India is the world’s second largest mobile phone market. This reflects in the OTT sector’s ability to cater to individual content-thirst, and not just of families or communities, as two generations of Indians grew up with TV and satellite TV. In India, subscription-driven services are popular in tier 1 and 2 locations. A lot of premium content is in front of the paywall. India has over 60 OTT providers, and is one of the largest language-diverse markets, posing an opportunity for OTT providers. The challenges include catering to consumers’ diverse genre-tastes and collaborating through content and programming partnerships, including bundled offerings with data providers.

Over-the-top (OTT) media service industry maintained its growth trajectory in India during 2021, thanks to continued lockdowns across various geographies, work from home, ‘WTF is happening’ emotion, OTT brands investing in original content, and experimenting with genres and differentiated pricing models. Brands such as Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, ZEE5, and SonyLIV saw increase in subscription numbers and business growth. Netflix in its own admission recently, seems to be pondering.

Net-Net, it’s Netflix

Netflix is not just a brand, it's synonymous with OTT. Just as Xerox is with photocopying. Netflix stands for entertainment, and hopefully they remember that ‘purpose’ in their business. Last week, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings said in an investors' call that the ‘lack of success in India is frustrating’, but the company ‘is leaning in there’.

The analysts estimate that Netflix has just around 4 million subscribers in India, while its competitor Amazon Prime Video is supposed to have over 17 million subscribers, and Disney+ Hotstar around 46 million. One cannot complain about Netflix not investing well on local content. However, its international content seems to be better received than the local. So the question that needs introspection is ‘how is the content curated?’

Some of its local content has generated public criticism that they are politically motivated or that they attack the local culture. Any public policy expert worth their fees would jump into quick action in addressing such perception gaps. Probably multi-tiered approvals needed for anything that revolves around communication, criticism, public policy and PR of OTT brands headquartered away from India, could be stifling their response time, and at times, even the quality of response.

West India Company?

Consumer is king. Well, to be relevant and to deliver engaging content to such princely individuals, don’t you need a team that is humble enough to listen and to observe the cohort? Ask the content producers who deal with OTT players. You will hear about egos, vanities, greed, ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude that bruises the creative juices and sours the process. As a smart alec said, “are they the new West India Company?”

To add insult to the injury, the ability to curate newer creative ideas and content by working with newer talent seems half-hearted or missing. Is it the star-obsession of working with only select few? In the cut-throat world of Bollywood, family lineage and bonded circles are famous. While it may be called as nepotism or shrugged off with resigned-acceptance as ‘Bollywood formula’, in the current digital-India and the digitally younger audience, it simply cuts no ice.

The OTT brands have to understand if they want to create content for the newer India, then moving away from lazy dealmaking of working with only old-boys network is a need. Curiously it’s like their own ‘caste-n-casting’ hierarchy at play.

The content industry folks share anecdotes that show OTT teams in poor light: how they are not clear what’s needed, how project timelines are vague and how reaching out to content heads is tougher than reaching the top bureaucrats in the country, and that only preferred partners are allowed to interact with the creative teams on the other side. This is not just limited to one OTT, but seen in varying degree of intensity across brands. What is now a supply-chain-trust issue can well blow into ‘poverty of content’, if not rectified.

Youth is hard-nosed business

Indian demographics has over 65% population under 35 years of age. This gives heft to their “influence” on societal behaviour, social media narratives, policy framework and even polity. Much of this ‘consumption influencers’ use their computing and/or mobile devices to consume content, are aware of global trends, and are familiar with the global shows in languages that they were not even aware of! This young cohort may not necessarily relate to content being made by directors or production houses which created hit content in the 1990s, when it was not even thought-of, let alone born!

The young audience are mobile-first, and are tuned into social media, e-commerce and gaming. Nearly two-third of them are estimated to be subscribers to more than one OTT platform. The Indian market offers opportunity for vernacular content providers as the screen-time that subscribers spend on such content is forecast to overtake the current Hindi or English content in the next 2-3 years.

What is an OTT business? Is it just about content? Is it all about entertainment? Should it provide information as well? What about gaming? Should it also educate? Or is it that the consumers simply want their OTT platform to provide an escape to a newer reality? And simply cater relevant content to their different moods, at varying points in time.

For this, OTTs need to get real and have a culture of listening and observing. Observing societal voices and their depictions. And broad-base content creation, without bias to who is producing those. Lazy-production might give lazier business outcomes.

Demographic investments into appropriate content and democratisation of content generation by wider producers have to be made in order to benefit from demographic dividends — power of youth, their OTT needs and their spending power. For a generation that grew up with Khan and Kant, the newer gen is looking for content for their every mood!

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