Now streaming: the subscription video gamble

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New Delhi | Updated: May 29, 2018 3:46:13 PM

With the launch of international OTT players in India, the country has warmed up to the concept of paying for content. But what will it take to sustain the growth?

otp, star indiaStar India’s defunct digital sports platform and Sony’s LIV Sports were among the first ones to charge consumers to access live sports on the go and mark the beginning of SVoD (subscription video-on-demand) in India in 2014.

Digital subscription revenue in India has grown by 50%, taking it to Rs 390 crore in 2017 from Rs 260 crore in 2016, as per an EY report, and this could increase to Rs 2,000 crore by 2020. Video is a big factor in driving this in India; 250 million users streamed video online in 2017 and about 500 million users will be streaming by 2020, as per the report.

When Netflix launched in India in January, 2016, there was apprehension; will India, a market used to paying as less as Rs 150 for over 500 TV channels, pay a premium to access content on apps or web?

“I would say India is still far away from where it should be. We are still addicted to the free model as a country,” opines Jehil Thakkar, partner, Deloitte India. “While subscription numbers have been rising, there are over 30 OTT players competing against each other, and the number of free or AVoD (ad-supported video-on-demand) platforms, even though some of them have subscription plans, inhibit the paid model.”

A bird’s eye view

Star India’s defunct digital sports platform and Sony’s LIV Sports were among the first ones to charge consumers to access live sports on the go and mark the beginning of SVoD (subscription video-on-demand) in India in 2014. Both eventually shut their premium operations; Star launched Hotstar in February, 2015 and Liv Sports merged with Sony LIV. SVoD as a model got rejuvenated again in India after Netflix’s launch in the country.

“We have witnessed a huge appetite for entertainment and plenty of fan enthusiasm. We have focussed primarily on content, partnerships and technology,” says a Netflix Asia spokesperson.

Indians are among the top mobile downloaders in the world for Netflix content; the Reed Hastings-led platform calls ‘download a big hit’ in India. “India is clearly a nation of commute streamers, with Netflix members kicking off their binge while on the road. According to our survey, Indians are the second-highest public bingers in the world (88%), just behind Mexico (89%),” says the spokesperson.

Netflix in India was soon followed by Seattle based e-commerce behemoth Amazon’s VoD platform, Prime Video (in December, 2016). Star India’s Hotstar too introduced a paywall for marquee properties like Game of Thrones, India Cricket, Premier League Football and F1 race. In 2017, Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms launched ALTBalaji with a wide portfolio of original content. “Our observation so far is, if the consumer is given good quality content, they will pay for it. We have more than 1.5 million paying subscribers,” says Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO ALTBalaji and group COO, Balaji Telefilms.

The SVoD phenomenon has penetrated to regional markets as well. Bengali film production and distribution company Shree Venkatesh Films (SVF) launched a Bangla VoD platform Hoichoi in September, 2017. “To our surprise, 60% of the streaming happens on laptops and computers while we all thought it would be mobile first,” says Vishnu Mohta, co-founder, Hoichoi. About 55% of its viewers are returning subscribers while 45% are new users.

On an average a viewer spends about 35 minutes per session on the platform. While Kolkata is the top city for Hoichoi, surprisingly Bengaluru and Delhi trump other West Bengal cities, indicating that Bengalis living away from their home state also find such platforms useful.

The big bucks

Fruits aren’t borne without labour though; there needs to be a constant investment on exclusive and original content to drive subscriptions, and at some point, there ought to be consolidation. “Currently, there are 30-40 players. What content one player is charging for now, is being offered after a gap by another for free,” observes Thakkar. “So we see Indians paying for a month and going away or waiting for the content to be available for free.”

While Netflix was one of the first SVoD platforms to enter the market, Prime Video was the first one to roll out ‘India Originals’, with cricket based thriller, Inside Edge (which sources claim Amazon spent Rs10 crore on) followed by titles like Breathe and The Remix under the Prime Originals umbrella. ALTBalaji too spent top dollars to produce premium originals, Bose: Dead/Alive, a Rs 13 crore project (excluding actor Rajkummar Rao’s fee). Meanwhile Netflix has announced the release of Sacred Games (July 6, 2018), the platform’s first Indian Original series.

It can be noted here that SVoD platforms allow for innovation with different formats as opposed to AVoD as the subscriber, having paid up, is already locked in with the platform and content creators aren’t under the pressure of creating immediate impact. It is no surprise then that platforms are also making digital first movies. Eros Now recently released Meri Nimmo, while Hoichoi too is creating original movies, launching two originals every month apart from short films.

Segmentation is key for SVoD to grow in India, similar to what happened with television. “Then someone will pay for sports, while another will pay for a thriller. In the end, people will pay for something or the other,” Thakkar sums up.

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