You know a show is a hit in today’s digital world when it spawns internet memes, listicles and T-shirts with dialogues from the show. In June this year, a five-part web series, with 40 minute episodes, met with unprecedented success, and pervaded popular culture. Standing at number 21 on the top-rated TV show list on IMDB (Internet Movie Database), it even managed to beat all-time favourite TV shows Friends (1994-2004) and Seinfeld (1989-1998).
The show in question is not a foreign production backed by a heavyweight studio. We’re talking about The Viral Fever’s (an Indian online youth entertainment network) TVF Pitchers. The show, about four friends in Mumbai who quit their corporate jobs to launch a start-up venture, clocked in over a million views per episode. And it needed no superstar to do it. The cast entirely consisted of fresh faces.
A nascent but definite revolution is brewing in the online space in India. Web series, or shows meant exclusively for the internet, are catching the fancy of audiences, and, as an extension, of content producers and advertisers.
In May, Pechkas Pictures and ScoopWhoop Talkies’ Baked — a seven-part web series about the adventures of three college students in Delhi who start a midnight food delivery service — met with positive reviews from the not-so-easily-impressed audience online.
TVF’s Permanent Roommates, a five-part contemporary take on relationships, became the second most-watched long-form web series in the world on YouTube. Each episode had more than a million views, and it was listed among the ‘highest-rated TV series in 2014’ on IMDB. No mean feat, certainly. Interestingly, TVF’s creative experiment officer (CEO) Arunabh Kumar (31), took to YouTube to create content he was passionate about, after his ideas were rejected by MTV.
What’s remarkable is that these shows are all slickly shot. Banish any notion of amateurish camerawork by a bunch of friends that you might associate with original video content on the web. The plots are relatable, and content is tailor-made for the young, internet-savvy, urban viewer. Here, newbies play lead roles, and characters speak in a mix of Hindi and English, just like you or your friend would.
Internationally, the web series, as a concept, took off in early to mid 2000s. In 2003, Red Vs. Blue, an American comic sci-fi series, was distributed independently using online portals like YouTube. It reached the 100 million views mark and is the longest running series till date (it ended last month). Soon, it wasn’t just about hits, but serious awards. Netflix original and Kevin Spacey-starrer political drama, House of Cards (2013 onward), became the first web-only TV series to receive major Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.
Another Emmy winner is Jason Bateman-starrer Arrested Development. After the channel, Fox, cancelled the show in 2006, Netflix revived it, and released it exclusively on the web, in 2013. USA also has awards such as the Webby Awards and Streamy Awards that celebrate web series.
Back home, sensing potential, big players have followed suit. Y-Films, the youth division of Yash Raj Films, made its web series debut on September 29, with Man’s World, a comedy about gender inequality and hilarious role reversals. Then, in a first of sorts for a mainstream channel, Sony Entertainment’s video-on-demand service Sony LIV launched an original show solely for the web. #LoveBytes, an ongoing series about a couple’s journey, premiered online on September 7. These big banner shows too met with success, and got millions of views.
Again, mimicking the trend in the west, web series here are drawing mainstream talent. So, actors Kalki Koechlin and Parineeti Chopra featured in episodes of Man’s World. Now, Rohan Sippy (he directed Bluffmaster in 2005) is directing two web series for Eros Now: The Client, starring Bipasha Basu, and Side Hero, starring Kunaal Roy Kapur and Konkona Sen Sharma.
Content is king
What makes web series the next big thing on the internet? Young audiences in the country have long complained about the lack of youth-oriented content on TV. It’s not surprising then that with soppy saas-bahu dramas and reality shows still ruling Indian television, the youth are turning to the internet for alternative entertainment. Prithwish Barman, who heads the video team at ScoopWhoop Talkies, says, “Except for live events and sports, the audience that is online is not really interested in TV anymore.”
As bandwidth improves, and as smartphones get cheaper, the potential audience base grows. “There are more than 350 million people online in India now, and the figures will only go up. It also helps that the internet is a medium you can now consume on the go,” says Ashish Patil, vice president, Y-Films. Recently, YouTube also introduced the option of watching videos when offline, so you download the videos when you have access to high speed internet, rather than having to deal with slow buffering.
According to Uday Sodhi, EVP and head - digital business, Sony Entertainment, a critical advantage that web series has over TV is that “one can reach a specific audience. With cinema and television, your target audience is large. Entire families consume the content together. But with a mobile or a computer, personal viewing — as opposed to community viewing — is possible.”
The money factor
TVF Pitchers was produced on a budget of Rs 50 lakh per episode. How does a medium without mainstream advertising afford such a lavish budget? The answer lies in brand sponsorships. TFV relied on sponsorship from Kingfisher, Pond’s and Uber. Their series, Permanent Roommates, was presented in association with online real-estate platform, CommonFloor.
Patil says the revenue model for web series produced by Y-Films is a mix of sponsorship and advertising. Additionally, there is monetisation from the large number of views generated on YouTube. So, are web series likely to threaten mainstream TV? “Definitely not,” Patil says. “The sheer volume of TV consumption is massive. We are not at the ‘cord cutting’ stage yet.”
And though the advertising industry has sat up and taken notice of a new platform to showcase their brands, traditional mediums like television still gets a bigger chunk of the revenue budgets. Sodhi says, “While digital advertising is a rapidly growing market, TV will continue to be bigger. Our ability to consume content (be it cinema, TV or web shows) has increased, but one doesn’t replace the other.”
Currently, as is the case with most content online, web series too, are accessible for free to anyone with an internet connection. Patil says, “We’ve got our consumers used to watching things for free. Hopefully, we can move to a stage where the financials also make sense, and consumers are open to paying for the things they watch.”
The show goes on
For us, the viewer, though, the situation couldn’t be more promising. There’s more content, and certainly more variety, coming your way, on a brand new medium. ScoopWhoop Talkies has plans to create more than five web series by the end of 2016. Kumar hopes to be able to make the next season of Permanent Roommates on the scale of “Kaun Banega Crorepati”.
Patil is rooting for a part two of Man’s World, even as the trailer for Y-Films’ next web series, Bang Baaja Baaraat — a story of two dysfunctional families and a destination wedding gone wrong — hits (computer) screens on October 14. And while it may be a little premature to call YouTube the new television, it certainly is the next big competition to the medium.
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