Why do Indian TV homes prefer to be single?

By Sapna Nair , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing
Last updated : June 10, 2008
Why are most Indians reluctant to get a second television set into the house? And what has this done to TV programming? afaqs! investigates

Over the years,

the Indian economy has grown hugely. Indians are spending more on cars, motorbikes, mobiles, refrigerators and air conditioners. And, in many cases, on second cars and second bikes. They change their mobiles frequently. They watch movies, travel abroad and spend a fortune on their children. But when it comes to TV sets, they hesitate. The typical Indian house is still a predominantly single TV household.

The IRS 2008 Round 1 report says that out of the 220.3 million households in the country, 99.6 million own a TV set. Of them, a mere 2.6 million homes have two TV sets.

These statistics are in stark contrast with the flourishing TV broadcast business, which boasts of 300-odd channels. While broadcasters are developing an increasing variety of content, Indian households do not have the dual TV sets to snack on this content.

What stops a family from investing in a second TV set? And how does this domination of single set households affect programming?

Togetherness? Control?
A family that watches TV together stays together. Whether it is urban India or rural India, that credo seems to be dissuading households from considering buying another TV set. Indian households seem to cherish the time they spend together watching television. Nikhil Rangnekar, executive director, India, West, Starcom Worldwide, believes that "another TV in the house could kill family life". He is probably echoing a popular sentiment.

Working people in urban India, more so in metros, have very little time to spend with their families. The only time a family gets to see all its members is at the dining table. And the watch-TV-while-dining culture is quite popular.

Nina Elavia Jaipuria, vice-president and general manager, Nick India (she was with Sony Entertainment Television for quite some time before this), says that more and more joint families have become nuclear families. Things could get "worse" if a second TV set is brought into the house. She has refrained from buying another TV set for the same reason.

This value is deep-rooted in Indian culture, media observers say. In other countries such as the US (2.7 TV sets per home), it is a totally different scene. TV viewing is more of a solo activity. According to a recent Nielsen Research report, TV sets in the US outnumber people in the average household (2.8 TVs as against 2.5 members).

There are many reasons why Indians prefer a single TV. One advantage Indian families see is that they can keep track of what the children in the house are watching. Having two sets would mean loss of control by the parent and undue freedom to the child, which most parents dread. According to the latest New Generations TM survey (Cartoon Network's patented kids' lifestyle research), 76 per cent parents watch television with their kids.

Having a TV set in one's room, in some cases, even raises suspicion in the minds of the family members. Questions like 'What is it that he/ she wants to watch alone and can't watch with the entire family?' pop up.

What should they watch?
Single TV households have always been the biggest deterrent to innovative thinking. "Nobody is willing to go out there and sell something new, untried and untested because there is too much money and reputation at stake," declares Ravina Raj Kohli, chairman and managing director, Sundial Creative Media, a Mumbai based production house.

The one TV set home has influenced the broadcasting business in no small way. Channels are compelled to create programming that pervades and appeals to the whole family, from the three-year-old to the 80-year-old, cutting across the lowest common denominator of the house.

Jaipuria calls it the "all-inclusive" approach, wherein everybody in the family is targeted through programming. The popular 'saas-bahu' sagas fall in this category. And that's why they take up the primetime slot across major general entertainment channels. "Programming heads are under tremendous pressure to ape what the other channel is doing. They can't afford to be different," says Kohli. "If one takes the logo off the screen, it will be difficult to differentiate between the channels."

This routine breaks only on account of a blockbuster movie or when India is playing a cricket match. New viewership, too, crops up. SET Max, for instance, witnessed the highest ever viewership from women during World Cup 2003, when Extraa Innings, anchored by Mandira Bedi, was launched between matches. Today, during the IPL matches, SET Max gets 40 per cent of its viewership from women.

Where do niche channels figure in this scheme of things? Since they cannot reach their target audience through another TV set, niche channels opt for timing it right. Music channel MTV, which has the razor sharp positioning of being a youth channel, has understood this art very well.

For MTV, the morning time-band attracts the most number of eyeballs. As members of the family go about doing their work, the channel acts as visual radio. Ashish Patil, vice-president and general manager (creative and content), MTV India, is glad that nobody watches daily soaps in the morning. "Nobody wants to watch 'Bindu and her bindis' in the morning," he jokes. Between 30 and 40 per cent of the channel's overall viewership comes in the morning.

The other sweet spot for MTV is weekends. That's when daily soap operas take a break. All big shows such as Roadies, a cult reality show, premiere on weekends. "There is no loyalty on weekends with other channels and we leverage that," Patil says. Another time-band that works for this channel is pre-primetime - just before the soaps air. MTV may have got it right, but the reality is that a second TV in Indian households is a luxury.

Cost-benefit analysis
However inexpensive a 21 inch TV set might have become, a TV set is perceived as a high involvement purchase. Ajit Varghese, managing director, Maxus India, points out that a large proportion of single TV households fall under the MHI (monthly household income) of Rs 10,000, clearly indicating that TV owning is still a high cost economic need.

The trend can also be attributed to the middle class' "anti-indulgence" attitude. Varghese observes that typical Indian middle class households do not like to indulge in luxuries due to economic reasons or due to their upbringing. Most purchases are done with the money the chief wage earner brings in and it has to suffice for a basket of purchases for the household, including food and other durables. So, the aim is to satisfy the common needs of the household, which could be a vehicle or a washing machine.

The cost of getting connected, too, holds them back. A cable connection could take away Rs 200-300 a month per connection, depending on the area in which one lives. If it's DTH, the subscriber spends at least Rs 3,000 in initial charges and then a monthly subscription that starts at Rs 250.

Most metros, from where the highest amount of television viewership comes, don't offer houses which can accommodate more than one TV set. The only place where the TV can be placed is the social room or the drawing room, which offers some space for the family to sit and watch.

Television set manufacturers have paid heed to this problem by launching high-end versions of TV sets such as flat TVs, mountable TVs, plasma TVs and LCD TVs. But these are expensive, even for the upper class.

A TV set also competes with a host of other things for the consumer's attention. There are a thousand reasons to splurge, ranging from buying the best mobiles to watching a movie in a multiplex. Malls have become entertainment destinations and they are no longer just shopping arcades. Right from buying clothes to a game of shooting at the game zone to sampling a new deodorant, the consumer is exposed to a variety of things. A movie once a month at a multiplex for a family of five could cost more than Rs 1,000. Food consumption has changed now, with pizza chains and coffee shops offering a tempting diversion.

What about the entertainment factor? Even here, there are enough options - radio, MP3, the iPod, gaming and even socialising, whether on the Internet or on ground. Even a mobile phone with its "entertaining" options is a more compelling buy than a second TV. Youngsters are increasingly spending more time on social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut or on gaming sites such as Zapak to kill boredom. "The idea is to while away time and one can do that by catching up with friends over coffee," says Jaipuria, who believes that coffee shops have become serious rivals to TV channels for consumers' time. So why would a consumer buy a second TV set?

The minority population which owns two TV sets has not become so intentionally. According to Vivek Sharma, chief marketing officer, Philips India, in dual TV households, it is the smaller and older set that becomes the second set. The 21-inch TV is placed in the guest or servant's room, while the 29 inch goes into the drawing room.

Also, most people in India would rather exchange their old TV for a new one even if they get just Rs 800 for it. Companies such as LG run exchange schemes round the year and perceive it as a big market.

Fighting for the remote
Contrary to what people might believe, children don't fight for the remote with the other members of the family because kids watch TV through the day and there is no such thing as primetime for them. It is usually the morning time-band, when the pre-junior shows are aired, and the afternoon band that get more eyeballs.

Cartoon Network and Pogo feature family movies to facilitate family viewing - movies such as Harry Potter, Krrish and shows such as Krishna, Bal Hanuman and M.A.D. And it works. "The Harry Potter film series on Pogo, for example, delivered higher ratings than all other TV channels," says Monica Tata, vice-president, advertising sales and networks, India and South Asia, Turner International India.

That explains why niche channels, too, sport a general entertainment look, whether it is The History Channel, the Discovery Channel, Hungama or ESPN-STAR Sports. Channels such as NDTV Imagine also seem to have cracked the right formula.

Addressing the family in its entirety and not just the woman is the key. That's why reality shows have become so popular. "I consider targeting single TV households a creative challenge. To address and entertain all members of a family, who may be different in age or outlook, is a feat," says Shailja Kejriwal, executive vice-president, content, NDTV Imagine. There are other channels such as Discovery and Discovery Travel and Living for whom dual TV homes would strengthen more viewership. But that may be many years away.

Premjeet Sodhi, vice-president, Intellect, blames the measurement system and calls it a major hindrance to the growth of dual TV homes, rather than a catalyst. The use of television ratings as media currency, according to him, promotes content that is more of eyeball gathering. "Content developers get paid on volume of eyeballs and not the quality of interaction. So, there is no motivation for anybody to produce engaging content for individual audiences," he asserts. He wants the system changed.

Many feel that the situation will change in a few years with the advent of more DTH players, affordable broadband services and as society becomes more individual-led. However, it looks like Indian households will stay single for some time to come.

First Published : June 10, 2008

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