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Synergy between quality content & branding workable in digital space, feel industry experts

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MUMBAI: Providing young 'jobbers' in India with new, engaging and emotionally-connecting original OTT content that may be closer to their life, family or work situations with or without subtle brand integration would eventually lead to a pay-model (SVoD). And, that seemed to the underlying theme of ‘Expanding the content creator value chain' session at the recent Vidnet 2017 organised by Indiantelevision.com in Mumbai.

Moderator Sidharth Jain opened the discussion with four interesting models of the evolving OTT content some of which, as claimed, got 100 million views. One was the self-funded yet reasonably successful model of a Bollywood struggler, Navjyot Gulati's short film 'Best Girlfriend'. The second was Jyoti Kapur-Das' Royal Stag branded 'The Chutney'. The third experiment was YouTube-discovered Tamil director, who used his film proceeds to part-fund an original episodic series on Hotstar, and the fourth was the recent Amazon Prime-commissioned 'Inside Edge' model, which is loosely based on IPL and its evolution.

Given this context, especially in the last two years, where did the panelists think the opportunities for content creators were? How could one use these learning to draw up strategies? Who is creating value and opportunities for creators? These were some of the posers by Jain to panelists, which included Reliance Broadcast Network Limited CEO Tarun Katial, Still and Still Media Collective founder Amritpal Singh Bindra, Monozygotic's Raghu Ram, Viacom18 Digital Ventures head of content Monika Shergill and Perform Group director, content sales, India, Subhayu Roy.

"Independent content creators getting some 100 million views underlines my impression that platforms (films, television or digital) dictate the kind of entertainment that will be produced let alone what will work and what won't," said Ram, adding that he believed television was for group viewing and mobile for individual viewing, which made all the difference.

Monozygotic's 'Aisha My Virtual Girlfriend’ pocketed several international awards. "A lot of unconventional people who have been struggling in films and television," Ram felt, "will find their voice on digital."

However, the nascent OTT industry is still experimenting, it seems. "Honestly, I feel, we have just begun. And, those who claim they know it all or have figured it out, are talking through their hat," said Voot's Monika Shergill. Though, she added that digital was an exciting and formula-breaking medium where people were “judging you all the time."

Referring to `It's Not That Simple’ (Swara Bhaskar's six-episode web series launched in October 2016), Shergill said that nobody was programming for women at that point in time and most shows were being made for “young, urban boys”. But, Voot chose to a show a disruptive subject for a mature female audience. "It was narrated and depicted tastefully and thought provokingly done," she explained, highlighting serious subjects too could work brilliantly on a digital platform.

Dwelling on demographics and experimenting with originals going forward, Shergill said Voot's core TG was 18-30 years. "There is a misconception that we (OTT players) are catering to a very young or college-going audience," she said, “But, in fact, we are targeting around 10 million first-jobbers who may have moved away from television and actively looking for stories that talk to them."

Rejecting a recently-coined phrase that OTT viewers and content lie "between Narcos and Naagin" as a headline-catching phrase, Shergill was of the opinion a large part of the Indian audience, however, was looking for good stories (and) not necessarily emotionally connecting with those (international) characters. "They (the audience) are looking for answers -- life's answers, which are closer to family and work situations," she justified her stand on audience’s need.

However, not everybody seems to have a definite handle on the kind of content that really worked. "Whether it is 10, 12 or 25-minute-series, nobody can guarantee the viewer's attention as analytics may have found out," Amritpal Singh said, admitting that a good story couldn’t be “supplemented, complemented or replaced” for sure. Singh has worked on all three formats of films, television and digital.

While admitting that people learnt new tricks everyday in the digital space RBNL's Katial felt like the cinema audience changed from single screen theatres to that of a multiplex with everybody becoming a multiplex audience eventually, the digital audience also is changing evolving. "Crucial changes took place (in the audience profile) after the arrival of Reliance Jio…the profile of the video viewer changed completely," he asserted, explaining that digital has opened up a new class of viewers.

"Although, on the digital platform one gets the time and space to do newer stuff and feel satisfied, I don't think anybody is going to make path-breaking shows such as `Narcos’ for sometime (in India) until the audience evolves and stabilizes," Katial said, adding, however, the journey would be “enriching” -- there would be actually opportunities to do many different things.

Does one needs to look at segmentation such as regional content, low cost or premium content, regional or pan-India market? It could work sometime. Katial highlighted the case of a Hispanic series with English sub titles, a take-off on Narcos, which did well on Netflix, connecting with the audience.

"This average underdog story with greed, love and lust has reached somewhere, but it may not seem to do well on traditional television in India. But, we have an audience which is willing to experiment," Katial remarked, adding that though in India there is also a segment of audience that is more confortable with content in their regional language.
But speaking on segmentation, Katial also said there existed a section of 'free audience' on OTT such as FTA in the television space. "The SVoD audience is different from the AVoD audience. The former loves quality content, "he added.

However, OTT or digital space is not about just fiction -- of good quality or otherwise. Sports globally not only are a big attraction, but also revenue earners. And, India too is following that trend, albeit slowly.

UK-based Perform Group's Subhayu Roy said it was important to offer content that resonates with the audience. In the west, sports broadcasters did a magazine-kind programming before or after a game giving audiences options such as highlights, best shots at the goal, for example and analysis.

“One could experiment with that magazine programming thought process in India. With that, one could manage to have a fresh set of audience and break the formula to content creation," Roy argued.

Talking about the fiction versus non-fiction, Ram said that they were yet to come up with something that was native to digital, while Shergill felt “non-fiction originals” on OTT had a limited shelf life ---like a bursting of a big cracker. But, both of them agreed engagement with the audience was important. `MTV Roadies`’ consumption numbers (on digital) paralleled television and `Big Boss’ too had similar numbers, it was claimed.

Do digital audiences seek free content or support from brands is critical? While agreeing that brand integration was important, Shergill said, “One needs a revenue model with brand support for the kind of stories that you want to tell. But we have not limited ourselves to that. We have gone ahead and invested in quality content. We did several shows last year and invested in originals pipeline. Now, we are ready with our next slate of shows. If a brand comes on board, it will be good, but quality hasn’t been compromised on."

The audience is more open to the idea of subliminal kind of branding as compared to the 'Paas Paas'’ in-the-face branding, Bindra felt.

Panelists also agreed that Indians generally struggle with the concept of paying for good --- especially original and quality content. "Indians have traditionally struggled with the idea of paying for content. It does not come to them naturally. But, it will eventually happen. One needs to create the kind of content that justifies the kind of subscription they pay," Bindra explained.

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