* What happens when a ghost walks into your house and tries to scare you? You could cower or tie it up. That is what Aavi, a horror-comedy drama on Malayalam OTT, Koode, is about.
* A gifted child plonked into the world of cards and gambling is the story of Scam 1992.
* A group of passionate, young boxers is leading dream lives, till one day things go wrong in Illegal, a well-produced Assamese drama on Niri9.
* A celebrated crime novelist with Alzheimer’s is found at a murder scene with no memory of what happened. His daughter has to unravel the truth in November Story (Tamil) streaming now on Disney+Hotstar.
The Tamannaah Bhatia starrer got a phenomenal rating of 8 on IMDB.
Olly Plus in Odia, Aha (Telugu), Stage (Haryanvi), Hoichoi (Bengali), Planet Marathi – you name a major Indian language and there’s an OTT for it. And every large OTT – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video
– is busy commissioning shows in the many languages India speaks.
As the market for watching drama and series online booms, all of India’s diversity is getting play with more than 60 OTTs jostling for space. “Proliferation (of languages) will happen,” says Vishnu Mohta, executive director SVF and co-founder Hoichoi. The number of unique visitors to OTTs rose from 277 million in 2018 to over 454 million in February 2021, going by Comscore India data. This led to a doubling of revenues (advertising and subscription) from Rs 5,500 crore to Rs 10,700 crore over the same period, according to Media Partners Asia. The biggest surprise? Subscribers rose from 12 million to 58 million.
That is the first thing about the rise of language OTT: It is driven by a mix of demand, supply and good timing.
Radhakrishnan Ramachandran, founder and CEO of Studio Mojo, has, among other things, handled YouTube channels for major broadcasters and even launched an OTT, iStream, in 2011. The much-before-its-time iStream shut down in 2013. “Two years back we decided to get back to the OTT space. We were pitching concepts in Malayalam to platforms but unfortunately the language was not on anyone’s radar. Lot of creators were unhappy about not getting access to a platform. So we identified some and are now working with them,” says Ramachandran on why he set up Koode late in 2020.
Many of the large OTTs such as YouTube and Amazon Prime Video
offer shows and films in Indian languages
other than Hindi. But the depth and width in dialects, issues, genres, possible on a one-language OTT like, say, Hoichoi or Aha may not be possible on the larger brands trying to capture as large an audience as possible.
“The original plan was to do Aha in all four South Indian languages.
But when the investment is spread over four languages, 10 shows per language (over a month) would mean nothing. It would give only 4-6 hours a day. So we said let’s make all the investment in one language,” says Ajit Thakur, CEO, Aha. The service, launched in February 2020, offers only Telugu shows. Its focus is every part of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and not just Hyderabad, says Thakur. This brings a depth to the content that larger services simply cannot match.
“The reason you watch Danish or Icelandic shows is because of its nativity. If we do a show based on Kanyakumari, it will be really based in Kanyakumari. It will be relevant to the soil, the dialect. The Tirunelveli dialect is different from the Chennai dialect and from others in Tamil Nadu. It is this authenticity that makes it (different language offerings) sustainable,” thinks B Srinivasan, managing director, Ananda Vikatan Group.
Vikatan has been making hit shows like November Story.
That is the second point about the growth of language OTT: Its trajectory is similar to broadcast television in the 1990s. The initial move to offer regional content came from local entrepreneurs like Kalanithi Maran who set up Sun TV in 1993 or Ramoji Rao who started Eenadu TV in 1995. It is later that Zee, Star or Viacom18 came into the game. Many grew by acquiring what the first round of entrepreneurs had built. For instance, Star acquired Asianet in 2008 and Maa in 2015 to build its non-Hindi business.
Similarly, in OTT, most of the large broadcasters who have their own brands (Zee5 from Zee or Voot from Viacom18) were busy consolidating the Hindi offering. But the launch of so many standalone OTTs has pushed many to up their game.
This brings in the third point about language OTTs. It took all of three weeks to get Koode up and running, says Subhashish Gupta, managing director of sales, India, for Brightcove, a streaming solutions firm. An end-to-end platform could take 3-4 months. The costs could range from $50,000 to $1 million, depending on a host of variables – is it a subscription-based or free service et al. “The figure rises with bandwidth, storage and transcoding,” says Gupta.
A television channel – whether from an existing broadcaster or a new one -- could take anywhere from 6 to 18 months. It needs transponders on a satellite, multiple permissions and acceptance from cable and DTH operators. An OTT needs none of that, making for almost no entry barriers. This also partially explains the rush to meet the demand.
“Given the number of languages India has, the option for one language OTT always exists. The questions are around long-term economics and the evolution of the local content ecosystem to support that growth,” thinks Vijay Subramaniam, director and head content, Amazon Prime Video, which offers eight Indian languages
and is an aggressive bidder for language content and films. He is right. Many of the large broadcasters have trouble sourcing shows in, say, Odia or Punjabi because there isn’t a robust enough production ecosystem like there is for, say, Tamil or Hindi. As OTTs rush in, the squeeze will only get tighter till the creative ecosystem develops.
The audience numbers for most language OTTs are small as of now; none figures in any top 10 list. That is a matter of time, say analysts. India has over 800 channels. However, Broadcast Audience Research Council data shows that Sun TV, a Tamil entertainment
channel, has been the most watched in India for several years now. This is across languages, genres and states.
That is the power of Indian languages.
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