The rise and rise of India's online streaming services

online-streaming-ott Representative image

The writing on that screen near you is clear, OTT is the future of home entertainment in India.

For the uninitiated, OTT, short for Over The Top, are streaming services like Netflix that took over our mindspace in 2018. Thanks to new technologies, plummeting data charges, universalisation of entertainment, and smartphones—for catalysing their popularity and making them more accessible—the new year could well be the year when OTT platforms steal the thunder of traditional modes of home entertainment.

Presently, OTT forms just 16 per cent compared to traditional TV channels and other media, but a Boston Consulting Group study released last month says OTT platform in India presently is worth Rs 3,500 crore but can grow ten-fold to a whopping Rs 35,000 crore in the next five years. Another study, this time by Ernst & Young, says OTT users in the country will reach 500 million by 2020, making India the second biggest market after the US.

So what works? Unlike traditional TV channels, OTT services tell gripping and varied stories that aren’t limited by demographics or censors. “We tell stories we are excited about,” says Sameer Saxena, chief content officer of TVF, an online content maker which has launched its own OTT platform, “It is story first, not scale. Give the audience good…and different..content…and people are open to viewing it. We are going to explore many more genres.”

This means no saas-bahu formulae or cringy slapstick humour, but stories being more exciting, gripping and better crafted are well received. It appears nothing is out of bounds if required to tell a story honestly. For instance, Sacred Games, Netflix’s first original Indian show, became a talking point back in the summer as it showed the dark underbelly of Mumbai’s gangland as it is, with gaalis, gory violence and copious amounts of nudity. Instead of any moral outrage, the audience seemed to love it.

No wonder, there is a mad rush on to clamber on to this platform right now. Netflix may have become synonymous with OTT, but surprisingly, the market leader among the 30 odd players is Hotstar, from satellite TV biggie Star Network, which sensed the way the wind was blowing and started a digital platform branch for its vast repertoire of original shows across many languages (the Star network, beside running popular Hindi entertainment channels like Star Plus also has a bouquet of regional partners, from Vijay TV to Asianet). Hotstar, reportedly has more than 7 crore users, though it is not clear whether all are paid subscribers, since this platform has lots of free content available which does not need users to pay up.

Despite the buzz around global OTT service providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, the field in India is presently dominated by the digital arm of established TV channels, like runner-up Voot from Viacom, which runs channels like Colors and Nickelodeon with a reported user base of 3 crore plus, and Sony LIV featuring content from channels like Sony Max and SAB. Zee TV which dominates conventional satellite TV was a late entrant, launching its OTT service titled Zee5 only earlier this year, but has made up for it by quickly taking the service global in October, featuring thousands of hours of original Hindi programmes from its many channels.

In fact, the beauty of this field is exactly that anyone with original ideas, content and resourcefulness can launch their app as a full-fledged OTT platform. Fighting the TV biggies for a slice of this pie are entertainment production houses like Ekta Kapoor’s ALT Balaji, as well as firms that are massive repositories of film and music libraries like Eros (OTT platform named Eros Now) and Shemaroo (OTT platform named ShemarooMe, to be launched in early-2019).

But perhaps the most interesting, and a harbinger of things to come, would be the success story of Hoichoi (which means ‘fun and excitement’ in Bengali). It started streaming towards the end of last year and is the first dedicated regional language OTT service in India.

With its mix of original serials and Bengali films (including those from parent company SVF, a reputed film production house in Kolkata), the app has been a big hit in the regional space, and is now said to have almost one million monthly users. Ahead of the Pujo festive season this year, the platform announced doubling of its content, including 30 new shows, 12 original films in Bengali, acquisition of some 200 Bengali films and dubbing of content from English, Hindi and Arabic. Additionally, it is entering Bangladesh as well as the United Arab Emirates, instantly adding a prospective customer base of 18 crore to its kitty.

Hoichoi’s success could be an indicator of the way forward for OTT streaming platforms in India in the upcoming year. Mahendra Soni, director & co-founder, Hoichoi recently told the website YourStory, “When satellite TV happened, it took nearly a decade for channels to realise that regional is also a big market. The same thing is playing out in OTT.”

A study says that 93 per sent of time spent by Indians on online videos is on Indian language content, both Hindi and regional. Regional language content, many of these platforms believe, will provide the next big push by jacking up subscribers and revenue. Netflix’s experience shows that while quality international content can bring in the high-paying subscribers, it will be Indian language content that will drive up its numbers. Its line-up for the coming year include made-for-Netflix Marathi films like 15th August (produced by Madhuri Dixit and based on middle class struggles in a Mumbai chawl) and Firebrand (produced by Priyanka Chopra and based on the life struggles of a female lawyer).

ALT Balaji is now focussing on creating content in Tamil, Gujarati, Telugu and Marathi while Bigflix, an OTT platform from Reliance, has film titles across nine Indian regional languages, including Malayalam and Punjabi.

Amazon Prime has announced that it will invest Rs 2,000 crores in creating original content in India. It is looking to launch 30 original shows in multiple languages in the coming days. “Besides English, Prime Video is now available in six Indian languages,” says an Amazon publicist.