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Main Stream India

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on August 17, 2018

Binge-watching on the go: A significant chunk of the digital streaming services in India is consumed during the daily commute   -  prashant nakwe

A video revolution is sweeping across India. From farmers in villages to multinational companies, everybody is jumping on to the great digital bandwagon. Netflix and other such entertainment platforms have big plans — and shows — lined up for the Indian market

Who would have thought two Telangana farmers and a pair of bullocks would break the Internet? But they did just that some days ago, as the men shook a leg — and their mundus— to a song that has become a global rage.

It doesn’t take long for enterprising Indians to grab the attention of the ever-growing legion of netizens in the country. The two farmers went big time after they uploaded their version of the ‘Kiki dance’ — a global fad that has men and women getting off moving vehicles and dancing to the line “Kiki, do you love me” from a song by Canadian rapper Drake. The Telangana farmers are seen breaking into a lively jig in the middle of their irrigated field, as their yoked bullocks lumber ahead insouciantly.

The video, posted on the YouTube channel My Village Show, went viral globally. And it certainly wasn’t the only one to do so. For Indians — whether city slickers or small-towners or villagers, and companies — are jumping on to the digital bandwagon in growing numbers. According to a report by a streaming service provider, video consumption in India grew almost five times in one year in 2017.

Over The Top (OTT) media services — which enable one to watch content on the Internet, bypassing traditional distribution systems such as cable networks — are zeroing in on the huge Indian market. The country’s internet penetration may well be among the lowest in the world, but it is growing briskly. According to the not-for-profit Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the number of internet users in India touched the 500-million mark by June 2018.

Emerging market

Rural consumers formed one-third of the country’s internet users in 2013. By 2020, every second internet user will be a village dweller. In December 2017, IAMAI said 20.26 per cent of India’s rural population was connected to the internet.

Not surprisingly, videos are emerging as money-spinners, as they are accessed by people across regions and class, and even those who haven’t achieved literacy. “Since India has so many regional languages with strong oral traditions, consuming information and entertainment in the form of videos comes naturally to the consumer,” said Deepak Abbott, vice-president of the digital payment company Paytm, which has started Paytm Inbox, a video platform.

There were 110 million digital video viewers in India in 2015, according to an Ernst & Young (EY) report on the future of digital consumption in the country. About 95 per cent of the content consumed is in the regional languages, the report said.

Showtime now: The easy availability and falling cost of internet services are aiding the growth in demand for online video streaming services   -  VIJAY KUMAR BAJAJ

 

Many of the viewers are commuters, and content providers are tapping into this captive audience. “Indians are 82 per cent more likely to stream at 9 am, a behaviour that continues on the ride home too. Peak streaming in India is at 5 pm,” said Simran Sethi, director of international original shows at Netflix, the American OTT service with a growing presence in India. “India is clearly a nation of commute streamers, with Netflix members kicking off their binge while on the road,” Sethi said.

From films and documentaries to music videos, food shows, cricket, entertainment, news clips and more, the digital stream offers them all. Paytm, for instance, has launched Paytm Inbox to stream cricket and short videos for its 300-million subscriber base. Instagram has a streaming portal, IGTV, where one can watch videos that are longer than those available on its Stories channel. Streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, which are posing a direct competition to DTH (direct-to-home) cable, are experimenting with newer formats to reel in more audiences.

Amazon Prime Video found its niche in stand-up acts, which have a growing following across urban India. Its original reality comedy show Comicstaan, starring several well-known Indian comics, has been a success. Last year, Prime commissioned nine comics for hour-long specials. The content head of Prime, Vijay Subramaniam, hinted that winners of Season 1 of Comicstaan will get their own specials. Casting has already begun for Season 2.

Subramaniam told BLink that movies and comedy were popular across all ages and demographics. “We have tapped into that opportunity, and can safely say that we are the home of Indian comedy currently,” he said.

Culture sites such as Buzzfeed India and iDiva, too, are making short videos on everyday experiences to meet the demand for comedy. As for soaps, The Viral Fever (TVF), an entertainment platform, has web series such as Yeh Meri Family andPermanent Roommates, targeting different viewer segments. The former is a nostalgia trip for those who grew up in the ’90s, while the latter is on a new-age couple and their old-school parents.

Original content

Original stories, meaning content that is locally produced and not necessarily hugely popular international shows, are also in focus. Netflix’s India production Lust Stories tasted unprecedented success; the company said it was the largest watched original ever in any of its different markets in its first month. Its nine original series from India includeGhoul, Baahubali: Before the Beginning, Little Things, Selection Day and Bard of Blood. Other shows include stand-up comedy specials with Aditi Mittal and Vir Das, the kids’ seriesMighty Little Bheem, and an unscripted series on the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament and its Mumbai Indians team.

My theatre: By 2020, most Indians will be watching videos on their private screens   -  THE HINDU/SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

 

“What we see is that people love watching TV, but they don’t love the linear TV experience, where channels present programmes only at particular times, one episode at a time on non-portable screens, with shows also not launching in all countries at the same time. What has changed significantly is how quickly content is consumed when you give consumers more control over their experience. In India, our mobile downloads have been very popular with the recently launched Smart Downloads feature. When a member finishes watching a downloaded episode, Smart Downloads will delete it, and then automatically download the next episode,” Sethi said.

And since content is king, writers are in focus. Amazon Prime has a writers’ room, which provides feedback, and conducts writers’ workshops before finalising the script. Netflix prefers to work with newer talents, producers and crew in India to ensure variety and fresh content.

The story is the hero, said a member of the team that produced Sacred Games, Netflix’s first original series from India. “Working with Netflix has given us an opportunity to concentrate on the story and give it primacy... Nothing is bigger than the script, not even the actors.” Prime’s Subramaniam seconded that. “We match our directors with the cast. If needed, script doctors are called in. The story arc is the draw of our shows.”

Easy to upload

In the digital content business, it’s not just the big fish who are in charge. The spread of smartphones has made it easier for ordinary people to gain fame, and often money, with the videos they post on the Net. Take the Telangana farmers, who often appear in the My Village Show channel. The 7.13 lakh views for their Kiki video on YouTube and 55 lakh views on their Facebook page have propelled them to social media stardom. As for the money, YouTube pays the video’s makers for every 1,000 views, though that amount varies depending upon the subscriber base.

YouTube viewership has surged massively in India, garnering 180 million subscribers and featuring 14 independent content creators with a million-plus subscriber base. 80 per cent of the views is on a mobile handset, according to a report in The Hindu Business Line.

Take Delhi resident and HR professional Nikita Gangwani, whose life revolves around her smartphone. It wakes her up at 7am; she watches a 5-minute stand-up on YouTube and listens to music on it while getting ready for work. Her 10-minute breakfast time is peppered with WhatsApp forwards and Insta Stories. She updates her own Snapchat; and on the 40-minute commute to work, she watches a web series on her phone, alongside switching between news breaks and Insta stories of her friends. Lunch break is devoted to GIF-embedded articles and short news clips on her Twitter and Facebook feeds. Gangwani watches some more shows on her way back home, and stories on social media and IM (instant messaging) platforms before going to bed.

New players

The rise of new consumption patterns and the demand for newer forms of storytelling are reshaping the business plans of investors such as Paytm, which now wants to provide its user base with “snacky content”.

Paytm Inbox was initially designed as a messaging app, similar to WhatsApp, for Paytm’s vendors, to broadcast promotions, among other things. “Over time, we observed how the vendors spend time on the app and decided to invest in entertainment. Paytm will tie up with business partners and stream cricket through Paytm Inbox,” the company vice-president Abbott said.

Also in the works are its music streaming app musicall.ly, now Tik Tok, a social media platform for small videos, and other live entertainment involving paid content.

The payment process is being fine-tuned to enable viewers to buy entertainment through their handheld devices. “For instance, if anyone wants to pay ₹2 to watch cricket for the next half hour, we want to ensure that option is available to them,” said Abbott.

Piece of the pie

No one is turning a net profit yet in the digital streaming business, but the number of players continues to increase, as everyone wants a piece of what they believe will eventually be a rich pie.

Right now, however, there are problems. While smartphone penetration is high in the country, the number of people with access to internet remains low. Fast speed internet is also rare, and video platforms have to take that into account. Lower definition social videos on social media platforms draw more eyeballs. Ajit Mohan, CEO of Hotstar, said that there is a big change in how consumers are responding to affordable data. “Three years ago, most new data users would start with messaging, do text search, move on to social platforms and few watched video. This rule has been inverted. Video is very often the first port of call for new data users.”

The mighty pen: In Netflix’s first original series from India, the story is the hero   -  ISHIKA MOHAN MOTWANE/NETFLIX

 

OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar are gaining currency. Pointing to the estimated 150 million active users of Hotstar today, Mohan said, “Access to affordable mobile broadband is good for streaming platforms that have built good products.”

The consumers, of course, are spoilt for choice. They can flit between OTTs, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and more. They can watch anything from a documentary on miners trapped underground in Chile to homemakers whipping up cakes, or funny dog and cat videos. There is hardcore news as well as film trivia. Ordinary people are turning celebrities overnight, as they capture the imagination of specific sections of viewers. Mumbai’s Scherezade Shroff, for instance, has 7 lakh subscribers for her YouTube channel, where she discusses make-up and fashion, while Bhuvan Bam from Delhi has raked in over 90 lakh followers with his humorous takes on current events. Superwoman aka Lilly Singh, an Indian-origin Canadian, posts videos of her desi parents coming to terms with her Western life, making a killing in the bargain. The falling cost of online viewing is helping matters too. From ₹250 for 1 GB data in 2015, the rate has tumbled to ₹15, thanks to telecom players such as Reliance Jio.

Viewer engagement

Besides original content, the focus is on presenting viewers with the shows or films they want to watch. Netflix’s strong suit, for instance, is that it makes available to its subscribers some of the best films and shows from across the world that people might otherwise not have access to.

“Our Indian members enjoy many of the shows that members around the world enjoy, such as Stranger Things, Narcos, The Crown, Sacred Games and Lust Stories,” said Sethi.

Viewer engagement, the buzzword for streaming services, depends on how much of the entertainment on a particular app matches the interest of the viewer.

This is where, Abbott stressed, AI (artificial intelligence) comes into play, mining user data to direct viewers to the videos they are most likely to be interested in, going by their past clicks. “There’s a lot of free entertainment available on YouTube, but how many would scroll through it all without the help of suggestions,” Abbott asked.

AI is a win-win for both parties concerned. The service provider can gain a better understanding of the customer’s requirement, enabling production houses to tailor the relevant content, for which the customer can pay. And that, the industry believes, is a more efficient way of gauging viewer engagement than the controversy-ridden TRPs.

Money matters

Streaming services that are run by DTH television networks, such as Hotstar, have ready access to free content and operate on a freemium model — a semi-free model relying on sources other than subscription for revenue. While TVF depends on ad revenues from brands and brand partnerships, services such as Hotstar have three sources of income: subscriptions, partnerships with telecom companies and advertising revenues.

In the freemium model, while 90 per cent of the content is freely available to viewers irrespective of whether they subscribe or not, ad-free access is available only to subscribers.

The players are also aware that India will be one of the biggest markets for digital streaming services because China is a closed market and western markets are already saturated.

Future trends

The 2015 EY report lists eight trends that will define the future of digital consumption in India, including breaking the 30-minute and 60-minute limits on content. About 62 per cent of the content consumed on YouTube is short-form. The average length viewed is less than 20 minutes.

By 2020, most Indians will be watching videos on their private screens, as opposed to a family or group viewing. By then, 520 million Indians will have their own smartphones, which, together with tablets and laptops, will displace TV as the primary screen.

With the coming of the internet, while people’s television viewing does not change immediately, they spend more time online, global surveys have underlined. The change in consumption patterns, including the rise of short videos, has a huge impact on the kind of content being made.

This holds true for India, as well, where subscriptions for DTH television services continue to grow, alongside those for OTT platforms. It remains to be seen who wins India’s great eyeball challenge. For the viewer, these are good times. It’s show time, folks.

Brand new: A still from Permanent Roommates, a web series by The Viral Fever. Shows such as these cater to the changing tastes of a young adult population

 

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Published on August 17, 2018
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