DD Free Dish back to growth after boycott by Star, Zee, Sony & Colors

DD Free Dish has around 26 million subscribers

DD Free Dish, the free direct-to-home service from Prasar Bharati, has bounced back from the impact of the boycott of the platform by major broadcasters like Star India, Zee Entertainment, Sony Pictures and Viacom18, according to industry sources.

According to the CEO of a rival DTH agency, the number of subscribers of DD Free Dish had fallen by 1-2 million soon after the four broadcasters pulled their channels from the platform in March.

“Earlier it used to be, say 24-25 million, it came down by a million or two, but again it has reached, I was told, 25-26 million,” he said at an event today.

He blamed the situation on the ‘free mentality’ and the economic slowdown affecting India’s rural sector.

DD Free Dish is India’s only free DTH platform, and offers around 80 channels — a fraction of the 400-500 channels offered by paid platforms.

Big broadcasters — such as Sony, Star, Zee and Viacom18 — used to offer their ‘No.2’ channels on this platform free of cost. These channels — using ‘recycled’ serials and programs from their main channels — used to help these broadcasters reach an additional audience of around 6-8 crore people. These extra eyeballs converted into higher advertisements revenue on these channels.

However, one of the provisions of the new tariff order that came into effect in February is that no channel can be made free on one platform and paid on another.

If broadcasters were to maintain their secondary channels as free offerings for distribution of Free Dish, they would also have to do the same on other DTH and cable platforms. However, in such a situation, they would not have been able to ‘bundle’ these channels along with their premium pay channels, as the new rules also prohibited bundling of free channels with paid offerings.

Faced with the choice of either pulling their free channels from DD Free Dish or removing them from their bundles, broadcasters collectively decided to boycott the Prasar Bharati platform in March.

They expected that the withdrawal of these channels would force the viewers to ditch Free Dish and switch to paid platforms, such as Tata Sky, Dish TV or Airtel Digital.

However, said the industry veteran, this doesn’t seem to have materialized, at least not to the extent expected.

He said around 85% of DD Free Dish customers seem to okay with whatever was coming, and did not seem ready to ditch the platform to move to a paid platform.

“Some of the subscribers in that arena are okay with whatever is coming. It should be on, that’s all. Whatever is coming is okay,” he said at an event today.

DD Free Dish caters largely to the rural market, and offered free-to-air channels in the genres of music, movies, entertainment and news. Most of the entertainment channels — which run on serials and reality shows — have been pulled off the platform as part of the boycott.

“They [the subscribers] are okay with news, they are okay with regional entertainment..and you have 5-6 film channels still in the DD Free Dish platform,” the CEO pointed out.

He said the problem was with trying to replace a ‘free’ product with a pay product. DD Free Dish is free for anyone to watch, and does not require a monthly recharge, while rival DTH operators charge a minimum of Rs 153 per month — which is more than the daily wage earned by many in India’s rural areas.

“To pay at least 150 rupees for even an FTA pack, when he is used to seeing it absolutely free of cost, is not something that a lot of rural customers are willing to do. Moreover, the Free Dish platform does carry a lot of other channels, and even the vacant slots got substituted with other channels.

“So a lot of rural customers have adjusted to the new package and have not come in the kind of numbers that we might have expected of them earlier. “

He said that his company — one of the biggest DTH operators in India — is hopeful that once rural incomes rise, these customers would consider switching to a paid platform.


Meanwhile, new regulatory changes, coupled with commercial pressures, could see the re-entry of the channels that had left the DD Free Dish.

Sector regulator TRAI is expected to direct next week that the the 85:100 pricing rule — which seeks to bring price parity between channels sold singly and in packs — be strictly followed from now on.

This would force broadcasters to bring down the price of their individual channels to the levels at which those are currently being sold as part of packages.

Broadcasters currently charge around twice as much for a channel when purchased alone, compared to when it is purchased as part of a mega pack, or bouquet.

Once the ‘bundle-busting’ rule — which is an ‘unimplemented’ a part of the new tariff order — is brought to bear, bundles and packages will lose much of their importance and relevance.

In such a situation, broadcasters may again make their ‘No.2’ channels free of cost, so that these could be as widely distributed as possible.

This would remove the only obstacle for their inclusion on DD Free Dish.

Secondly, the loss of crores of viewers due to the disappearance of these channels from DD Free Dish has hurt broadcasters’ own ad revenue more severely than expected.

TV18 saw a fall of Rs 209 cr in its non-subscription revenue during the three months ended September, much of it due to the loss of the DD Free Dish audience for a couple of its erstwhile free channels.

“Macro-weakness and shift of channels from DD Free Dish to Pay ecosystem continues to drag ad-revenues of GECs for the entre industry,” TV18 said in its update last month.

Similarly, Zee Entertainment saw its ad revenue growth crash to low single digits from around 20% after pulling its channels from the DD Free Dish platform, though other factors too may have contributed to the decline.