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Web-series: A drama waiting to unfold

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MUMBAI: With 4G coming to India, content consumption is only going to explode even further. It is no more a secret that the digital renaissance has moved the global entertainment market and changed the way it operates forever. A new breed of content creators has evolved over the past three to four years -  creators  who are conjuring up content for digital audiences.  With fresh and relevant content at their very core, these web series producers have broken away from uniform TV formats.

Travelling back in time to the late nineties  and early 2000’s when the younger audiences only had few youth shows like Hip Hip Hurray, Remix, Left Right Left to 2016, when we are seeing an explosion of interesting web series. With no time and place issues, more and more people are finding this content practical as well as relevant to their daily lives. In the summer of 2015, India witnessed the rise and rise of  digital short fiction series which brought a whole new paradigm of entertainment. 

Driven massively by the younger audience and with an increasing number of brands in association, the space has also created new age newbie celebrities. Digital content creators are in a happy place and have started exploring various themes. Youtube has unlocked the creative potential of unknowns who have now become digital superstars.

“If you give something backed with a great script, consumers will definitely appreciate your work," says nexGTV head (growth )Dushyant Kohli.

The beginning

It all started when MTV rejected an idea for a youth-centric TV show from the witty and humorous Arunabh Kumar. This resulted in Kumar selecting online and YouTube as his medium for venting out his creative urges.  Starting from Chaai Sutta Chronicles to Pitchers to Permanent Roommates to Aadha 24 and now to Truth or Dare with Dad, and plans to mushroom further.

“We were there way before than anyone else in this space. I have seen the journey from zero to 1.4 million views. There is a growing demand for witty and interesting content that we produce. The response was always encouraging and has brought us this far," says The Viral Fever founder Arunabh who has become a beacon for other new digital wannabes.

Kumar throws light on how his journey behind creating a web-series from the germ of an idea to casting, production and editing has been. He further points out about how all TVF’s web series are becoming extremely popular and in demand.  “We started with comedy and then moved to sketches and later to creating content for digital. It happened to us naturally, there was no plan.Pitchers and Permanent Roommates are doing well for us. In fact, Pitchers gets around 1 lakh views per episode. Everyone’s just shocked by our numbers. May be that’s why we are called as the Apple of content in India," he adds in jest.

Established traditional producers such as the global leader  Freemantle Media acknowledge Arunabh's  and TVF's contribution.   Says business head Vidyuth Bhandary: “We don’t consider anyone as our competition. They are the first movers which have helped establish the market with their hard-work. The new players that will come later will have us as an example. Some digital content gets accepted widely by viewers, some doesn’t. Everyone learns from this for better launches in the future.”

Explosion of web-series in India

The very dynamic OTT entertainment space is evolving every day. Yet with about ten competing players, there is room for everyone. There is a new world beyond TV now, where consumers can consume a whole new buffet of entertainment, fiction, comedy and what not! It is a world where you do not have to wait for a show's next episode.

“The Indian consumer is ready to pay for premium, quality content. Creators are now gradually entering to this new and more personal world of consumers called smart phones," says Kohli. 

Various creators are curating shows for online consumption like TVF, Monozygotic Productions, Freemantle Media, AIB, Y-Films, among many un-named others.

On the one hand we have the daddy of the web-series TVF which has explored this space and has developed great shows mentioned above, it also has various originals like Girlyapa presents Ladies Room Bakchodi and Batman v/s Superman Indian Version on its own platform TVF Play. Monozygotic Productions has created shows like A.I.SHA My Virtual Girlfriend and Sinskaari for various VOD platforms.

The space has seen Nakul Mehta producing I Don’t Watch TV, Amit Khanna from Badmaashiyan directing web-series such as All About Sec 377. Freemantle recently produced a web-series called Confessions-It’s Complicated for which it used the latest Facebook Live feature.

An anthology of six short films, Love Shots evolved from the youth arm of Yash Raj films—Y-Films. Directed by Ankur Tewari, these short films are a break from the regular web-series and feature actors such as Farida Jalal, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Nimrat Kaur and Rhea Chakraborty, among others. The films talk about love in an unconventional and non-traditional way.

bindass announced its first fiction web series Girl in the City which will be premiered on Facebook on 28 April, followed by a premiere on YouTube. The 10 episodic series revolves around a small town girl who finds her way in Mumbai and pursues her passion in the fashion industry.

Each series has a different concept which only proves that there is a space for creativity to be unleashed - unrestrained.

Even actors want to be a part of this explosion. Bollywood diva Priyanka Chopra has agreed to launch an original 14 part mobi-series about girls on a journey of life in Mumbai titled It's My City. Imitiaz Ali can be seen as a judge for a talent hunt platform called SPOTLight for budding film-makers, where viewers can get a daily dose of amazing content with out-of-the-box storylines.

“The rise of original web shows and their increasing popularity will likely change the way we view prime-time television content," adds Kohli.

The internet is full of options and consumers have a short attention span and want snack-sized content. The production quality, casting and content are major factors that determine how a series is received.

“It’s not enough to make one good video, but to keep producing good content to keep the viewer hooked. We do one series a year which is very little as compared to others, but we provide our viewers with branded content. Our work speaks for us," reveals Kumar.

Moreover, we should also see the introduction of new, cutting-edge and innovative concepts in the area of original programming with increasing experimentation in formats, casts, story-telling, etc. and new segments as well as need states being identified and addressed making consumers the ultimate winner. 

Multi Screen Media’s (MSM) over the top (OTT) platform Sony Liv rolled out an array of web series starting from #LoveBytes, Liv Shutter and the recent addition Tanlines.

Y-Films launched its original web series, Bang Baaja Baaraat and Man’s World, its heart-warming anthology of short films, Love Shots, and its game-changing initiative of creating India’s first transgender band, The 6-Pack Band. Keeping with its exciting tradition of tackling unexpected spaces and putting forth fresh stories, its next series, Ladies Room, goes  boldly where no man has gone before: the women’s loo.

“Web-series are the medium of the future," says Bhandary.

They came, we saw, they conquered

According to the FICCI KPMG Report 2016, digital advertising will continue to grow at a high CAGR of 33.5 per cent, the highest growing medium of all. The report also points out that there will be an evident shift towards mobile and video advertising backed by the opening up of bandwidth in the country by 2020.

The report estimates that by 2020 digital advertising will touch Rs 255 billion (Rs 25,500 crore) and contribute 25.7 per cent of the total advertising revenue. This fact is the key reason why many broadcasters and DTH players have forayed into the VOD space.

Digital content creation appears to hold a lot of promise, courtesy the numerous VOD platforms launching. They have been reaching out to new creators, and to existing TV creators to produce content for them. Platforms like Hotstar, Arre, ErosNow, SonyLiv, NexGTV,  have entered the space. They have started creating different, fresh content that does not resonate with traditonal, boring saas bahu TV narratives. 

“Web-series are a key offering to the digital audience. Broadcasters are also offering content on digital targeting its early adopters. This is a unique offering from any other type of content”, says MSM executive vice president and head - digital business Uday Sodhi.

While, on the one hand, branded content is taking digital content to new, exciting heights, on the other hand, the micro online community is losing its independent vibe. Players like TVF, AIB, Freemantle,  are independent content creators who are raising funds by doing deals with brands and brand integrating them into the narrative. Others such   Arre has recently commissioned Monozygotic Productions' to deliver A.I.SHA-My Virtual Girlfriend.

A source points out that, “The production cost of per episode of a web-series is similar to that of a fiction show, that is, Rs 7-8 lakhs. Though it varies for everyone, most of the platforms shoot it in high-quality with more emphasis on the cast and the story-line”.

The commissioning depends on the setup vis-à-vis cost an organisation is willing to pay. “If the series is produced independently, the IP as well as licensing rights remain with the owner of the series.  However, it changes as one enters into co-production," adds Kohli.

But, does it help?

The OTT battle is being fought on multiple parameters including content, network bandwidth, data rates as well as free vs  paid content. However, there are some important factors for consideration like the kind of content, its genre, format and the duration of the episode, which are essential to ensure that the new content being created will resonate well with today’s viewers.

To attract audiences, creators have to start investing extensively in web-series content. A report by Media Partners Asia (MPA) says that the number of monthly active video users in India during 2014 was 12.3 million (123 lakh) people. The Asia-Pacific online video revenue is expected to reach $35 billion by 2021, an average annual growth of 22 per cent from $13 billion in 2016.

Kohli points out to a 2012 report by PWC which predicts that by the end of 2016, India will have 176 million (17.6 crore) OTT viewers generating revenues of more than $500 million.

“We target to reach those 176 million viewers. We have recently opened our app to 141 countries including India. We currently receive close to a million (10 lakh) subscribers on nexGTv every month. We are extremely confident that our offerings – both current and proposed shall resonate very well with our global audiences, including our very first original series and India’s first mobi-series- ‘It’s My City’, starring Priyanka Chopra as herself," adds Kohli.

“nexGTV also aims at a healthy upwards of 20 per cent month-on-month growth rate due to expansion. We possess a great deal of learning in terms of our existing users content consumption behaviour, preference and pattern along with the overall understanding of what kind of content will have better uptake among the target audience.  We launched It's My City - based on these insights,” explains Kolhi.

“Yes, web-series does help in expanding our reach," adds Sodhi. “Web-series are gaining aggressive pace in India and are becoming popular day-by-day. We have also seen multiple brands showing interest in web-series. Brands like Kingfisher, Ola, Castrol, E-bay, Unlimited, Maruti Suzuki – Swift, Truly Madly, Myntra, Gillette Venus, Miss Malini, Saavn and Fogg Deos have come on board for various shows.”

"Web series is a fantastic proposition. We are yet to have an association. What we would like is to associate with content when it is the planning stage rather than endorsing a created one," says Hector Beverages marketing head Parvesh Debuka.

“Brands need to believe in the power of digital. It’s a two way process. There is a lot of money flowing in cleverly from various brands. A strong story structure will attract good brands”, adds Bhandary.

“It is tricky for brands to come on board for such type of content. When we approached a few sponsors in the beginning, they had a few reservations. It took us sometime to convince them that the content would not make the brand look negative or dark. The challenge is to convince advertisers that content on digital and internet works well," adds Monozygotic co-founder Rajiv Laxman.

The MPA reports also outlines that online video advertising is expected to grow to 22 per cent by 2021, currently it accounts for less than 15 per cent. Online video ad sales will reach approximately $22 billion by 2021 versus $9 billion in 2016, a 19 per cent CAGR.

“Digital series have always been there, they’re just getting noticed more these days. Advertising will slowly happen. The creators are integrating brands seamlessly in a show rather than screaming loudly about it. This is definitely an advantage,"  asserts Sodhi

The Way Ahead

The recent entry of multiple players including global player Netflix indicates that this space has enough room for everyone in this sector which is only going to grow further. Irrespective of the fact that India’s digital infrastructure is yet to meet the necessary requirements of the OTT ecosystem, a huge number of players are coming into the fray. 

Consolidation in the mobile TV or OTT video sector is still some time away as the Indian mobile story is only now reaching a threshold with close to a billion connections and the advent to 3G and 4G networks, together with affordable smart-phones and data plans which are bound to give the necessary fillip to the sector.

“The recent entry of multiple players including global ones in this area has in fact helped ratify the concept, business model, and potential of mobile TV/ digital video which players such as nexGTv pioneered long back," says Kohli.

Seconding the opinion, Laxman says, “Web-series are here to stay. There is a new audience that has come up and it makes sense to come up with content only meant for them. Web-series give a fresh feel to dialogues and binds audiences."

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