Achhe din for over-the-top entertainment

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on March 19, 2019 Published on March 19, 2019

Innovation is key as channels explore uncharted territory   -

OTT platforms are pumping money to offer a range of content, at times controversial, to a growing online video market

It’s a web TV series that’s creating a stir even before reaching a screen near you. In April, entertainment platform Eros Now is slated to launch a dramatised 10-part biopic on Narendra Modi’s life from childhood till becoming prime minister. Opposition leaders are objecting loudly, saying it shouldn’t be aired under the Model Code of Conduct in force before the elections. Now, the Election Commission is scouring its rulebook because it’s not sure whether its regulations cover the new over-the-top (OTT) platforms that have burgeoned in the last three-to-four years.

To be sure, it’s a toss-up who the bigger crowd-puller is: Narendra Modi or Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India’s revered former cricket captain. On March 20, OTT platform Hotstar is launching Roar of the Lion, about Dhoni’s darkest days when his team, the Chennai Super Kings, was banned from the Indian Premier League (IPL) for alleged match-fixing. The web series is being launched strategically, just before the 2019 edition of IPL kicks off.

OTT entertainment platforms like Hotstar, Eros Now, Sony Liv, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Voot, AltBalaji, Zee5 and others are pulling out all the stops in the fierce battle to keep online audiences glued to mobile screens and smart TVs. Eros Now, which has always been a giant movie-industry player and has a 12,000-film library, will be spending $50-70 million in the next 18 months to create and buy topnotch new content.

Star India is splurging even more and, along with Star US Holdings, is to pump ₹1,066 crore ($153 million) into Hotstar. That’s on top of the ₹516 crore they put into it in mid-2018.

Others are unveiling equally grand plans. Netflix has already announced eight new movies and 12 series made initially for the Indian market. Netflix hopes some of these might be international hits like its first Indian blockbuster Sacred Games. And domestic player ALTBalaji says it has 30-40 shows on the way in 2019.

All the channels are chasing a market growing by leaps and bounds. The FICCI-Ernst & Young report on media and entertainment estimates 325 million people viewed online videos in 2018, a 25-per-cent jump over the earlier year. Tellingly, E&Y calls its just-released 2018 media-and-entertainment report: A Billion Screens of Opportunity.

Fast growth

Says E&Y’s Ashish Pherwani, M&E section leader: “The market’s growing enormously and a lot’s being spent to create a variety of content.” Crucially, the M&E report notes that subscribers climbed from seven million in 2017 to between 12 million and 15 million in 2018. The report says there are now 340 million smartphone users and data consumption doubled last year. Also, some 1,200 content hours were created for these platforms in 2018.

And growth is set to continue exploding with the number of digital-video consumers seen climbing to 500-600 million in the next three years. Says Uday Sodhi, digital head at Sony Picture Networks: “That makes you an attractive market globally. Other than China, we’d become the largest market in the world.”

Scorching growth prospects mean all OTT platforms are spending heavily to make sure they conquer as large a market share as possible. Says Sodhi: “It’s a land-grab. Everyone’s trying to create a big niche for themselves. In the last 12 months, our user-base’s grown almost three-times and consumption has grown five-times.”

Innovation is king as these entertainment platforms head into uncharted territory. For instance, Kon Honaar Crorepati, the Marathi version of Kaun Banega Crorepati, allows viewers to play along with the contestants in real time using their mobiles. Also, the platform has just put in a new artificial reality feature permitting viewers to take selfies with show host Nagraj Manjule.

Working out what’s right for OTT viewers is a complex task. Despite its giant movie library, Eros now has discovered it has to experiment with new content types. That’s why it’s producing short 10-20 minute films under the Eros Quickie label. It’s also bringing out six big-budget original shows. Says Eros Digital COO Ali Hussein: “Audiences are changing. We have to consider binge-watching and episodic-watching and cater to different psychographic types.”

The other channels, too, are creating short films, partly because some viewers want shorter content forms they can watch on the go. Sodhi points out most of Sony Liv's viewers are in the age category 18-35, so programmes are made keeping them in mind (for instance, the platform offers a handful of Korean programmes popular with younger viewers). But programmes also need to be different lengths to cater for new viewing situations.

Says Sodhi: “Younger viewers are out of the house more. They may watch for 15 minutes during a lunch-break or in a bus, train or taxi.” However, as the medium gains popularity, older people are watching the platform too, he adds.

Also, in the last year, all the OTT platforms have found viewership rising more swiftly in smaller cities, towns and rural areas. That’s made getting into rural areas even more urgent. Eros Digital is looking at a battery-powered digital entertainment device to work in un-electrified villages. Hussein says a pilot project will soon be carried out in five villages. “The intent is to reach 50,000 villages,” he says, adding the aim is to make Eros Digital a media-tech company, not just a media company.

Going rural means regional languages will, of course, be vital. Voot from Viacom 18’s digital arm has made a big push into languages like Tamil, Kannada Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati. And Amazon Prime, for instance, has programmes, and is commissioning others, in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali and Kannada. Says Vijay Subramaniam, director and content head, Amazon Prime India: “We want to serve the length and breadth of the country.” Interestingly, he notes Indian tastes are more global than expected. “People watching Bollywood also watch American series. Minds are open to new content, new genres,” he says.

Eyeing global markets

Simultaneously, platforms are also looking at the opportunity to create international markets for themselves. Eros Digital has a co-production with a Chinese firm being shot in China and India. “We want to reach beyond the existing diaspora spread,” says Hussein. The company also has co-marketing deals in other countries like the UK.

Inevitably, gaining paid subscribers will require Herculean effort and compelling content. Around 60 per cent of the viewers are coming to the platforms via special deals with giant telcos like Airtel and Jio. Ernst & Young’s report predicts the platforms will be able to amass 30-35 million paying subscribers by 2021 and 350 million-plus subscribers who come via telco deals.

The game’s getting serious and right now there’s everything to play for in this digital-content space before consolidation, which is still a few years down the road, sets in.

Published on March 19, 2019
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