New Delhi: With general entertainment channels AXN and AXN HD and news channel Dilli Aaj Tak set to go off air this month, the TV industry hurt deeply by the Covid-19 lockdown fears more casualties could be on the cards.
The Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI) announced this month that it will take its popular English entertainment channels AXN and AXN HD off air from 1 July 2020. The same day, Dilli Aaj Tak, a Hindi news channel that is part of the India Today Group’s media bouquet, will also disappear from television screens.
The decisions come amid a dire situation in the television industry, which has taken a deep hit during the lockdown on account of shrunk ad revenues and stalled shoots.
While the channels’ statements do not cite Covid-19 lockdown as the reason for the shutting of operations, industry sources said the lockdown had severely affected broadcast business.
According to a BARC-Nielsen report from April, general entertainment channels alone have suffered a 26 per cent dip in advertisement revenue as compared to January.
News channels have suffered too, with their high viewership during the lockdown not translating into advertisements and revenue.
Ratings agency ICRA said Thursday the credit outlook is negative for film production and exhibition, print media and television broadcasting segments because of the Covid-19 impact.
Three channels to go off air
AXN and AXN-India, which offered Indian viewers some cult international shows such as Sherlock and Sex and the City, reportedly rank among India’s top English entertainment channels.
Announcing the decision to take them off air, Sony Pictures Networks India told DreamDTH, a portal for industry-related news, that they are “realigning” the channel portfolio “in keeping with the company’s “growth strategy”.
“Accordingly, we have decided to discontinue AXN and AXN HD,” it said.
India Today, meanwhile, has pointed out in a BSE filing that Dilli Aaj Tak, which focused on news reports from Delhi-NCR, contributed less than 1 per cent of the company’s revenues in 2019-20.
“The business of DAT (Dilli Aaj Tak) has not grown over the years, hence it is not viable to continue with the transmission and operations of DAT,” it said in the filing dated 2 June, adding that “some of the people working in the channel… can be utilised more effectively in supporting the operations of the flagship channel of the company viz. AajTak”.
Industry insiders, however, said the existing jobs in the channels would not be affected as the staffers would be absorbed in other verticals.
‘30-40 channels expected to be hit’
The Indian media & entertainment sector — including newspapers, news and entertainment TV channels, radio, and cinema — is valued at Rs 1.82 trillion, according to the latest FICCI-EY report released last month. This marked a growth of 9 per cent over 2018.
But it has been hit hard by the lockdown, which has taken a heavy toll on the economy as a whole.
An industry source said smaller players are likely to bear the brunt, adding that nearly 40 TV channels may shut down if the situation doesn’t improve. “We are estimating around 30-40 television channels will have to shut operations if the situation does not improve.”
According to the source, multiple industry bodies have sought relief on several counts from the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which oversees the sector. “There has been no progress on the industry demands so far. The government is yet to act on any of the measures suggested to revive the industry.”
‘Three urgent measures’
A second top industry source said there is an urgent need for the government to look into at least three of the immediate short-term measures suggested, including stalling “frequent interventions” by the watchdog Television Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which they claim disrupt business models and investment decisions.
The “interventions” include the New Tariff Order (NTO) issued in January this year. The NTO mandates an MRP of Rs 12 per channel, down from Rs 19 the earlier. It also restricts discounting on channel bouquets in order to promote à la carte offerings.
Industry insiders say broadcasters should not be constrained with such bundling restrictions, which they claim will raise expenses for consumers and also stifle the industry.
“The government, however, refused to intervene in the matter by calling it sub judice,” the source said, referring to the case filed by broadcasters against the NTO in the Bombay High Court. The court had reserved its judgment in the case in March.
Taking a cue from the Prime Minister’s call for the revival of the economy, the source added, the ministry should immediately impose a moratorium on the NTO.
Secondly, the source said, broadcasters are also experiencing falling revenues because multi-system operators, who run multiple cable television systems, have not been paying them as they have themselves been unable to collect cash from customers because of the lockdown.
“In the current situation, an urgent intervention of the government is needed to ensure that the broadcasters’ payments are not affected because of the plain reason that money is collected in cash,” the source added.
When small-scale fruit and vegetable vendors are able to collect money through various digital applications, the source said, they don’t know what was stopping MSOs from doing so.
The broadcasters have asked the I&B ministry to either issue an immediate advisory as a short-term measure or make a reference to TRAI, so the distributors resort to digital payment collection.
The industry has also submitted multiple petitions to the government to clear the advertising dues of over Rs 200 crore that the Bureau of Outreach and Communication (BOC), a unit under the I&B ministry that advises the administration on media strategy, owes small and medium broadcasters.
“These immediate steps will go a long way in the restoration of normalcy in the broadcasting sector,” the source said.
Asked about the complaints, sources in the I&B ministry said they were actively working on clearing the dues of the broadcasters, adding that the “limited staff” of the BOC was proving a challenge. They added that the measures suggested are being “looked at”.
What has the government done so far?
As the country prepares to end the lockdown in phases, Maharashtra, the ground zero of India’s entertainment industry, has issued detailed guidelines for the resumption of film and TV shoots with precautions.
Over the last few weeks, I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar has met major stakeholders of the broadcasting sector and heard their concerns.
On 29 May, the ministry asked the producers and broadcasters associated with TV serials to clear the payments of artistes, and said the government is working to pay off its dues to the media industry.
According to a government statement, Javadekar held a meeting with film producers, theatre owners and other movie industry representatives Tuesday to discuss the challenges they faced because of the Covid-19 lockdown.
This report has been updated to correct a typo