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Amazon, SonyLiv, MX Player, AltBalaji and Zee5 on what’s next for OTT in India

With the pandemic leading to lots of pivoting in business models and content strategies, we catch up with some of India’s leading OTT players to find out how they fared in 2020, and ask what they’re planning next.

As part of The Drum’s deep dive into the future of TV, we take a look at the viewership trends that have emerged in India – one of the most populous markets of the world and home to a thriving entertainment industry.

2020 was a landmark year for streaming services in India. As audiences became acclimatized to the ideas of working from home and social distancing, there was significant growth in the watch-time and OTT consumption. But as well as being a year of opportunities, it was a year of challenges, with the lockdown causing production disruption. And yet most players are gung-ho over the growth potential for OTT in the country. Their excitement is backed by demand for high quality, cinematic value local original content, as well as increasing disposable incomes and a growing base of discerning customers looking for a world-class experience. So, what’s in store?

Amazon Prime Video

How did it fare in 2020?

In 2020, as customers looked for high-quality entertainment from the safety and comfort of their homes and got increasingly hooked on streaming video platforms, this leading global player scooped up the rights to and launched 20 direct-to-digital movies across five Indian languages, plus 8 Indian Amazon Original Series. While it meant a fair bit of money spent in acquisition and marketing, Gaurav Gandhi, Amazon Prime Video India’s director and country general manager, says “it has helped the brand overall with a strong growth in viewership and memberships”.

With programming in 10 regional languages, it caters to the entertainment choices of the country’s diverse customer base. According to Gandhi, its viewership in India ”goes deep and wide to over 4,300 towns and cities, with Prime Video truly emerging as a service of choice for entertainment for both customers and creators”.

So, what’s next?

Gandhi makes an interesting point about the unique journey of the Indian audience subset. “In India, it is more often about ‘and’ and not ‘or’. There is growth in both living room viewing and on mobile devices. There is viewership growth and increased demand for both local content and global shows and movies, as well as increasing popularity of shows and movies outside of native languages, watched with dubs or subtitles.”

As much as customers want personalized and individual preferences (which it enables through profiles on its services), he says they also love shared experiences, including features like the Prime Video Watch Party, ”all of which makes India one of the most exciting streaming markets in the world”.

SonyLiv

How did it fare in 2020?

SonyLiv has been around for some years in India, but in June 2020 the brand went in for a refresh, launching a new UI/UX interface and a fresh focus on building subscription-led business. Danish Khan, the executive vice-president and business head for Sony Entertainment Television and Sony Liv, says: “The idea was to cater to the video streaming demands of Indian viewers and offer them a quality product comprising a mix of regional, international and original content.”

The company’s existing international tie-ups with SPE Films, Lionsgate and iTV gives its subscribers exclusive access to global shows as well as popular sporting events (premium cricket, best in class live football, WWE, Australian Open, UFC etc).

Interestingly, among its Indian original content, flagship show Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta story went on to become one of the most-watched show in Indian OTT with an IMBD rating of 9.4 – the highest for any Indian show so far and among the top 10 rated show globally.

“Currently at 5.5 million subscribers, SonyLiv continues to bring, what we call ‘cerebral entertainment’ to our users”, says Khan.

So, what’s next?

Content consumption on the digital platform will see exponential growth in India, backed by two distinct drivers, says Khan. “These are a demand for high-quality Indian language content for a growing affluent Indian family across the globe and the emergence of social media and e-commerce platforms as ultimate advertising powered content destinations.”

MX Player

How did it fare in 2020?

Claiming to be one of the largest Indian OTT players with over 200 million daily active users, MX has pitched its offering of original and licensed content to a large base of users who are not core TV watchers. For Karan Bedi, the chief executive officer at MX Player, “TV content is limited to a specific audience in India, some of whom consume that same catch-up content on OTT. But a huge new audience that did not consume TV content now consumes on OTT.”

We saw this play out in the lockdowns last year when a large new set of audiences watched OTT content, he says. The OTT platform has a content mix in many localities, with a mass user base spread across the country.

So, what’s next?

Current estimates pitch the total OTT audience in India to be between 300 million and 350 million, and Bedi expects this to increase over the next few years to somewhere between 700 million and 800 million. This surge, he says, will lead to huge innovation in content – in formats, genres, audience segments etc.

As the audience grows, technology will play a huge role in being able to target audiences with the content that they want to watch, he says, which is a big difference from the linear world.

AltBalaji

How did it fare in 2020?

Pitched as a mainstream channel for the mass audience, Indian player AltBalaji has had a good run. “Indian originals – which have been our focus – have picked up pace in the past year as audiences are on the lookout for local relatable content and are spending more time online”, says Divya Dixit, its senior vice-president of marketing and revenue. ”Our strategy is to focus on creating Hindi originals, so we create locally relevant content offerings that include disruptive content, as well as original series across genres,” he says. The player has worked hard in keeping its UI/UX simple and user-friendly by bringing in voice search, one button click registration and simpler payment modules in retail and digital. It claims to cater to a monthly active user base of over 9 million.

So, what’s next?

Going forward, the brand plans to aggressively focus on the emerging youth from smaller cities, developing new narratives for the target audience 20- to 40-year-olds. “Alt’s content line-up is geared for the Hindi hinterlands, who comprise 59% of the viewership on the app, establishing a clear positioning of being the OTT of the masses,” says Dixit. The brand is also seeing a surge in female viewership in the digital ecosystem.

Zee5

How did it fare in 2020?

Amid all the pivoting conversation, Manish Kalra, the chief business officer of Zee5, chooses to make a counterpoint when asked about the OTT player’s pivoting strategy. “We just did more of what we were doing anyway, but did it with added gusto.” He says Zee5 believes people should have access to new voices, cultures and perspectives. “And with that being the context of the brand, we didn’t really pivot in 2020.“

So, what’s next?

Most OTT players are recognizing that OTT viewership is no longer a metro phenomenon – especially in an ethnically diverse nation like India. At Zee5, the OTT player of one of the largest Indian broadcasters, the viewership comes from every town of India, says Kalra... “And we foresee the next wave of growth to come from tier 2 and tier 3 cities looking for diversity in original content and genres.“

Another interesting trend following on from the pandemic and its ensuing lockdown has been the concept of hybrid movie releases on OTT. This helps filmmakers to cast a wider net and grab more eyeballs for movies of all kinds, especially as the cities grapple with the pandemic and cinema halls remain closed.

From late April until early May, The Drum is taking a deep dive into what’s in store for the small screen as we launch our Future of TV hub.