Jio, Airtel rule Covid-time war for India’s smartphone, TV public square

Sushant Singh Rajput wasn’t a big star until June 14 when he died. Certainly no Amitabh Bachchan of India’s audiences that he seems today if we just returned from the moon.

Credit SSR’s acting, propelled by the tailwinds of controversy. His “Dil Bechara”, unveiled 6 weeks later by Disney Plus and Hotstar on July 24, sits in the same slot as Amazon Prime Video’s “Gulabo Sitabo” anchored by the great Bachchan in the immediately preceding period.

The review of a 67-page deck by Nielsen and Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) in its 10th edition, mapped with an 81-page edition No.11 presented by BARC chief Sunil Lulla on August 27, shows that Bachchan’s “Gulabo…” and Rajput’s “Dil Bechara” were the respective numero uno of direct-to-digital movies of the lockdown period between June 6-July 3 and July 1-August 20.

Framed against these shifting audience preferences, has Covid-19 given us the answer to who is winning between smartphone and TV – the twin screens dominating our quarantined homes?

Nielsen-BARC would politely demur and bat for both mediums. But the trend line is clear. India watched 4 hours 17 minutes of TV in week 33, they tell us in edition no.11. This adds up to 36 minutes a day. Now consider the daily time spent on smartphones during Unlock Phase 3: 3 hours 14 minutes. That’s 194 minutes, almost 5.2x of TV.

The delta, in coming months, will leave spenders betting very differently on smartphones than they do now or even until Jio lit up on September 5, 2016 and 4G was no longer an elitist game where linear TV ruled.

Coexisting with 5.2x minutes spent on smartphones, there are clear spill-overs across mediums. For example, if you just watched “Dil Bechara” for the fear of missing out, are you likely to stop by for the hollering in news TV about the police investigation? Probably yes.

And what if you saw the hullabaloo the family was savouring on news TV first? Even higher chances of signing up for Disney Plus and Hotstar.

So it isn’t yet smartphone versus TV. “And” is the operative word.

Which brings us to the moans and groans for “news” and “balance” from purists (read incumbent TV anchormen, barring one). These rating nay-sayers are rattled by the double screen whammy. Here, Indians aren’t just sampling TV as a group or on their phones. We are reacting. We are tweeting. And certainly WhatsApping. All at the same time.

A slice and dice of our 194 minutes of daily smartphone consumption confirms this. In Nielsen-BARC edition no.11, our traditional act of calling, has been just 10 per cent of our time spent. Chat and voice over internet protocol-VoIP have added up to 20 per cent. Social networking has been 10 per cent. Browsing, offline media, e-commerce, trading and trading put together are 15 per cent. Utility and phone features soaked in 19 percent, leaving 22 per cent of all our minutes per day for smartphone video streaming and games.

That’s 40 minutes-plus of daily gorging. Distracted no doubt, but ten cent more than 36 minutes that Nielsen-BARC says we spent on TV in an entire week — the creamy layer being whipped off by smartphones every passing quarter.

Clearly, a two-screenplay isn’t easy for content creators. The platform owner and/or the owner of the pipe have the keys to the vault. Only some content gambles are paying off. Most are losing bets. Only the house is winning each time.

While Amazon Prime rode on “Gulabo Sitabo” during one edition, and Disney Plus Hotstar via “Dil Bechara” won our hearts the next time, folks at India’s two leading telcos, Airtel and Jio, seem to have won both times.

A simple juxtaposition of Nielsen-BARC numbers with Q1 commentaries by the teams of Sunil Mittal and Mukesh Ambani confirms this. (Relevant financials of Facebook and Alphabet are not in the public domain).

A humongous 14.2 exabytes of data passed through Jio pipes during Q1 of FY 2020-21. That’s 1,420 crore GBs in three months or 4,700-4,800 GBs a month. On Jio alone. At around 398 million customers this meant 12.1 GB per capita per month – up from 11.3 GB per capita per month in the corresponding quarter.

Notwithstanding their worries in the Supreme Court over annual gross revenue calculations, Mittal’s Airtel has an equally compelling narrative: 138 million folks use his 4G, up 45 percent since last time. They use 16.3 GBs of per capita. That’s a massive 74.09 petabytes of daily data flow in Airtel’s pipe versus 42.90 PB/day in just the corresponding quarter.

As content producers scram and more often than not fail to predict audience preferences, the pipe owner’s job seems simpler – and agnostic to platforms like Disney Plus, Hotstar, Amazon Prime, Zee5 or Voot.

Jio’s task primarily is to offer convenience and network effects that migrates 8,000 crore voice minutes (994 minutes/subscriber/month) the company reported in Q1 and convert them into data usage. Likewise for Mittal within his 4G pipe.

On their part, Sundar Pichai of Google and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook are getting content for free, a situation more and more untenable with every passing week.

So, discount Facebook and Google for now, factor the state of fading media Moghul Subhash Chandra of Zee, only Ambani and Mittal own a casino showing Kaun Banega Badshah of India’s digital public square.