Streaming platforms fight it out for the OTT pie

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on August 23, 2019

Breaking barriers: Dia Mirza in the second season of Kaafir, a Zee5 Web series that follows the story of a woman from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir who accidentally strays into Indian territory.   -  image courtesy: ZEE5

As urban India laps up streaming services, the burgeoning video-on-demand market is vying to keep the viewer hooked by tapping into niche genres

The idiot box has never been this accommodating. Ask the Mittals, a three-member family in Delhi. If anybody were to open the Netflix app on their Smart TV and browse their profiles, they’d find the three screens radically different. One would be devoted to Korean serials, another to American or British dramas, and the third to Indian-made shows such as Sacred Games, Ghoul and Leila.

The family, like much of urban India, is hooked to over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hotstar. It has been ages since any of them viewed a soap on a television channel. Indeed, if you think about it, when was the last time you watched or talked about a TV show, other than the occasional controversy triggered by Bigg Boss or the stance taken by certain news anchors? On social media, on the other hand, OTT shows are constantly being discussed, with netizens asking each other for recommendations, or voicing their opinions on the latest series. And there are whole new blogs reviewing Web series.

Last week, Reliance Jio sought to lure broadband buyers by announcing a host of offerings such as access to OTT platforms, first-day-first-show of films and a free smart TV if you bought an annual pack. Clearly, the video-on-demand market — OTT’s USP that allows viewers to watch what they want at any time of the day or night — is all set to explode.

An Assocham-PwC report from December 2018 had forecast that the video OTT market in India was going to outperform other global markets and would touch $823 million (about ₹5,363 crore) by 2022. The growth will come riding on rising mobile penetration as most of the video-on-demand viewing is on cell phone screens. From 468 million users in 2017, the smartphone penetration in India is set to touch 859 million in 2022.

There are already 38 OTT services in India, points out Jehil Thakkar, partner at Deloitte India. And the rate at which new players are springing up (it is almost de rigueur for TV channels to have an OTT platform now), the number could soon shoot up to 100. Even online retailer Flipkart, with no media and entertainment experience, plans to launch a video streaming platform.

Already, more and more OTT apps have insidiously started creeping onto your Smart TV or mobile phone, either thanks to bundled offers from device makers or telephone companies, or simply because of a new unmissable show that everyone is talking about.

Take the Mittals again. They started with Netflix and Prime Videos, but added Hotstar and Sony Liv for their sports feed. Gradually, Hotstar’s entertainment content — especially The Game of Thrones series and the international films — grew on them. And before they knew it, Voot, AltBalaji, Zee5 and ErosNow had sneaked into their screen time too.

An upper middle-class home today easily spends an average of ₹10,000 annually on OTT services (₹7,000 for Netflix, ₹999 for Amazon Prime, Zee5 and Hotstar) compared to the ₹8,000 they may be shelling out for a Tata Sky or Dish subscription. Chances are they will wake up to the cost soon.

Meanwhile, the OTTs are vying for the Mittals’ attention. Every video-on-demand platform is fighting for customer acquisition, and the only way to hook the customer is by offering something unique, addictive and binge-worthy. Hence the imperative to experiment, be bold and produce ‘hatke’ (somewhat different) content.

“This battle is pretty much won and lost in the writer’s room,” says Amazon Prime Video India director and head of content Vijay Subramaniam.

The OTT war is a bit like the heady new days of general entertainment channels (GEC) on Indian television, when soap queen Ekta Kapoor’s K series — Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii — suddenly nudged Star Plus ahead of the pack, and Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) helped it further. The other channels fought hard to pull the viewers their way, and managed eventually with Sony Entertainment putting out shows such as Indian Idol, Viacom18’s Colours TV acquiring Bigg Boss and then airing Comedy Nights with Kapil Sharma.

“The OTT business now is how TV was in the late ’90s and early 2000s,” says Sameer Nair, CEO of Applause Entertainment, a content studio that creates Web series and the man who played a big part in crafting Star Plus’s success by signing up Amitabh Bachchan for KBC. Nair’s Applause produced Mind the Malhotras for Amazon Prime, adapted cult British show The Office for Indian audiences and is now creating epic shows such as Avrodh, which looks behind the scenes at the militant attack at Uri.

Kapoor, too, is a player in the OTT war. The Balaji Telefilms head has completely reinvented her shows for the Web series era, and, true to form, is trying to push the envelope on provocative content with erotic shows such as Gandi Baat on ALTBalaji.

Successful old storytellers of television are now looking for new scripts for an audience that hungers for a different kind of content. Bollywood producers and directors are edging into the new screen. From Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap and Kabir Khan to Zoya Akhtar, everybody is vying for a piece of the pie. But quite like the band of young directors who gave Bollywood a new turn with the advent of the multiplex audiences, new names are bursting through the digital web. Film-makers such as Mayank Sharma, who directed Breathe, starring actor Madhavan, are making a mark. “We are willing to go beyond marquee names,” insists Gourav Rakshit, COO Viacom18 Digital Ventures head of content, pointing out how Voot is working with young new creators.

So what are the defining strategies shaping the war for viewership?

Exploration of new genres, niches

Every possible gap in content is being plugged as scriptwriters venture into genres never before explored on television, from psychological thrillers to biopics to sporting sagas. “We are trying to bring innovative formats such as horror, procedural crime drama, book adaptations with shows like Kaafir, Bombers, Parchayee and Ruskin Bond’s Ghost Stories,” says Tarun Katial, CEO of Zee5, which tasted success with Karenjit Kaur, the untold story of Sunny Leone. It is creating content for different “taste clusters”, he says.

Nair is excited about a series based on a book by journalist Sucheta Dalal on stockbroker Harshad Mehta, who was convicted of financial crimes in the Nineties. “It’s only on an OTT platform that you could even think of creating a show like this,” he says.

Amazon Prime Video, after sensitively looking at the tribulations faced by a homosexual protagonist in Made in Heaven, is now launching a musical called Bandish Bandits. “We want to create shows to cater to every individual and every different mood of a person,” says Subramaniam.

Meanwhile, Viacom18’s Voot has come up with a first in the Web space — a daily soap called Silsila. “We are the only ones doing a daily digital soap,” says Rakshit pointing out that this marks a formula change from the usual eight episodes and season approach that most Web series take.

Watch everyday: Viacom 18’s Voot has come up with a first in the web space — a daily soap called Silsila   -  Image Courtesy: Voot


“We are dialling up on drama, doing things like exploring the lighter side of celebrity life,” says Rakshit, who adds that Voot is aimed at women and youth, and that is why it focuses more on drama and comedy.

Amazon Prime, on the other hand, says Subramaniam, is taking a broader approach, trying to serve everyone. Over 40 per cent of Prime’s new membership is coming from tier 2 and 3 towns including Durgapur, Kurukshetra, Hooghly, Guntur, Satara, Bharuch and Chittoor. So, it wants to move away from the urban-focused storylines and look at shows that appeal to its new audiences.

Collaboration between organisations is on the anvil, too. Zee5 has entered into a content co-sharing arrangement with ALTBalaji, under which they will together create over 60-plus original shows that will be available to subscribed members on both platforms.

Playing the regional card

Growth, almost all the players agree, is going to come from the regional. Some of the GECs in the fray have obvious advantage here. Zee5, for instance, has catch-up content (existing TV content) from Zee’s 12 regional language channels. “Our vast repertoire of content in twelve languages has helped us reach the audience at large,” says Katial.

Zee5 plans to air 72 new originals across multiple languages by March 2020. On an average, it will release an original Web series in six different languages each month. “We also offer searchability of content in 11 languages, by text and voice, which is a first for any OTT platform,” Katial adds.

It offers special Tamil, Telugu and Kannada subscription packs, which the CEO calls a global first in the industry.

Voot too is experimenting with regional series, building it up from catch-up content and moving into originals. Prime Video is available in nine Indian languages.

Global play: Authenticity rules

Along with the thrust on regional content, of course, there is continuing focus on all matters global. Indian viewers are lapping up Web series from non-English speaking geographies such as Korea and Israel, even as Indian Web series are finding audiences abroad.

The golden formula, all the platforms say, is to stay as authentic as possible to the local audience. “We have found that the more authentic a content, the wider its appeal,” says Prime Video’s Subramaniam. He believes that people want to know more about micro-cultures and this thirst, he adds, can only be sated through authenticity.

The success of Korean or Israeli Web series globally, he adds, is not because they are made for an international audience but because they truly portray their local cultures. This is the formula that worked for Made in Heaven, which, with its showcasing of big fat Indian weddings and honest depictions of what goes on inside Indian families, did very well globally.

Far and wide: Made in Heaven, with its honest depictions of what goes on inside Indian families, was webcast across 200 countries   -  Image Courtesy: Amazon Prime Video


“It was webcast across 200 countries where Prime Videos operates,” Subramaniam says.

Zee5’s Katial agrees that geographies are blurring when it comes to Web series. “Currently we have Spanish, Korean and Turkish acquired content on our platform. There is high interest for foreign language content in India,” he says.

But while the platforms expand and extend the tentacles, questions are being asked about the bottom line: Profits or losses. Is it all viable? Or will the revolution self-destruct?

This is a battle that is more intense and bruising than the old TV wars, carrying higher risks and stakes. Huge amounts of money are being sunk into content production. Deloitte’s Thakkar points out that, on an average, an episode of a Web show production costs over ₹70 lakh, as against a TV soap episode that cost about ₹30 lakh. Thakkar feels that much of this is because producers are signing up for shows with movie stars, whose rates are higher. If Sacred Games starred Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin, then Made in Heaven has Kalki Koechlin. From Rahul Bose to Jackie Shroff to Abhishek Bachchan and Manoj Bajpai, a whole crop of film stars is now on Web series. Even Shah Rukh Khan is reportedly set to act in his home production Betaal for Netflix.

Thakkar worries whether such production costs are sustainable, while Nair agrees that a shakeout is inevitable, given the high burn of cash. But he does not agree that Web series are going the superstar route. “It is more an ensemble cast,” he says. Subramaniam also says that there is no over-reliance on stars. On the contrary, it is the Web series that is creating superstars, he claims. He may be right. Just as Smriti Irani became famous through TV soaps, a whole crop of actors — Radhika Apte, Aahana Kumra, Sumeet Vyas (Permanent Roommates on YouTube), Shobhita Dhulpalia, Yashaswini Dayama — is getting noticed for its performance in Web shows.

He also justifies the high costs, pointing out that Web series and TV soaps have different economics. For a TV soap, some 240 episodes are planned out and shot together. The season for a Web series, on the other hand, consists of only about eight or 10 episodes. The scale helps keep costs down for television.

Rakshit of Voot points out that the lifespan of content is different too. “On OTT, content never dies. It is alive. Broadcast by definition is by appointment.”

The price conundrum

Whatever the platforms may say, there is no denying that they have to work out a better monetisation strategy, given the huge investments. They will also have to come up with a better pricing strategy that is attractive to customers. It is a hard balancing act.

Netflix is already feeling the pain of its premium pricing, going by its recent ₹199 mobile-only subscription plan. This will help it attract more customers. At the other end of the spectrum, AVOD (advertising-based video on demand) platform Voot is launching its freemium service later this year where it will be able to monetise its originals better. Under this pricing strategy, users will pay for original content while catch-up content will be free. Rajput says once it goes freemium many things will change. Voot is also segregating content with a dedicated VOOT Kids offering.

Zee5 and AltBalaji’s new collaboration will also serve customers better. Zee5 currently has a subscription plan of ₹99 a month, while AltBalaji is ₹100 for three months. By sharing content on their platforms, they give value to customers.

Amazon Prime’s ₹999 annual pack combines videos, music, shopping and now books, and has launched many attractive offers to woo new customers. It offers, for instance, a 50 per cent cashback to viewers between 18 and 24 years.

Platforms are also bundling packs with cable operators, telcos, television makers and payment wallets. Zee5, for instance, recently tied up with Amazon Pay in an offer which gives cashback on subscriptions. “We have also associated with RailYatri for a special sachet subscription that gets bundled with the bookings done via RailYatri,” says Katial.

Zee5 also has innovative collaborations with travel portals and players such as OYO to increase its distribution reach. Katial makes no bones that pricing innovations are a way to draw consumers to a platform without affecting their pockets.

But once they are in, the focus will be on content to make them stay.

Not surprising then that platforms are forcing their content creators to think out of the box. Out of the Idiot Box, that is.

Chitra Narayanan

Published on August 23, 2019

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