Netflix and its India story

The streamer is now increasingly adapting to the Indian market.


MUMBAI: Netflix has been making  a good catch wherever it has been spreading its net over the past three years. But viewers in Indian waters do not get snared easily by the bait of snazzy and edgy content like in other parts of the world and that is something the streamer learned the hard way. It made a scratchy debut with just a handful of original shows and a thin catalogue of local content in 2016. Net result: only the top sliver (in the hundred thousand or so) of India’s 1.3 billion populace bit and it was left wondering why the service was not getting traction like it was elsewhere.

The answer lay in localisation: India’s masses care very little about Stranger Things or Black Mirror - Bandersnatch – two series that fired viewers’ imaginations in several countries. Indians would rather watch a Naagin or a Nazar. And just having a Sacred Games and a couple of local movies and shows were not enough to make Indians flash out their check books or credit cards to pay the stiff Rs 700- plus monthly fee in a market where cable TV offered a smorgasbord of 700 channels at less than half that price. And CEO Reed Hastings' promise to shareholders that India would bring in the next 100 million subs seemed like an empty one.

Cut to 2020: the SVOD platform seems to be getting its act right and has rolled out a slate of local originals –both films and series - like Yeh Ballet, Sacred Games, Jamtara , Leila, Delhi Crime – and many more are in pre-prod stage or on the shooting floor.

According to media reports, its financials too are getting better. Netflix’s India business grew more than 700 per cent during financial year 2019 recording revenues of Rs 466.7 crore and a net profit of Rs 5.1 crore. Hastings continues to have lots of faith in India’s entertainment-hungry viewers: he has kept a stash of Rs 3000 crore to invest in original content over the next two years.

India needs that kind of investment; maybe more. There are more than 150 free-to-air channels offering TV shows (fiction and drama), movies and a lot more. Premium cable and satellite pay TV general entertainment channels at Rs 12 to Rs 19 also don’t cost that much. And they offer entertainment which suits the milieu that they are living in and even meets their aspiration needs. The main Indian broadcasters Zee TV, Sony, Star and Viacom18 have strong streaming services, ZEE5, SonyLIV, Hotstar and VOOT, which not only serve the linear feeds of the GECs but also offer the shows and movies on demand, apart from offering premium digital-only originals. Then there are independent streamers like AltBalaji, MX Player, hoichoi and ShemarooMe, which too have interesting programmes for their viewers.

What bodes well for Netflix is that it has invested in local hires like Monika Shergill, Srishti Behl Arya, Aashish Singh with lots of experience in the local media and the entertainment industry. Earlier, for the first two years, Netflix executives in Los Angeles had oversight over the India office and the content that was being acquired and churned out. The perks of a team familiar with local content is already reflecting in the recent content slate.

Since the end of 2018, the dramatic change in the overall approach has become noticeable. The platform has joined hands with big names of B-Town like Karan Johar, Shah Rukh Khan, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Vikramaditya Motwane. Kashyap’s Sacred Games was the first Indian original series to give the platform prominence in the cluttered market. While Red Chillies Entertainment’s Bard of Blood was critically acclaimed, Dharmatic Production’s Drive received negative feedback. At Indiantelevision.com’s The Content Hub 2020, Netflix’s Aashish Singh said that a number of people watched the film adding that the service does want to create content for every mood of the member and every segment.

The diversity of Indian audience may sound a cliched and over-stated fact but no one can deny the truth. Film-buff Indians can now watch erstwhile star Manisha Koirala in its upcoming original film Maska. The platform has also slated a comedy special original Ladies Up. Mighty Little Bheem will also get a new season soon. To battle with the broadcaster-led platforms like Zee5, Hotstar, Voot, which have legacy content and international rival Amazon Prime Video with its shopping benefits, Netflix must reach into the heartland or Bharat as it is called. Especially when it looks to sign on that humongous 100 million subscribers from the country.

Indians are price-sensitive consumers and it's a well-known fact. As is the fact that India is a mobile-first video consumption market thanks to cheap handsets and almost-free data plans. Last year, Netflix hit both these peculiarities by launching a mobile-only pack for Rs 199 per month as against the Rs 799 for the premium large screen experience. In its latest investor conference call, Netflix chief product officer Greg Peters said that thanks to this, they have been able to add incremental subscribers along with an increase in retention.

The platform is also coming up with more innovative marketing strategies. Over the last year, Netflix India’s social media presence has also started gaining more word of mouth in the vast e-universe of the country. It is also recently testing a Rs 5 plan for the intial month which has again created good chatter. Moreover, it recently added a feature which allows users to make their watchlist decision easier. On the back of the new top 10 feature, Netflix members will notice a newly designed row that will show them what's popular in India.  

One of the major challenges for Netflix is increasing its awareness to beyond tier-I and tier-II cities. More vernacular, localised content may give the platform a fillip in India’s interiors where smart phones work, even if TVs don’t because of frequent power outages. Although competition is bound to rise for the streaming service in India with the entry of Disney+, there’s optimism abounding about Netflix’s Indian journey in the days, months and years ahead. It looks like its story will have a happy ending.

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