‘We’re a company of technologists and storytellers’: Disney+ Hotstar's Content Head Gaurav Banerjee

‘We’re a company of technologists and storytellers’: Disney+ Hotstar's Content Head Gaurav Banerjee

Banerjee speaks about traversing the TV and digital creative ecosystems at VidNet 2022.

Gaurav Banerjee

Mumbai: Gaurav Banerjee has successfully straddled the realms of television and digital to deliver the most popular content in India. He runs Star India’s content studio that has delivered nine out of the top 15 web series and six out of the top 10 Hindi TV shows in the country. On the TV side, he’s responsible for popular shows such as Diya Aur Baati Hum, Sasural Genda Phool and on the digital side he’s responsible for hits such as Aarya and Special Ops amongst others.

He began his career at Star TV Network as a primetime anchor and senior producer at Star News. He launched the Bengali news channel of the group Star Ananda in 2005 and later moved to lead the content strategy of the network’s regional entertainment channels in 2008. Banerjee was responsible for expanding the network’s reach in two key markets West Bengal and Maharashtra with the channels Star Jalsha and Star Pravah, respectively. In 2009, he led the content strategy for the Hindi entertainment channel Star Plus as general manager. He propelled Star Plus into a leading brand with hit shows like Yeh Hai Mohabattein and Mahabharata. In 2015-16, he took charge of Star India’s content studio and refreshed the storytelling approach for Star Plus and Star Bharat.

Transforming India's Content Landscape

Banerjee is a man on a mission to transform India’s content landscape. He is leading Disney+ Hotstar’s foray into original content and has produced several Hotstar Specials that appeal to the unique tastes of digital audiences. While media executives are accustomed to treating television and digital as disparate creative ecosystems, Banerjee’s view is that good content can find its audience on any medium.

Disney Star head content for HSM entertainment network and Disney+ Hotstar Gaurav Banerjee joined The Adaptation Company creative entrepreneur specialist and producer Sunil Doshi for a candid fireside chat at an event held recently in Mumbai. He spoke about driving the storytelling agenda at Star India, the advantage of being a legacy media company, producing innovative content for Disney+ Hotstar and helming Star India’s writers’ program.

Edited Excerpts...

Sunil Doshi: The traditional wisdom says that creating stories for television medium and creating stories for OTT medium are two different things. How have you successfully straddled both these words making Disney+ Hotstar a leader with enviable subscriptions?

Gaurav Banerjee: We’ve always thought of ourselves as a storytelling and content company. When we're looking at a script, we want to understand three simple things. First, how is the story going to be fresh to us and our viewers as well? Second, whether it might be relevant to our audience. Third, who is the storyteller and why is he/she excited to tell this story.

We’ve always approached our scripts essentially using this process. We don’t think too much about distribution in the beginning phase because linear television and streaming are just different ways of distributing content. We’re comfortable with the idea that consumers can choose what technology or distribution platform works for them best. There may be format related choices depending on the media (some formats sit better on TV while others sit better on digital) but those are second order questions.

Fundamentally, Star has a rich tradition of storytelling that goes back two decades. When we entered digital, we wanted to be native to the digital world and so, we expanded the brief of what we were as a company. Today, we’re a company of technologists and storytellers. The journey we have traversed has taken us from being a company with a consumer and storyteller mindset to a company that understood the product, technology, engineering and storytelling.

Sunil Doshi: The economic models of streaming are changing. There is global inflation and war in Ukraine. There are streaming platforms that are gaining subscribers and others that are losing subscribers. Amidst all of this do you see Disney+ Hotstar as a technology company or a creative company?

Gaurav Banerjee: I think Disney+ Hotstar is both. We see ourselves as a content platform that is always thinking about how to create technology that is intuitive for our viewers in India today. As we were building this platform eight years ago, we realised to achieve the scale we needed to reside on mobile phones. This was different from what was happening in the West where streaming was happening on connected TVs in people’s homes. The fact that we were mobile-first meant that our technology needed to be different.

We were a legacy media company thinking about streaming. There were two advantages to this. First, we knew India’s consumers because we were the biggest broadcaster in the country and second, we understood storytelling having done it for two decades. The fundamentals we arrived at to be a platform that had scale were three things. First, we needed to have a big presence in live sports. Second, we needed to have a big presence in the movie business. Third, we needed to have a really big presence in drama.

From day one, our content portfolio has tried to traverse and build on these three pillars. I’ve been in TV for 22 years now and these are the big pillars of Indian television. These three pillars take care of most of the entertainment needs of consumers.

Sunil Doshi: You’ve dealt with technology. Now, you’ve done some exciting content innovations at Disney+ Hotstar where traditional TV content is feeding streaming content. What is your creative team doing to spot such opportunities?

Gaurav Banerjee: Star is an interesting company with a great culture. While in some ways we’ve been leaders of entertainment in this country, we’ve always thought of ourselves as challenges.

When we entered the digital space, we felt that there was a bias working against us. We were this legacy media company that has entered the streaming space and was not accustomed to the industry jargon or ways of working. We didn’t create this ecosystem or arrive here first. But we asked some fundamental questions and reimagined this world.

The first decision we took was that streaming is something that can and should happen at scale. Therefore, the kind of content that is made for streaming should be high quality but cater to all audiences and not some niche.

We took two strategic decisions, first, we decided to put our best content on streaming platforms. So, our linear TV content is first available on Disney+ Hotstar for paying subscribers. We observed that a lot of fans of the show will catch up on the latest episode during the day without waiting for it to be telecast at 10 pm on Star Plus.

In a traditional setup, if we had taken such a decision, I would be worried because I’m doing something that’s threatening the ratings and viewership of the TV show. However, we changed the way we incentivized creative teams to focus on building a great show and not where consumers are supposed to watch it.

There was a real feeling that TV shows, TV producers, and TV actors are in some way not good enough for digital. As someone who’s coming from a television background, we were clear that we were not going to participate and fuel this bias against TV content in any way.

That’s why I’m incredibly proud of our Anupama prequel that’s streaming on Disney+ Hotstar called Namaste America. The show reveals when the first cracks appeared in Anupama’s marriage before the events in the TV series transpired. Another popular franchise Bigg Boss was doing well for our regional channels in Telugu and Tamil. Here, we felt a digital-only version with Stars like Kamal Haasan and Nagarjuna would work and both those seasons have done well. There are franchises such as “Special Ops” where we did a spin-off series that was just four episodes which worked on digital. We’re open to more experiments on OTT like Namaste India, Bigg Boss and Dance+.

Sunil Doshi: I consider Star television as a thought leader as they have created so many iconic IPs. In the near absence of TV schools and film schools in our country, where is the new talent that is going to fuel creativity on digital and television going to come from?

Gaurav Banerjee: We look at ourselves as an IP creation company. If we keep creating high-quality IP and continue to capture the imagination of audiences then monetisation will follow. That also means that we’re in the business of finding the best creative people, the best creative ideas and jostling with them in a healthy environment. The writing and creative community deserve our empathy because as an executive I’m looking at several scripts every day but they’re working on 1-3 stories and putting pen and ink to paper. We need to be conscious that we’re doing a good job of finding the best creative talent and treating them with empathy.

When I was a student, I wanted to get into the creative business and understand how to make a TV show or film. This was in the year 1998 and after coming out of college I discovered there were only two places in India of any repute where you could learn to become a filmmaker or TV producer. One of them admitted 15 people and the other admitted 18 people. There were just 33 seats and I hoped to get one of those 33 seats. The luck of the draw.

I got lucky but I realised this is a small number for an industry that is so big. For several years, I struggled to find new writers to bring to television. The belief we had as broadcasters is that there is a market need and so someone will come and build these institutions to feed this market. But nobody came. I urged both the institutions known for TV and filmmaking to start a course that teaches students how to write TV series. But that did not happen. How is the industry going to get better if no one is going to share knowledge, best practices and learn from each other?

Star India put together a budget, teachers and a syllabus and a website to launch the program. We hired people and essentially, I asked all my writer friends in the industry to come to take classes and get the program going. We hired someone to put together a syllabus as this was a specialised program. I don’t know how many other companies are there where you can go to the CFO and say we’re spending a few X crores and there’s going to be no monetary return at the end of it. With a new show, you can get some revenue but with the writer's program, no money is immediately going to come. It was just something to set up these budding writers and hopefully, if they become good writers, they might write something for us in three to four years but not necessarily.

The great thing about our company and my pitch was that as long as the industry improves and there’s great writing then it is understood that we will also improve. That’s how we created the Star writers’ program and we had about 35-40 writers on our payroll over the last three to four years. While it undoubtedly has had its share of problems, it is also something that we’re very proud of.