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As multiple Video on Demand platforms launch in India, we ask what changes

In just a year, the Video on Demand space in India has half a dozen players. Here’s why

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Apr 01, 2017 13:41 IST
Poorva Joshi
A still from Narcos, a Netflix original series
A still from Narcos, a Netflix original series

In January 2016, Netflix, an international video on demand (VOD) platform that offers a library of TV series, documentaries and films, made waves with its India launch. For weeks, it’s all that millenials would talk about.

Some argued that Netflix wouldn’t make a dent in the existing monopoly of television content in India. Courtesy the unreliable wireless network infrastructure, and most importantly, the kind of existing content — sanskari bahus, vamps with exaggerated eye make-up, cheesy romances and family dramas — that most Indian households consume.

However, arguments were also made that Netflix’s India launch might mark the end of television as we know it. An audience, tired of the melodramatic saas-bahu sagas, would flock to Netflix for its sharp, realistic, international content.

More than a year later, the reality is somewhere in the middle. Netflix undeniably opened the doors for alternate entertainment content platforms. In the months following the launch, mainstream Indian TV channels launched their VOD platforms — Viacom18 launched Voot in March 2016; Arre launched in April 2016. By December 2016, Netflix wasn’t the only international platform in India either. Amazon launched Prime Videos — a bank of international TV shows and films, in addition to new Bollywood releases.

Yet, the biggest testament to the growth of VOD platforms is the entry of Balaji Telefilms — the production house that changed the course of mainstream television in the early 2000s. On April 15, 2017, Balaji is set to launch their digital platform, ALTBalaji.

Read more: Here’s our complete guide to Netflix in India

The smartphone generation

It would be unfair to say, however, that Netflix was the beginning of the revolution. The first platform to launch in India was Star TV’s Hotstar (February 2015). “India witnessed a rise in the number of smartphones users. For a country with a one-TV household tradition, smartphones act as additional screens for consumers to access entertainment on,” says Ajit Mohan, CEO, Hotstar.

In fact, India had 400 million internet content users in 2016. And the number of smart phone users is estimated to rise to 700 million by 2020 (source: entrepreneur.com). Naturally, consumption of online video content, too, has been on the rise. A report on the growth of digital media by Deloitte estimated that India had over 200 million online video viewers by the end of 2016.

And to combat the unreliability of wireless networks, Netflix, for instance, has a contingency plan. “We have announced partnership deals with three leading Indian telecom operators. That will make it easier for Indian consumers to access our shows on a wireless device,” says a spokesperson from Netflix India.

Another advantage VOD platforms offer is affordability. You are no longer obliged to pay for direct to home services on an annual basis, or spend for movie tickets at multiplexes. “We are currently paying close to Rs 15,000 a year for a DTH connections. In contrast, an online platform offers you access to unlimited content for a subscription cost as low as Rs 300 per year,” says Manav Sethi, marketing head, ALTBalaji.

With the exception of Netflix and Amazon Prime — which offer access only through a subscription fee — platforms such as Hotstar, Voot, and ALTBalaji feature free and paid content. Episodes of daily soaps are free on Hotstar and Voot. Premium content such as new films and international shows are priced a monthly subscription of Rs 200.

Read more: We get Netflix US to answer 5 questions we’ve all been wondering about

Content is king

Beyond making entertainment more individually accessible, VOD platforms have also facilitated access to quality content. International shows can now be seen legally, and without censorship. From Netflix’s original shows — Orange is the New Black, Daredevil and Narcos — to even Game of Thrones on Hotstar, the days of torrents are arguably behind us.

And it’s not just about international shows. Indian stories with more urban themes such as homosexuality, the start-up wave, and an all-women’s road trip now have access to an eager audience. The platforms also offer viewership to critically acclaimed indie films such as Masaan (2015), Brahman Naman (2016) and M Cream (2014), that either never released in theatres, or were bogged down by the censor board.

Naturally, the web series boom that India witnessed in 2016 also benefited from the rise in VOD platforms: series such as A.I.Sha My virtual Girlfriend and I Don’t Watch TV on Arre, and Girl in the City by Bindass.

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

“There is a massive gap between viewers who watch Naagin [a TV show by Balaji] and Narcos. That’s where original Indian content comes in,” claims ALTBalaji’s Sethi. And to fill that gap, ALTBalaji plans to curate over 600 hours of original content, with five flagship shows, including those starring the likes of Nimrat Kaur and Rajkummar Rao. “We want to create web content with higher production value, at par with the television, and hopefully, one day, international shows as well,” says Sethi.

Sure, fancier web series do sound appealing. But, it’s important to note here that higher production values might spell the end of niche web series as we know them: small-budget shows that gave a platform to lesser-known, struggling actors to showcase their talent. The shift, in a way, has already begun. Just last year we saw noted names such as Lisa Haydon and Raghu Ram starring, and big banners such as Yash Raj, Bindaas, and Viacom18 entering the market.

Read more: Mass appeal: Is TV eating up the web series?

Just a year into this digital revolution, it’s too early to predict how VOD platforms will change the quality of alternate content. Right now, though, legitimate access to Game of Thrones before the spoilers storm Facebook is perhaps all one can ask for.