As more users from smalltown India switch on OTT platforms, platforms like ALTBalaji are destined to benefit in the future. “Audiences that hadn’t discovered OTT viewing are coming on to these platforms, especially from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities,” Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO, ALTBalaji and Group COO, Balaji Telefilms, tells indianexpress.com over a phone call. “I think the lack of other entertainment options necessitated that they explore these [OTT platforms], so we’re getting a lot of first time sampling.”
Pantvaidya says this inflow of users from smaller towns has dramatically increased during the pandemic. “Before the pandemic started, about 70 per cent of our audiences would come from the top eight cities of India, said Pantvaidya. But in April, he added, that split has moved to 40-60, with 60 per cent of users coming from outside the top eight cities.
Shows like Who’s Your Daddy, Kehne Ko Humsafar Hai, and Dev DD are extremely popular shows in tier-2 and tier-3 towns, whereas Mentalhood, a new show starring Bollywood actor Karishma Kapoor, is popular in the metros and tier-1 cities.
‘70% increase in subscribers during the lockdown’
Stuck at home and with TV channels running out of fresh content, more Indians are discovering OTT streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Videos, and ALTBalaji. “There have been some television series that has been picking up but largely the entertainment quotient is revolving around platforms that are sold on the internet,” he said.
ALTBalaji has seen nearly 150 per cent rise in the consumption time of each subscriber in the month of April. In fact, the streaming OTT platform is adding around 10,000 to 17,000 users per day that translates to a 70 per cent increase. The OTT platform has over 1.7 million active direct subscribers and roughly 8.5 million monthly active users.
‘Every OTT platform offers Adult content’
On the criticism that ALTBalaji is pushing a lot of risque content, Pantvaidya claimed his platform has been particularly targeted because it makes local content for the Hindi language audience. “If you look at any OTT platform today that offer shows that you would watch it for yourself, there are scenes of frontal nudity. We don’t do all of that. I think it’s just because we are an app that makes local content that people are deriding us,” he explains. Pantvaidya doesn’t think the word “Adult” is a taboo anymore and anyone with above 18 years of age can watch those content on its app.
“ALTBalaji is a paid service and we don’t run advertisements. So by the virtue of being a paid service, only people who are 18 plus can watch the app. In a way, that is the straight disclaimer. We started the service with a kid section, which we have now completely disabled in the last year. But there are lots of other apps which will have a kids section sitting with adult content,” he added.
While the OTT platform does offer shows like Gandii Baat: Urban Stories from Rural India, Pantvaidya believes that those shows form a small base of the overall lineup of content being available on the AltBalaji app. “There aren’t many episodes of Gandii Baat,” he said, adding that a lot of viewership actually comes from shows like Apharan, Dev DD, Mentalhood, and The Test Case. “Gandii Baat was viewed as a title with a little tongue-in-cheek manner and people get attracted, but our viewership is even across a lot of our shows. This was a title that got everybody sitting up and taking notice, but Gandii Baat forms a smallish base,” he said.
‘80 per cent of our viewing happens on smartphones’
One of the trends that have become crucial to the mass adoption of OTT platforms in India is the rise of smartphones. Consumption of web shows is primarily happening on smartphones, a medium was once seen as the ‘second’ screen to the TV.
“Our whole programming strategy is around individual viewing. Individual viewing can only happen on smartphones…it’s difficult to view individually in a mass Indian household on television. Therefore, our content is selected on smartphones and 80 to 82 per cent of our viewing happens on mobile phones,” he said.
Given how important the app is to the whole watching experience, Pantvaidya says the aim is to make an easy and simple to use user interface. “We want to create a basic service that works for mass India… we don’t want to make the app complicated. We’ve moved from a seven to eight click pay process now to three to four clicks.”
‘Plans to push into regional content in 2021’
Pantvaidya says ALTBalaji is currently focused on producing original series content in the Hindi language. At the moment, 95 per cent of its shows are in Hindi with only three regional shows available on the platform. That said, ALTBalaji does have plans to add more regional content in the future.
“Our feedback from our consumers was that unless you put a sufficient library of regional shows, they’re not attracting their attention,” he said. “We’re planning on a major thrust into the South Indian languages, probably Tamil or Telugu in early 2021. But our strategy then would be to at least launch with about 16 to 20 shows and build that up to a large pack.” He added that regional users will lose interest if we get just one or two shows and call themselves a regional player.
‘Massy thrillers, stories set in rural India to be central themes’
Pantvaidya is clear how he wants to pitch ALTBalaji and what kinds of shows will attract users to pay Rs 300 a year for the service. Pantvaidya has settled on two to three themes that will be prevalent across the content lineup, targeting male and female audiences.
One of the themes that ALTBalaji is focusing on is massy thrillers. Shows like Apharan and Fixer seem to have resonated with male audiences. “There isn’t too much storytelling for men on television, especially for the masses and we cater to that too,” he said.
Another recurring theme that the platform currently focuses on is either comedies or stories set in rural India with different physical relationships between men and women like Gandii Baat and XXX.
ALTBalaji is also focusing on shows keeping female audiences in mind. For instance, in a show like Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain starring Mona Singh, Gurdeep Kohli, and Ronit Roy, the story revolves around how the other woman who breaks a marriage is accepted by the first wife of the husband. Then, there are shows like The Test Case, which stars Nimrat Kaur as an army officer who wants to become the first woman to become a commando.
According to Pantvaidya, ALTBalaji will continue to focus on creating linear shows. The platform is not getting into sports or movie premieres or buying them as original exclusive as other OTT platforms. ALTBalaji, the digital platform of Balaji Telefilms, has more than 60 original shows on the app.
‘Acquisition of acquiring customers is rationalised’
Pantvaidya, who previously worked in senior leadership across Star TV, Disney and BBC before joining Balaji Telefilms in 2015, believes all the major OTT players have realised that their “economic” success lies in mass India. Whether it is Netflix, Amazon, or Disney, all these streaming players are heavily focused on acquiring local shows and movies with an increasing focus on India. Streaming giant Netflix is committed to invest around $400 million on Indian content. “Acquisition of customers seems to be rationalising,” Pantvaidya says. OTT players want to understand what the price points are for acquiring a consumer,” he adds, “our acquisition costs are between Rs 80 to Rs 100 per subscriber.”
Price wars in the OTT space are also ramping up. Netflix surprised many when the company launched its mobile-only subscription plan in India at Rs 199 per month last year. “We are priced at Rs 300 a year and we believe that we are going to be priced at less than a rupee a day and that is the sweet spot for us.”
‘ALTBalaji won’t run out of new content during pandemic’
With the production of new shows affected, Pantvaidya says they have “roughly nine to ten shows in various stages of pre-production and production”. “If the pandemic eased up by June-end, starting mid-July we will be able to put out two shows a month on our service at the minimum. In June, we are launching a new show and we have a bit of stock.”
‘Retaining new subscribers is priority’
Now that ALTBalaji has gained a new set of users during the pandemic. The next move for the streaming platform is to retain those new customers. “What we wanted to do in the next two years is to try and at least go 50-60 per cent more on our volume out in terms of content.” According to Pantvaidya, the company plans to churn out 36 shows on its platform, a jump from 24.
The plan is also to launch multiple seasons of existing shows. This way the cost of consumer acquisition will come down. At the same time, Pantvaidya promises subscribers to expect longer running shows. Instead of 10 to 16 episodes per show, there will be 30 to 35 episodes per show.
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