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Time to scale up investment in OTT content

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-09-2017 Shuchi Bansal

Sameer Nair, the newly appointed head of Applause Entertainment, a content production company promoted by Aditya Birla Group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, says he is a firm believer in the over-the-top (OTT) video streaming segment. The former group chief executive of Balaji Telefilms Ltd is credited with the launch of the company’s OTT platform ALTBalaji earlier this year. At Applause, he will be working with creative directors and producers to make original shows for video streaming platforms. He does not specify if the company will launch its own OTT brand. “Once we scale up, we will negotiate with platform owners,” he says. The company is expected to invest Rs300 crore in creating what are known as Originals.

Nair says Indian television has missed an important step in the evolutionary process. “Seventeen years ago when we started making daily soaps with Kyunki (Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) and Kahaani (Ghar Ghar Kii), it dwarfed everything. A generation has passed living on daily soaps and TV has passed without premium subscription content. Content in India is not done in weeklies or seasons like the US,” he says. Now the need for such content is being fulfilled by the video streaming services—both American and home-grown—which are targeting India’s digital audiences. “OTT is that premium subscription that India missed,” says Nair, adding that the opportunity to create content for digital streaming platforms is very big.

Nickhil Jakatdar, founder and CEO of Vuclip, which runs the OTT platform Viu in India in addition to several markets in Asia and the Middle East, agrees the opportunity for content is enormous. The digital landscape has moved from feature phones to smartphones with network speeds going up and data costs coming down. “Today tablets and phones are a very practical way to watch long-form content,” says Jakatdar.

This offers a massive content opportunity as on-demand viewing rises, especially among viewers in the age group of 16 to 30 years. They seek content that is very different from what’s available on TV. “Millennials seek bolder themes and fast-paced shows with high production values. Clearly, there’s a demographic whose needs cannot be met by TV,” says Jakatdar.

But right now there is not enough content out there to satisfy the millennials. “Just licensed content (films, TV shows) is not enough for these viewers who are looking for Originals,” he says.

No surprise, then, most digital streaming platforms are focusing on creating originals other than licensing content. Viacom18 Digital Venture’s video platform Voot, for instance, has created a clutch of shows in collaboration with film writers such as Charudatt Acharya (who wrote films like Vastu Shastra, Dum Maro Dum and Nautanki Saala), Garima & Siddharth (who have written Ramleela and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha) and Danish Aslam (director of Break Ke Baad).

To be sure, there’s a big difference in TV shows and Originals format. “While TV writing is based on familiar, formulaic plots which the audiences consume repeatedly with some window dressing, OTT Originals are the exact opposite. As limited episode series with intense plots, they need to be experimental and fresh every time,” says Gaurav Gandhi, chief operating officer of Voot. Audiences watching Originals are also exposed to world class international shows and expect the same standards (of writing, plot and story) to be delivered in their context and language on streaming services. “Execution and treatment of these limited Original series is also a big differentiator as they are mounted more like cinema,” says Gandhi. So much so that even the per minute cost of production of a digital Original compared to a TV show could be higher. Of course as TV serials run into hundreds of episodes, they work out costlier, he explains. A quality digital Original can cost between Rs2 crore and Rs6 crore, although there may be outliers at Rs10 crore plus too. As eyeballs shift to digital platforms attracting a bigger quantum of advertising and subscription money, Jakatdar expects top-notch writers, directors and studios to explore the medium. The ball has been set in motion and Nair of Applause expects anywhere between Rs1,000 crore and Rs2,000 crore to be invested in OTT content per year.

According to a report by Reuters last week, Star India, a media company backed by Twenty-First Century Fox, has injected Rs1,233 crore ($192.04 million) into its digital content arm—Novi Digital Entertainment Pvt. Ltd—over the last six months. Novi Digital runs the video platform Hotstar and Starsports.com.

So are the Indian OTT platforms investing the kind of money that Netflix and Amazon invest in their Originals? Will we ever get there? We may not be there yet, says Gandhi. “But these are very early days in this space and we, as an industry, have not even begun scratching the surface of the creative universe of Original series in India. As streaming video grows bigger, the opportunity and potential to tell stories of and for the billion plus people in this country is limitless,” he says.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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