It is the necessity of numbers really. Mobile internet is booming in India with cheaper and smoother connectivity, and a huge youth demographic has easier access to smartphones than television. By 2018, India will have 530 million smartphone users — the second largest in the world after China. Now, these smartphone users are not only looking for hatke entertainment that comes without saas-bahus or innumerable ad breaks. They are also looking to be entertained in their own language.
The result? OTT (over-the-top, or the delivery of video content via the Internet) platforms going regional across devices in India with gusto. The entertainment sector has woken up to the huge potential of the regional OTT market and along with established networks like Viu India, Amazon, Netflix, AltBalaji and Sun, platforms catering to exclusive regional content are spreading their wings.
Meet the players
“Our research just before we launched Fastfilmz around two years ago showed that Hindi forms 50 percent of the OTT entertainment market, while the other half has a demand for regional content. And while some regional films or TV shows were being offered alongside Hollywood and Bollywood by established networks, no one was focusing on exclusive regional content,” says Dominic Charles, co-founder of the Bengaluru-based Fastfilmz Media. While they started off with Tamil and Telugu, Fastfilmz now caters to all four South Indian languages with over 1,000 movies, reviews, stand-up comedy shows and more.
“The regional OTT segment is underserved, has good ad fraction as well as consumption, and is simply great for long term business,” says Uday Sodhi, EVP and head — Digital Business, Sony LIV, which has around 45 shows in Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali and Hindi and a subscriber base of five million.
For Shri Venkatesh Films (SVF) — a name to reckon with in the Bengali film industry — launching Hoichoi was another way of connecting with Bengalis worldwide with content specially curated for the OTT platform.
“We’re probably the only exclusively Bengali OTT entertainment platform and we are looking to reach out to 250 million Bengalis across India and the world. We already have an established ecosystem in creating quality content and the web is only another mode of telling stories which perhaps we can’t tell through films or TV,” says Vishnu Mohta, co-founder, Hoichoi, which was launched in September 2017.
VOOT, with 30 million monthly active users, is creating content in Kananda, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati and very recently, Tamil as well. “We stream every week across 1,500 towns and cities across India, and already have close to 25 per cent contribution of watch-time coming from regional languages. Regional expansion is a very big focus area for us in 2018,” says Gaurav Gandhi, COO, Viacom 18 Digital Ventures.
The players are also gunning for a non-metro audience, more specifically people from tier-II or III cities who comprise the majority viewership.
“India is a multilingual country and going regional for OTT platforms is only logical. Research affirms that regional content on OTT will command close to 30 percent of the overall share in the future. The new generation of internet users will come on board from tier-2 and tier-3 cities and with this potential increase in consumer base, there will be an immense demand for intriguing regional content,” says Manasi Sapre, head programming, Viu India, which launched its Telugu segment in 2016.
A Sun TV Network spokesperson agrees: “75 percent of new internet users will be from rural India and 75 percent of new internet users will consume data in local languages by 2020.” Sun NXT was launched in June this year and has already registered seven million app downloads.
Incidentally, most of the content come subtitled in English — an additional draw for other language users.
The original key
Movies are of course the mainstay for OTT platforms, along with TV shows. Sun NXT for instance, offers 40+ live channels, over 4,000 movies, TV serials, comedy clips, music videos, and live events. VOOT on the other hand, streams TV shows, dubbed shows (hits from Colors Hindi, dubbed into regional languages) as well as dubbed kids’ programmes across languages. They are planning to enter the ‘originals’ category soon.
The challenge clearly is in standing out with original content that resonates with the youth. “We are focused on locally relevant content in every market and have created contemporary digital shows such as PillA, Pelli Gola, Gehraiyaan, Spotlight, No. 1 Yaari, and Munching with Mahathalli. At present, we are aiming to create fresh and original bilingual content like Social in Telugu and Hindi that has universal appeal,” says Sapre.
Says Sodhi: “Our subscriber base is huge and varied and we are creating content across genres — from comedy to drama.” He adds that Sony LIV is looking to add short films, TV shows and more to their portfolio.
Hoichoi is showcasing over 500 movies, while aiming to launch two originals a month. Their biggest trump card is a Byomkesh Bakshi original — the satyanweshi continues to be hugely popular in Bengal and beyond — and the first episode aired on 14 October to great response. “We’re ambitious and have lots of stories to tell. In the next few months, we’ll also be launching our music streaming service as well,” shares Mohta.
Fastfilmz, which has over 50,000 subscribers, is gearing up to create web series even as they produce original stand-up comedy, quirky review shows and so on. “It is a very new segment and no one really knows what will work, not even the audience! We are looking to experiment with bold, original content that the youth finds interesting,” insists Charles.
Gunning for quality
What’s also heartening to see is the high quality of the content. Mohta points out that Hoichoi shows are being shot on the scale of movies. “There are no shortcuts in terms of content, crew or equipment. We have partnered with the US company Viewlift to get access to the best available technology. Our content should be worth watching even after years,” Mohta insists.
Agrees Charles: “We don’t put out shoddy videos shot on mobile phones. Production quality has to be of international standards.”
When it comes to Viu Originals, stereotype sets and productions, and stretching of scripts like in TV shows, are a big no-no. “Another upside to this model is that we are nurturing young, creative talent as well as industry veterans, whose creativity has been constrained by the practical realities of the current mass market medium,” says Sapre. Rana Daggubati’s show Social has been gaining a lot of traction on Viu India.
Mobile internet is indeed revolutionising regional entertainment. Along with quality production values, the lack of censorship — though largely officially unacknowledged — is no doubt giving a boost to creating content that push boundaries and click with the youth. However, it would be some years before we can figure out who got it right.
Most platforms offer some free content.
Viu: Rs 99 a month
Hoichoi: 3 months — Rs 149, 6 months — Rs 249, 12 months — Rs 399. International Rates: Monthly — $8.99, Annual — $79.99
Sun NXT: Monthly — Rs 50, Quarterly — Rs 130, Annual — Rs 480
Fastfilmz: Rs 40 a month