The new TV: Why YRF, Viacom 18, Bindass are all betting big on web series

  • Manali Shah and Poorva Joshi, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Jul 16, 2016 10:48 IST
A still from the web series, I Don’t Watch TV

A young, urban audience — tired of bizarre plots and dumb characters on TV — is hooked to the web series. And, right now, there’s a treasure trove of content to choose from.

Take any prime-time Indian soap opera on TV today. You’ll see vengeful naagins, a leading lady turned into a fly, an icchadhari morni (even we don’t understand what that is), and a shape-shifting tiger/lead actor. Bizarre and supernatural twists have been added to the usual scheming mother-in-law-dutiful-bahu plot.

Now, consider the contrast. Log on to any Indian web series on the internet today, and you’ll see a variety of relatable themes. A show about four friends trying to launch a start-up (Pitchers); two female best friends getting into sticky situations (Ladies Room); even issues faced by a gay couple (All About Section 377).

While the idiot box continues to up the ‘idiot quotient’, the web has stepped in to bridge a vital gap: between the youth and the kind of quality content they seek.

The web series revolution, which started last year, has now turned into a boom. There’s a new show just about every week.

And it’s not just struggling, young actors on them. Known faces have started appearing. Which means that things are getting serious: from low-budget experiments, to a medium to watch out for. While actors Kalki and Parineeti Chopra made appearances in Y-Films’ (youth division of Yash Raj Films) Man’s World, popular TV actor Nakuul Mehta is the protagonist in Arre’s I Don’t Watch TV.

Then, towards the end of June, JD Majethia, the producer of Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai — one of the most loved shows on Indian television (2004 to 2006) — announced that the sitcom will return with its original cast, but as a web series.

A brave new world

Until late last year, very few heavyweight production houses had web series on their radar. Then, Y-Films and Sony LIV led the way with Man’s World and #LoveBytes (both in September, 2015) respectively. Taking the cue, in less than a year, the likes of Bindaas, Fremantle Media, and Viacom 18 have jumped into the fishbowl.

“After the first few web series did reasonably well, the big brands took notice. But it was the coming of Netflix to India (in January, 2016) that was the big sign of validation of the digital space,” says Arunabh Kumar, founder, The Viral Fever (TVF).

Also read: Indian audiences welcome web series with open arms

The coming of Netflix truly shook things up. In May, Viacom 18 launched their app, Voot, a VOD (video-on-demand) platform rather similar to Netflix. Apart from making available the shows aired on its TV channels (Colors, MTV), it also rolled out original web shows (Chinese Bhasad, Soadies).

“Original content was one of our stronger propositions on Voot. Typically, web series have a long gestation period, and a long shelf life. If done right, it brings loyalty to the brand,” says Gaurav Gandhi, COO, Viacom18 Digital Ventures.

Voot has, since, grossed 1 million app downloads on Android. Gandhi says the plan is to produce at least 10 to 12 web series every year.

The newer players aren’t the only ones taking the app route. TVF, which would earlier release its content on YouTube, also launched an app in late 2015. However, they’ve been wary of changing their video-sharing model drastically. Almost all of their content is still available on YouTube. But the beauty of the web is the number of options it provides. And with video sitting on top of the digital food chart at present, everyone wants to host original content. Naturally, where there’s potential, there’s Facebook.

International production company FremantleMedia’s India arm launched Confession’s — It’s Complicated on Facebook (in April 2016). It’s a series on three girls coping with life in Mumbai. The advantage Facebook provided was a weekly live session. They called it Confessions, and actors (in character) from the series interacted with fans and ‘confessed’ their weekly activities.

Are the sharks circling?

On the one hand, the digital space invites bigger players to create fresh content. But, over time, if they elbow out the budget production houses who kicked off the Indian scene, what prevents the web from becoming as hackneyed and devoid of originality as mainstream TV? “It’s a typical Indian trait: to flock to what’s new and hot. With so many web series cropping up, it is now tough for the audience to sift through the bulk and find quality content,” says Kumar.

Kumar also feels the biggest disadvantage smaller banners will now face is building audience loyalty. With an average of 12 lakh views per video, TVF’s fan following is massive (by digital standards), something they have built over a period of four years. “If we’d entered the space today, we may not have had so many ardent fans,” says Kumar.

But access to the industry is still free and open. Anybody with a video camera can dish out content online. TV actor Nakuul Mehta, who stars in Arre’s first web series, called I Don’t Watch TV, says, “The digital space is a great leveller. If the content is interesting, it will catch on. Sure, marketing muscle helps, but TVF was successful without having hoardings up all over the country. And that actually gives me the courage to go ahead without having the backing of a big channel.” Mehta is also the co-founder of Timbuktu Films, which made I Don’t Watch TV.

So while a Y Film series hits 1 million viewership without breaking a sweat, do series made by smaller production houses go unnoticed? Not exactly. Amit Khanna, director and writer of All About Section 377 (averaging 30,000 hits per episode), says, “We got a better response than we were expecting.” Khanna is all set to kick-start season 2 of All about Section 377, which will incorporate brand tie-ups.

The way ahead

Despite the significant boom in the web series space over just six months, TVF’s Kumar is pessimistic about the sustainability of the market and format. “Mainstream TV still beats us hands down. In terms of financing, brands pump in less that 10% of their annual budget into digital media. Ninety per cent is still allocated to TV because of its deep social penetration,” he says, adding, “It will take more than a few years for web series to catch up with any form of mainstream entertainment in India.”

But in urban spaces at least, the shift, though slow, is noticeable. Mehta feels that web series will compete with TV in the long run. “When I was in Lucknow and Jaipur promoting my new TV show, journalists asked me about I Don’t Watch TV. Digital may not necessarily take over mainstream entertainment, but it will rival it in a big way,” he says.

One thing is for sure. When, and if, the web series does make it, and woo away a generation of urban audiences, conventional TV’s generation leaps, and never-dying grandmas will be responsible.

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