesser ads. Broadcasters may need to develop separate feeds for DTH. The market will have to work the model out. By end-2012, the business will settle down to viable consumer models."
The DTH brands will remain aggressive in their marketing. As Nagpal concluded: "More important than subscribers investing with us through entry prices will be their staying with us, which will see us constantly working our packages and services to keep them hooked."