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Future of TV sits in your pocket

Surajeet Das Gupta | July 13, 2005

Television junkies holidaying abroad needn't worry about missing their favourite Indian sitcoms. Help is now at hand, literally. With the click of the remote button, they can get into the electronic programme guide (that stores two weeks' data of all programmes on the available channels), select their hot favourites and instruct their TV sets to download or record them to be watched at leisure.

There is more that you can order your television to do. A query on a special search engine generates a programme list to your taste. For instance, you could now demand an inventory of all the Amitabh Bachchan films to be shown on different channels in a particular week (date, time et al).

Or, a list of all the comedy shows if you like. Better still, you can now answer that important phone call even as you watch the nail-biting finish to an Indo-Pak cricket match. Push the pause button on your remote, take the call, and return to the couch to restart the match from where you'd left.

Smarter idiot box

Welcome to new-age television viewing in India aided by PC TVs and set top boxes with digital video recorders. In the brave new world, hardware is getting more hi-tech to make life simpler for viewers and delivery mechanisms are changing.

Television signals need not be distributed only through cable or satellites any longer. Telecom companies can now move channels on their broadband network, or through wireless technology on to the mobile devices. Clearly, the way TV is seen and distributed will change.

Star India's senior vice president Viren Popli puts it succinctly: "The idiot box is set to acquire intelligence and memory. Soon you will be able to download your favourite TV shows and virtually assemble your own channel. That is the future of TV -- narrowcasting, right down to the individual."

For starters, Microsoft's Media Center software is virtually transforming the PC into an integrated entertainment centre. Computer giants such as HCL Infosystems, LG India and HP India have also launched their PC TVs in the market.

Says Rishi Srivastava, business group head, Window client, at Microsoft: "We are offering an integrated entertainment solution to the customer which will enhance his viewing experience and give him the power to watch TV whenever he wants."

Virtually every technology promises an enhanced viewing experience. PC TV manufacturers are betting on "flexibility" and price. HCL which sold its entry level PC TVs for over Rs 100,000 last year has dropped prices to Rs 30,000.  LG and HP plan to follow. Says Ajai Chowdhry chairman and CEO of HCL Infosystems: "Prices have dropped by half. We plan to grow this category."

HCL will sell its PCs through attractive consumer finance schemes. It has also tied up with BSNL to offer a co-branded PC, which will come bundled with a BSNL broadband connection. LG is ambitious. It expects about 25 per cent of its PCs this year to be shipped with Microsoft's Media Center.

Says R Mani Kandan, product group head for IT products at LG: "We are targeting households looking for a second TV. The PCTV offers more value." Kandan says that over 10 per cent of the total TV households (approximately 90 million) will go in for a second set, so there is a large market.

HP India's country category manager (consume desktop) P Krishna Kumar, however, believes that only 10 per cent of the total PC market constitutes those who want a PC that combines computing and entertainment. The rest want a basic PC for computing and           e-mails.

"But that 10 per cent will grow. The penetration of PCs in SEC A and B is 15 per cent. They will be the early adopters," he says. Samsung India's head of consumer electronics business S H Lee is not hot on PC TV. "The market for the two products are different. Customer response to PC TV has not been encouraging," he says.

Anyway, PC TV is not the only way that new technology is disrupting TV viewing. Indian telcos are already running trials to distribute TV on their broadband network. Reliance Infocomm, for instance, was the first to tie up with Microsoft to work on delivering IPTV (Internet protocol TV) on the idiot box.

After an aborted move earlier, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd is also floating a tender this week for content aggregators to offer broadband TV to its subscribers on a revenue- share basis.

Says a senior official of the company: "We plan to cut broadband tariffs and offer services like time-shifted TV, video-on-demand and gaming by October." The bidders have to source and deliver content and manage billing for the new services.

Bharti has already begun test runs of IPTV on broadband speeds of 10mbps. This will offer quality pictures and will hit the market in the next six to nine months.

Says Bharti Infotel's chief technology officer Jagbir Singh: "To be successful we have to offer all the channels which cable operators offer and services like video-on-demand. We expect good revenues."


But media industry experts say that the euphoria around IPTV may not last. IPTV is still in the testing stage and the technology is far from being perfected. Besides it is expensive compared to delivering TV through cable or direct-to-home.

Says Zee Group's vice president, Jawahar Goel: "The cost of an IPTV at the consumer end (equipment, etc) will be high. A cable or a DTH set top box costs about $50. For IPTV this may go upto $120."

Tackling the well-entrenched cable operators delivering cable and satellite signals to 61 million homes may not be easy. Street fights, common to the cable distribution industry, may erupt following cable operators' move to stall IPTV operators' efforts to get into consumer homes.

Most media and technology experts, almost unanimously, agree that the mobile TV technology holds greater promise. It entails distribution of live TV on the mobile phone. Mobile makers like Nokia have already demonstrated new phones, which can pick up both voice as well as picture signals on the phone, boast of a long battery life and have power-saving modes.

In India, Zee Telefilms will start trial runs by the end of the year. Says Goel: "Mobile operators will be able to show 20 to 30 channel on their handsets. However, we feel that sports and news channels will drive this demand.

For mobile TV to happen in India, the government needs to change its policy that does not allow private sector players in terrestrial broadcasting (mobile TV picks up signals from transmitters across the city).

In fact, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is already working on recommendations, which may allow entry of private players. Says a senior Trai official: "We have got comments from companies like Qualcomm and Nokia which want the terrestrial spectrum to be opened. We will submit our recommendations to the government soon."

But couch potatoes need not worry as the idiot box will not be edged out by IPTV and mobile TV in a hurry. Says Star's Popli: "The kind of things that a Media Centre (the EPG facility will require broadband connectivity) does, make sense only if you have a strong distribution fibre network and high Internet speeds. Our download speeds are terrible."

Web TV has not caught on in India for the same reason. Also, customers fear virus crashes and do not want their TVs to converge with the PC.

But the consumer electronics manufacturers, not unaware of the increasing competition to the traditional TV set, are launching newer and snazzier products. Flat TV is being replaced by the more technologically advanced LCD TV that offers better picture quality and large screen.

Samsung's Lee expects the price gap between LCD TV and flat TV to reduce by 2007. It is already offering a 20-inch LCD in the market for sub Rs 50,000 (a 29-inch flat TV costs between Rs 26,000 and 70,000).

It may be a minuscule market (around 10,000 sets a year including plasma TV), but the response to LCDs is encouraging. LG's LCD TV boss Prassana Raghavan says that the company's India volumes on LCD in the Asian region, where it's been launched recently, are encouraging.

"The numbers are on a par with Singapore and Thailand, though we're about 70 per cent lower than Dubai which is a hot market," he says.

The hottest gadget, however, is the digital video recorder in a set top box that provides the same flexibility to a customer, which the Media Center claims to offer.

Jawahar Goel's company has tied up with a Korean electronics company to develop a DVR cum set top box for its direct-to-home customers. He hopes to hawk it for less than Rs 10,000. Globally, TV companies are said to be working on TVs that will be equipped with a DVR to enable you to store, rewind and forward pictures without the need for a PC.

It may be difficult to forecast the future and declare the winner in the technology game, but what's easy to predict is that life for the Indian TV viewer may not be the same again: he can now access his daily dose of programming as, when and where he wants.

Additional reporting by Shuchi Bansal and Joji Thomas Philip

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Number of User Comments: 2

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Posted by Sumedh

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Whatever your article is trying to specify is pretty soon goin to be obsolete. Ever heard about rolling your TV's like a mat and carrying, ...

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