At the recently concluded FICCI Frames 2019, head honchos of broadcasting companies such as TV18 and Star and their counterparts from OTT firms such as ZEE5 and Vuclip debated whether the increasing presence of the mobile screen in addition to television is disruptive or addictive. They also discussed whether broadcasting companies could co-exist with video-on-demand (VOD) companies.

Without much nudging from the moderator and media industry veteran Sunil Lulla, group chief executive of Balaji Telefilms, which dabbles both in broadcast and OTT platforms, the discussion quickly turned out to be one discussing the survival of broadcasting after being under fire from OTT players such as Netflix and Amazon Prime and their video-on-demand service through subscription.

When data prices dropped after Reliance launched Jio, Indian brands such as Star TV, ALT-Balaji and ZEE5 which launched similar services prospered. This put pressure on existing businesses like broadcast television, cable, and satellite distribution networks, causing their valuations to plummet. Till year ago, questions about the survival of the broadcast TV business outnumbered answers.

A lot seems to have changed since. Players such as Jio, which is currently a conduit for viewing TV channels on mobile screens, ran high on viewership. And analysis shows a lot of traditional TV content is being watched on mobile screens while OTT content is being beamed regularly to TV screens at home.

The panellists included Zulfiqar Khan, managing director of HOOQ—Asia’s first VOD services which has Sony and Warner as its investors; Gaurav Banerjee, head of Hindi GEC, Star India; Abhishek Nag, director, Netflix; Tarun Katial, CEO of ZEE5; Avinash Kaul, COO of Network18; media veteran Raj Nayak; and Vishal Maheshwari, country head of Vuclip, an emerging VOD player.

ZEE5’s Katial said that monetisation was the key, whether it’s TV or OTT. He argued that the new distinction may well be linear vs. linear TV. Linear TV is viewers watching content as per a set schedule, as they currently do on broadcast TV as against viewing content at their own convenience in OTT or VOD services. From his experience in ZEE5, Katial says that in OTT platforms, TV type of content gets consumed heavily. Says Katial: “We can no longer differentiate between broadcasters and OTT on the basis of content.”

It was also pointed out that events like IPL 2018 aggregated audiences on OTT as well as TV. Says Star’s Banerjee: The belief that it is the shorter formats that work the best for digital has been proven wrong. 10-year old shows have got a lot of viewership in Hotstar and our data is throwing surprising results.”

Raj Nayak, who bought Viacom18’s popular GEC Colors to life, said that there is no such thing as TV content and digital content. He argued that if the popular Netflix series “Sacred Games” plays on Colors Infinity it becomes TV content. He seemed to agree with Katial saying that looking at the debate as linear Vs non-linear can perhaps bring a distinction in content.

One of the factors that have helped Indian broadcasters to shore up their clout seems to be their alacrity in launching their own OTT businesses. Even as Netflix and Hulu were making strong inroads into homes in the U.S., there was only a muted response from broadcasters there. In India, Star India was among the first to make a bold investment in its OTT channel Hotstar, which set the ball rolling in the industry.

Hotstar’s success in viewership (it still is mired in losses) set other players like Balaji and Zee to experiment with their OTT channels. Today, Indian broadcasters have a fair play in India’s OTT space. Says Vishal Maheshwari, Vuclip’s country head: “India is the only country where broadcaster have organised their OTT business well.”

Maheshwari adds that the television, as we know it, will go away and eventually it will just be a device or a platform to consume content. He feels that broadcasting business will change not because of content but because of advertising. “Advertisers will advertise on content and not on television and that’s when a tectonic change will happen.”

On a cautionary note, when it comes to advertising, Nayak said that digital players have devalued their product and he feels that ad money will get even more fragmented. Says Nayak: “In OTT, the number of players will shrink by 2022 as there will be no more than 10 players left. That is when the real value will be unlocked whether it is subscription and advertising.”

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