Rewind a little over two decades; most of our homes had just one telephone - a wired (landline) from one of the two government-owned telecom companies. The monthly bill averaged Rs 200. The total number of subscribers in 1995 were 11.6 million, 0.03 million being mobile subscribers.
In the same year, 52.3 million Indian homes had a television set, with a little over a third being ones with a cable TV connection carrying satellite broadcast. The average revenue per user in those days stood at Rs 100.
Cut to 2017: mobile telecom connections stand at around 1.3 billion, whereas there are only 183 million television homes. The revenue per user in the telecom business hovers around Rs 135 per subscriber, whereas a television subscriber on an average pays Rs 220.
Sure, getting a telecom connection in the mid-'90s was still a nightmare, but as evidenced by the numbers, more Indians were willing to pay a hefty upfront price for a television set, a trend that surfaced in the aftermath of the Delhi Asian Games in 1992 and the Los Angles Olympics in 1984. There was hardly much content then, but the television increasingly became the mainstay of living rooms.
In a way, television entertainment got stuck in an infrastructure quagmire that stunted its growth, just as government red tape held back telecom growth. Till recently, expensive carriage fees by broadcasters stymied investment by content producers. Balaji Telefilms' Ekta Kapoor was always at the mercy of broadcasting companies like Star TV who called the shots. Broadcasters found it onerous to collect their legitimate dues as a completely unorganised analog cable distribution system misreported subscriber numbers even as digitisation of set-top boxes is underway in a major way.
Last mile remained a challenge. Despite robust growth in revenues for broadcasters, the industry never scaled up quickly. According a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, India's per capita spend on entertainment and media (E&M) stands at $31 compared to $222 (China) and $1447 (United Kingdom). Television subscription contributed to a big chunk of the revenues in all cases. In the years that followed, the revenue per household for telecom went up five to six times on a rapidly growing base, while that for television just doubled.
This is going to change dramatically in the next couple of years. Thanks to Reliance Jio, which bought broadband connectivity with its 4G networks to the mobile phone, a new avenue for additional revenue from a household consumer of entertainment has suddenly become a reality.
Increasingly, in addition to the DTH or cable subscription, customers are subscribing to internet-based streaming services like Netflix, Hotstar and SonyLiv. Balaji's Kapoor, given the direct access to viewers, has turned a broadcaster selling directly to customers with her OTT platform that carries an annual subscription. Netflix and Amazon Prime, two streaming services, have tied up with telecom companies to bundle video and telecom subscription together.
The opportunity is already seeing big boardroom interest. A couple of months ago, Reliance made its intent clear to capture a chunk of this additional revenue by buying out music streaming platform Saavn and then hiring Jyoti Deshpande of Eros International to consolidate its interests in the E&M space.
India's largest telecom company Airtel's CEO Gopal Vittal spends a day of the week in assessing avenues for increasing video streaming revenues for Airtel TV, which is among the top 10 video destinations Indian mobile users head to. For the first time in its history, Netflix, which is targeting 100 million subscribers in India, is thinking of a special "India" price for its services. As viewership in the U.S. and Europe stagnate as customers are already watching as much as they can, India seems like a virgin market for Netflix.
A recent column in financial daily Business Standard by media expert Vanita Kohli Khandekar calls Netflix's latest serial Sacred Games the KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati) moment for Indian entertainment. KBC, a clone of Who wants to be a millionnaire? changed the dynamics of the Indian television industry, spurring investment in quality content. Khandekar argues that the launch of Sacred Games simultaneously by Netfilx in 190 countries will again rewrite the rules.
Globally, as per 2016 data, the global E&M industry stood at $1.9 trillion, ahead of the telecom industry's revenue of $1.4 trillion. In India, however, its E&M sector revenues are a fraction of the telecom industry numbers. Increasingly, a lot of revenue for telecom companies come from the E&M industry, given that video consumes more than 60% of the mobile data. If like in the '90s, Indians choose entertainment over telephony with their mobile screens, there may well be a bonanza for E&M companies in India - thanks to telecom companies.
In the top 10 global entertainment companies, 9 come from the U.S. with China's Wanda group being the sole exception. With its huge population and per capita income, there is certainly room for an Indian company in that list. Surely, I am not the first person to have thought of that.