The noise seems almost deafening on something whose time is still to come. "Are you HDed yet?" ask the Dish TV ads. All DTH service providers are shouting HD or high definition TV from the rooftops. Dish TV boasts of 40 HD channels, Reliance Digital TV offers 250 "HD-like" channels, Videocon d2h is advertising 11, and Tata Sky and Airtel Digital are offering seven of eight "true" HD channels.
Among TV broadcasters, Star India boasts of Star Plus, Star World, Star Movies, Star One, Star Gold, Nat Geo, and ESPN and Star Cricket in HD. Discovery HD World and Movies Now are the other HD channels. Viacom 18's Colors is about to launch in HD shortly. This month will see Zee Network's Zee TV, Zee Cinema, Zee Studio and Zee Café launching their HD versions.
Almost as a backbone to all this activity is the noise by television brands. Industry sources place last year's flat panel TV sales - a majority of which were HD - at 3.2 million and project sales of about 5.4 million units this fiscal.
Given the din, you'd believe that HD is the most happening thing in India currently. Till the numbers hit you. Cable TV - which doesn't offer HD - has around 85-90 million subscribers, while direct-to-home (DTH) services have a 30-32 million base.
Punitha Arumugam, CEO, Madison Media Group, placed the current HD subscribers at 300,000 homes. HD viewing needs an HD TV set, an HD set-top box (from a DTH service), and HD channels to watch.
Raj Nayak, CEO, Colors, said, "Technology is evolving and so are our consumers. Going HD is a natural step in that direction."
Sanjay Gupta, COO, Star India, said, "In one year's time, we will see 1.5-2 million HD subscribers in India."
DTH services see HD as a chance to earn more. Vikram Mehra, CMO, Tata Sky, said, "For companies like ours, HD can get in higher end subscribers and bring in better ARPU (average revenue per user). We are seeing a lot of interest from subscribers."
Arumugam said: "About 70% of DTH is rural. To break significantly into urban markets, HD makes sense for DTH companies. While rural subscribers would go for basic packages, urban subscribers can opt for better content and viewing quality at higher rates."
Still, two million subscribers, in comparison with the overall cable and DTH base, do sound small. Arumugam said: "This is the way of the future. Scale will build up over time."
"This is not going to be a quick journey," Gupta agreed. "It will take three-to-five years to recover the investment on HD. But HD has a big future in India. Just 10% of the DTH subscriber base being on HD, could provide DTH companies with 40% of their revenue."
The international trend is towards going fully digital, as in the US and UK which, said Gupta, took five-six years.
"The progress from analogue to digital and HD in India does reflect international patterns. But with intense competition in the Indian TV industry, I think we will create our own benchmarks," said Rahul Johri, senior VP & GM, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, South Asia.
"Once consumers are educated and are aware of the benefits of HD, they will like to watch only HD content. This, in turn, will lead to demand for content," said a Videocon d2h spokesperson.
For the more niche channels, HD makes sense. "All our channels are pay. Consumers are more than willing to pay for content that is of the highest quality, consistent and entertaining. So there will always be a scenario where some channels will not be able to generate affiliate revenue, while others who offer compelling and distinct programming will enjoy the consumers' and affiliates' confidence," Johri said.
Puneet Goenka, MD & CEO, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, said: "In the last year, our content is moving towards niche, ad-free and at premium prices." Niche would find it easy to go HD.
ESPN-Star Sports is betting on HD. "The world over, sports has led the increase in penetration of HD content. We have been following a planned and focused approach in bringing new offerings to India. We tested the market readiness with the special HD feeds of the FIFA World Cup 2010, Champions League T20, ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 and French Open. We learnt from these experiences," said Manu Sawhney, MD, ESPN STAR Sports.
Almost 80% of earnings for channels come from advertising and even with pay TV, this importance will not fade. Will advertisers go for HD?
Nayak said: "At this moment, HD does not impact the advertisers but as its penetration grows, this will become another great medium to reach out to a discerning audience." Currently, true HD channels are ad-free.
Arumugam reasoned: "HD will be an upper-end, SEC A and A+ phenomenon. HD channels may become niche, with defined audiences. There is always a premium attached to narrowcasting. Advertisers will be willing to pay more for the cost of targeting, which will be lower than the cost of spillover."
Gupta added: "The top end of the country will have HD. This is the highest consuming class."
Goenka signed off: "At the end of the day, it's economics." Even if it is future perfect.