Varsha worked as an investment banking analyst at Goldman Sachs before switching to journalism. She started off at Business India and later moved to Forbes India where she writes across industries and companies but has a bias towards startups, technology and the FMCG sector. She was a national level athlete and now enjoys running half marathons.
Viu, the OTT or over-the-top service provider that is backed by Hong Kong’s PCCW and targets the emerging markets, claims to have 10 million users per month. Nickhil Jakatdar, CEO of VuClip which runs Viu, caught up with Forbes India to reflect on the increasingly congested OTT landscape in India, the challenges faced and how to stand out. Edited excerpts: Q. There’s a proliferation of OTT players in India now - from global biggies like Netflix and Amazon, to homegrown platforms like Star India’s Hotstar, Viacom18’s Voot, Zee’s dittoTV, Balaji Telefilms’ ALT Balaji and Sony’s SonyLiv, as well as independent platforms like Spuul, among several others. Given the number of players, would you call the Indian OTT market competitive, or merely congested?
I’ve always wondered about this. There are a few players who doing it to protect their business. Like for some of the broadcasters, their consumers are moving to digital so they have to – some are doing it defensively, some are being proactive, but it’s typically to protect a business. Then there are players who are doing it because they want to expand; they’re already doing well in some markets and they want to do well in more markets. And then there are some who say ‘This rising tide will lift all boats – Let’s jump into this and maybe we’ll get lucky.’
Who falls in which category—each player has to decide for itself—but I feel there is combination of congestion and real competition. Or another way to put it is, three years from now what will this landscape look like?
I actually believe three years from now it’s going to come down to not more than 4-5 players who’ll seriously be doing this. There were players who were there a year back who are not there anymore. And the reason they are not there anymore is because they were unable to keep their funding going because at some point, some investor is going to ask you, ‘So how is my money doing?’ And it is such a heavily congested and competitive space that it’s difficult for people to keep throwing money. And this requires big money.
The reason I say 4-5 players and not one is because if I look at the US market, there is Netflix, but there is also Hulu and Amazon. The broadcasters still have their thing, and they’re all actually co-existing. Of course they are fighting but they are co-existing; and all this in the presence of YouTube.
The critical thing is that each player has to have its niche very clearly defined. That is, if I am a consumer in the US, I need to be very clear that I want to have the Netflix because it’s my place for all the big English originals. I want Hulu because it’s my place to get all the TV shows; I want Amazon because it gives me the latest movies on a pay per view; and YouTube because it gives me user generated content. So I have very good reasons for all four. I think the same questions need to be answered in India.
So I think the Indian market is currently a combination of both congested and competitive; but in three years, it’ll only be competitive.
Q. How does VuClip define its niche? With each of the bigger guys in India, I know where I’ll go for cricket, where I’ll go for Hollywood or for Bollywood. But where will I go if I care about locally relevant content? If I’m the guy sitting in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka or Bihar, where will I go to get my regionally relevant shows? That’s what we want Viu to be.
Q. Original content is a key differentiator. How is VuClip creating a moat in this regard? At heart we were not strong content people. Over time we have built that up, but initially we didn’t have that in our DNA. What we did have in our DNA though, was understanding insights.
So using an insights based approach we figured out what content consumers are actually watching. Based on those insights we said, let’s go license that content. But then soon we realised that that content doesn’t exist. So then we had to go find people who are willing to create content for digital media. And we soon realised that you’ll get some of it, but not all of it because there isn’t anyone producing it. That’s when we decided to get in to original content production. So one by one, we started off as a hardcore technology company but over time we have morphed into a technology-driven media company, just by looking at data and gathering insights.
We now have a team that’s focused on just original content creation. We create a number of different shows which are very locally relevant. So for instance, over the last few months we created two shows with Bollywood director Vikram Bhatt. We gave him guidance about the type of content that will resonate on our platform for our audience. The first direction we provided was that the horror genre seems to do very well with Indian audiences – not the yucky kind of horror, but the kind where by just the situation you get scared. He created a show based on those insights. And then we provided guidance to him on another show, based on the insight that while people care about Bollywood, they care as much, if not more, about the lives of the stars. So he created a biopic about the life of a Bollywood actress.
Both these shows have done amazingly well - to the point where almost 35 percent of our total minutes consumed, were consumed by our original content. This is humungous because typically licensed content makes up for most of the minutes that consumed, because users know those names. To watch something that is not known to them is not that common.
Q. VuClip works on a freemium model, where some content can be accessed for free, and the rest at a monthly subscription of Rs 99 / month. What kind of traction have you seen among Indian audiences so far? We started with Viu in India a little more than a year back. Currently we have about 4.5 million users who visit our site on a monthly basis. We don’t talk about downloads because that to my mind is a vanity metric. Today, if I’m willing to spend money, I can get as many downloads as I want. But downloading an app doesn’t mean you’re using the app. [Jakatdar did not let in on the number of paid subscribers, adding that if the content is compelling the payment methods are easy then consumers are much more willing to pay.]
Today we are north of a billion minutes a month but frankly I don’t think the time is too far away when we get to a billion minutes a day; because there are enough consumers and enough consumption to get us there. If you get that scale, typically you can start building a real business.