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Podcast: Content is King — India’s Content Story

Here's a look at India’s content story and how in a crowded room full of jesters and showboats, content will always remain king.

April 26, 2018 / 04:59 PM IST

You may build the world’s best platform and have the most cutting edge technology, and have an interface that is pleasing to the senses in all kinds of ways, but if you are also loading this platform with content that is underwhelming, and content that does not connect, it’s a battle you have lost and a winter of great discontent.

As that wise saying goes, you cannot polish a turd. Content has been and will always be king. And in a country like ours, which is consuming more data than ever, and a data consumption pattern that is only bound to grow, this, more than anything else, is what we need to bear in mind.

And today that is what we will talk about in some detail. India’s Content Story, and how in a crowded room full of jesters and showboats, Content will always remain King.

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According to a study by Akamai Technologies on OTT Consumption Trends, India is the top consumer of online content in the Asia Pacific region, followed by Thailand and the Philippines. The study, which polled participants across Australia, Indonesia, India, Japan, Philippines and Thailand showed that in India, viewers watched 12.3 hours of online content in a week.

On the other hand in Japan, viewers watched the least content online per week at 6.2 hours. The study noted that the Indian (44%) and Thai (45%) audiences showed similar behaviors of watching online content via smartphone. In Japan, 50% of the viewers preferred accessing OTT services via non-mobile devices. Also, to 70% of Indian viewers, video and audio quality is of utmost importance followed by fast start-up time, which accounted to 56%.

Local content providers coming up tops when it comes to OTT portals was another theme that resonated across markets: Hotstar in India, Hooq in Indonesia, Niconico in Japan. The study represents content consumption patterns of 850 million internet users, and an underlying theme of the survey seems to be to turn local to cash in.

“It’s critical for OTT service providers across the region to understand user preferences – especially regional preferences – as viewers increasingly shift to a culture of consuming content on any device, any time, and anywhere” said Vincent Low, Chief Media Strategist & Head of Media Product Marketing APJ at Akamai Technologies.

Omidyar Network recently published a report called the Next Half Billion, or NHB, which spoke of how we spend time – apparently 30% of our time goes in consuming entertainment. Which is far less that the 18% that Americans seem to do. Indians also spend about 42% of their time online on social media, well ahead of Americans who devote about 33% of their time online to social media.

Let’s understand why these numbers are so essential, and so crucial to bear in mind as we usher in the digital age in India. Economic progress and opportunity have created a huge middle class in India over the past two decades, enabled in large part by the power of technology to connect individuals to information, education, financial and government services, and each other.

This largely urban population has seen its income and opportunities increase dramatically as a result. Having said that, as the second most populous nation in the world, India still has hundreds of millions of people, from both urban and rural areas, who haven’t been able to climb this economic ladder.

In this era of new technology enablers, that ladder is what we see being extended. Who gets to extend that ladder, and how one could attract more climbers onto these ladders, and how hyperlocalisation of content may be the way forward is the point of this podcast.

Over the next five years, 500 million first-time internet users are expected to come online via their mobile phones — a population often referred to as the “Next Half Billion,” or NHB. This is a population segment that has thus far been excluded, underserved, and disempowered. It is this next half billion that the new wave of technology enablers will hope to serve.

It is this population that content providers will hope to persuade and it is this population which hopes to climb into the middle class with the help of these new technology enablers.

Over the last year and a half alone, according to Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani, thanks to access to cheaper data and penetration of devices, India has become one of the world’s largest data guzzlers. And looking at the trends available, monthly data consumption is like to increase five times as much as it is now – from 3.9 GB in 2017 to as much as 18 GB in 2023.

What are people consuming in quite such massive amounts? Videos. You do know from your WhatsApp groups just how many videos – some good, some terrible; some accurate, some fantastical – there are going around. YouTube says there are over one lakh content creators in India.

And of these, 4000 of them have over a lakh subscribers. 200 of these 4000 channels have more than a million subscribers! Add to YouTube, what Facebook has been quietly onboarding – Watch. It is an original video offering from Facebook, with a focus on long form, premium, professionally produced content.

Ajay Nair, the COO of Only Much Louder, thinks the amount of content that is going to be put out this year will be three to four times as much as it was in the last.

Only Much Louder, or OML, is an artist management company whose roster comprises some of the most exciting names in music, comedy and culture in the country today including All India Bakchod, Abish Mathew, Kanan Gill, Biswa Kalyan Rath, EIC, SNG, Zakir Khan (comedian), Anish Sood, Dualist Inquiry, Neelesh Misra and many many more.

What is also emerging in India as the content leader is bingeworthy serialized local content – to follow in the mold of Netflix. The success of shows even in foreign languages, like Narcos, has emboldened content creators that as long as one is putting out quality content, there will be takers. Like in The Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come.

And coming they are in droves too. Today, three out of four adults in India have a mobile phone, while almost 300 million have smartphones. The rapidly declining cost of data service has resulted in significantly increased use of the internet; more than 200 million people in India access the internet through their mobile phones. On an average, over 200 minutes are spent on phone internet.

The first step is simply to get more people online more frequently. The next step is to build their comfort level with using the internet. That will likely follow the same evolution from simple to more sophisticated use cases that we have seen all over the world. In India, consumers start with communication, and then extend that to entertainment and religious content, and finally utility tools that make their mobile device usage more efficient. This is the case with the NHB now.

The next phase is to evolve to more sophisticated uses, such as news and information. Making the next transition — openness to making transactions — is the hardest step in the journey and requires understanding and a consumer-centric approach.

One of the barriers that the NHB will face is the lack of local apps – in America, consumers have found enough apps and technology outside the Facebook-Google umbrella. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in India yet. The other, perhaps more significant barrier – and indeed an opportunity for content creators – is the language barrier. Omidyar goes on to note that, “Unlike the previous waves of mobile internet users, the NHBs are not native English speakers.” Local language content will be key in bringing them online.

Listen In | Getting to the bottom of OTT media

A KPMG/Google study in May 2017 states that 70 percent of Indians found local language digital content more reliable. They identify a number of apps and web categories with currently low penetration rates — including payments, government services, news, classifieds, online shopping — that would grow much faster with local language integration.

Yet little local language content is currently available, creating new entrepreneurial opportunities. One such company is DailyHunt, which is the largest news app in the country. More than 90 million people in India use DailyHunt to read news, books, and magazines in 12 Indian languages. Similarly, Pratilipi allows users to access long-form content in eight Indian languages and is used by more than a million people a month.

If that was the News segment, the story holds true for the video on demand segment too. Samir Pitalwalla, the CEO of Culture Machine thinks the time is ripe for India’s own Hulu moment. It’s a crowded market right now in the OTT space.

Hotstar still leads the pack with 75 million active subscribers, followed by Voot at 15, Amazon Prime at 11, and Netflix coming in at 5 million subscribers. Venkat Ananth, writing for the Ken on the perfect storm moment that India currently finds itself in says and I quote, “The rest of the pack have thus far demonstrated no differentiation in content. Which also clears the deck for a potential shakeout in the years to come, starting 2018.”

Alternatively, this could also set the stage for India’s own Hulu, with some key broadcasters coming together to create a new platform. Not that this has not been tried before. According to Ananth, three years ago, officials from Viacom18, Zee and Sony came together to discuss a platform to take on Star India that crash-landed.

But with the $52 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets by Disney, and with Star India almost certain to call the shots in India, the timing may well be ripe for a third, Hulu-like non-Star, non-foreign player.

Hotstar sitting pretty on top might not be a long lasting trend – sure IPL helps. But there are other players quietly plotting to question the dominance. Amazon Prime Video, which signed multiple, sometimes consecutive, deals with production houses last year, could change tack, given that their movies gambit hasn’t played out quite the way it would have liked.

But Amazon is also pulling all stops and is looking towards originals like Madhavan’s Breathe, or Pushpavalli, a multilingual series featuring Bangalore-based standup comic Sumukhi Suresh. Netflix meanwhile has been establishing its presence in India over the past six months. It has been acquiring content from Shah Rukh Khan;s Red Chillies as well as Aamir Khan Productions.

A challenge that Netflix will face is a Catch 22 – it wants to be perceived as a luxury and niche service, but also wants to be subscribed. Unfortunately however, without a foray into local content, those numbers that Hotstar sees – some say on account of regional content – may yet be a dream for Netflix. “The challenge for Netflix, many feel, will be to break away from being the niche service it is perceived to be, to try and become massy in India, without diluting its USP”, goes on to say Venkat Ananth.

One other way of adding people to their subscriber list is by tying up with telecom companies and DTH operators – something that Airtel is already doing, by way of offering a free subscription to Amazon Prime for its postpaid users, or Netflix tying up with Vodafone. Or Reliance Jio tying up with Star India to offer premium membership to Hotstar. The Jio Saavn tie up is yet another arrow in this quiver of the Jio onslaught.

Another question we must address while talking about content and the way it will be consumed by the NHB is the question of news. What role do traditional media houses aspire to have now in the dawn of the digital age?

Analysts suggest that there may be a departure from reach and frequency towards content. Content, as an integral aspect of brand identity. Even traditional media houses like the TOI and Network18, are slowly looking towards the subscription model.

Times Internet, according to sources, is working on a “mother, all-access” subscription product it expects to launch in 2018 “after ET Prime”, another subscription based service from the Economic Times.

Similarly Network18, the parent company of Moneycontrol, has already released its over the top product, in an attempt to rejig its television coverage.

According to one media executive, the current thinking in news coverage is to move away from the primetime debates where there is zero differentiation. And to give an OTT product which could be a clean slate with opportunities to create fresh, non-linear content.

In the last three months alone, news networks like Network18 and Zee News

have clocked in over a billion views each on YouTube, according to a report by online video intelligence company, Vidooly. And that trend, by the looks of it, is unlikely to slow down.

The growth seems to be coming in from the regional news segment. Take for example, Network18. Three of the top five YouTube channels of Network18 are ETV Telugu, ETV Jabardasth, and ETV Plus clocking 523, 345 and 172 million views respectively. It is a trend that is also corroborated by Zee News and India Today, where Aaj Tak is the dominating channel.

Which brings us to the last challenge of content creation – to design products and services around user interfaces and experiences that are relevant to the life experiences, social context, and cultural norms of the NHB. The key therefore, to cater to the NHB is hyperlocalisation of content. And offering that content up on a product that is accessible and simple to use. And one that understands cultural context.

Consider the example phrases like “shopping cart” symbol and “proceed to checkout”, language that is common to most e-commerce sites. These are intended to make using the online service easier by replicating the familiar shopping experience where the consumer takes an empty cart, picks items off shelves, puts them into the cart, and proceeds with them to the checkout.

But the next half billion have not been exposed to the self-service experience in shopping — their shopping experience is walking up to a counter at a store and being served by the shop owner or shop assistants, who will actively help them decide what to buy. The dominant e-commerce symbols and terms, then, mean very little to them — and can even be intimidating.

A contrasting example is Facebook’s approach in India, where users can log in with a mobile phone number in addition to an email address. This recognizes the fact that, while mobile phones are used extensively, the average consumer rarely has an email address. Simple and easy navigation, user interfaces that emphasize speech over text and are menu-based, and user experiences that enable them to get recommendations instead of search and discovery will be relevant for the NHB.

And it is with these expectations of the people that content and product designers should design the Next Big Thing for the Next Half Billion. Without a nuanced understanding of the problems, the limitations, and the challenges that are faced by the increasingly rural face of the average data consumer in this country, it is unlikely that any content provider will crack the big numbers. Not that there are not as many niche urbane consumers for niche services.

Saregama’s apps for classical music and devotional content – Saregama Classical and Shakti respectively – are examples of that. Saregama’s Carvaan, an innovation that has come to be widely lauded is yet another example of intelligent product design keeping in mind the limitations and challenges I have spoken of.

Through all of these vagaries, one thing does reveal itself be true over and over again. If there is a quality offering, and IF there is an empathic understanding of people’s expectations from the internet and how it can help them, it will help us build better products, and get content delivered the right way.

In the coming years, this the challenge and the lesson to be borne in mind by all content creators across the country – go hyperlocal, or go home.

Disclosure: Reliance Industries Ltd. is the sole beneficiary of Independent Media Trust which controls Network18 Media & Investments Ltd.
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first published: Apr 23, 2018 07:51 pm