Over the past few weeks, Mumbaikars have found it really hard to ignore four funny faces, those of Gursimran Khamba, Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya, staring down at them from billboards plastered all over the city. Through larger-than-life posters that parody the kind frequently put up by politicians, the quartet that comprises the comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB) is out there promoting their show 'On Air With AIB'.
This outdoor effort is part of Star India's multimedia campaign to promote the recently launched show. Besides billboards, the marketing campaign also includes TV, radio and digital ads.
This satire-based series will have ten episodes, in Hindi and English, each, on the platform. On television, the Hindi version airs on Star Plus, and the English one, on Star World - both on Sunday nights at 10 pm. It is positioned as a 'Hotstar original' series; it is conceptualised for the platform, and the episodes are made available on the app before they are aired on TV.
AIB is part of a new breed of digital content creators. It has tremendous popularity among the youth. AIB's YouTube channel, which has over 1.4 million subscribers, has had over 121 million views to its credit.
The popularity of the app among India's young, coupled with AIB's massive fan following led the team of Ajit Mohan, executive vice president and head, digital, Star India, to jump right into it. "From an analytical and data point of view, we saw a huge gap that a satire like 'On air with AIB' could fill," he says.
The app has, according to Star's Mohan, clocked around 35 million downloads since its launch in February this year. "Most of our loyal users spend almost 90 minutes a day on the platform," he says.
Team AIB always knew that a show of this sort would require huge resources. "We felt that not many would be willing to put in that kind of money," admits AIB's Shakya. It was during his team's recent video on net neutrality that they felt they could actually pull something of this scale off. "At the time, we took up a topical, 'newsy' issue and roped in researchers. Subsequently, we felt we could do more of it on a larger scale," he recounts.
The goal back then was to reach 15,000 views. They got over a million, in a matter of days. "That made us think," Shakya says, adding, "So we sat with OML (Only Much Louder, a firm that manages musicians and comedians, among other things), as they were always encouraging us to scale up, and it was around then that Hotstar got into the mix, and both sides met."
OML was instrumental in establishing the relationship between AIB and Star. Ajay Nair, director, OML, says, "We spoke with multiple networks and platforms but felt Hotstar is the best one for this show."
"Star was also actively looking to do something young and fresh, so it all worked out. It wasn't just a mechanical decision based on numbers. They really did like us," smiles Shakya.
What does this association do for both players, AIB and Hotstar? Nikhil Rangnekar, CEO, Spatial Access, media audit and advisory firm, feels the collaboration benefits AIB much more than it does Hotstar. AIB, a niche, internet content producer, gains hugely thanks to the reach and awareness the promos on Star's network offer, goes the argument. "For Hotstar, I think AIB is just 'some more content'. I don't see consumers rushing to download or consume Hotstar more just because there's 'some AIB' show on air," he says.
Hari Krishnan, managing director, ZenithOptimedia, a media planning and buying agency, opines, "AIB on Hotstar is a well-promoted property. It's clearly in the big league, and is hence perceived as more mass."
Well, he says 'perceived', because "it's not necessary that the viewership, or number of people who will be engaged with their content, will be higher than their YouTube numbers. The benefit for AIB is that their earnings will not be limited to Youtube impressions. Further, Hotstar and Star give them national presence, one that's not limited to the metros."
The other side is not lost on Krishnan. "For Hotstar," he reasons, "this is an opportunity to be seen as the go-to place for youthful and trendy content. They will 'lift and shift' a ready, loyal fan following on YouTube." In fact, he hazards a word of caution: AIB will have to go easy on the edginess and deliver milder-than-usual content for TV - a move that could possibly disappoint its loyal YouTube viewer.
AIB is not worried. "Hotstar has given us complete creative freedom. There have been no restrictions at all. We have been having fun with our scripts, saying pretty much what we want. We're still being ridiculous and silly," shrugs Shakya.
He goes on about the content, "The idea is not to be preachy. When we give out facts, we present them in an entertaining manner. And have fun in the studio, while doing so. In our first two episodes we covered everything from whistleblowers and Honey Singh's rap to Whatsapp forwards."
The team zeroes in on the topics after several weeks of deliberation. The topics are centred on issues that either don't get talked about, or are usually dealt with in a dry manner. For the main segment, they pick news that strikes a chord, surprises, shocks, and makes one laugh.
"At the end of it all, we'll just end up being smarter people because of the kind of research we do. We have to turn the information into 'watchable content', with an irreverent tone," he says.
A poll conducted over a decade ago, by research organisation Pew Internet and American Life Project, suggested that young Americans got their dose of news/general knowledge from late-night comedy shows. Well, the same could be said in future about India's Gen-Y, perhaps?
AIB's transition gets a thumbs-up from independent content creators. The Viral Fever (TVF) - the first Indian channel on YouTube to create original comic videos and popularise the web-series format in this market - is one such. Arunabh Kumar, founder and group CEO, TVF and TVF Media Labs, says, "We, as a community, feel opportunities like these, where you get good budgets to put up ambitious shows, are great. In the transition from online to offline, this show happens to be a landmark one."
When Kumar started publishing content online, he faced budget, production and scale-related constraints. "There was only so much advertising or traditional offline marketing and promotion one could look at," he says, "AIB tried to go beyond, get in editors and create something bigger. Tomorrow, if you have to pick the 'faces of online creators' in this country, it has to be the four guys at AIB. They are on hoardings next to Bollywood stars; that's a big step forward."
The show is accessible on the Hotstar app, on Star Plus and Star World, and on the Hotstar website. According to media planners, there are complex audience overlap patterns at play here.
ZenithOptimedia's Krishnan cites a recent proprietary study, called ZO Live Panel, undertaken by his agency. The research showed that during an operating range of 87 to 142 minutes, over 55 per cent of the TV viewers studied simultaneously used either a mobile or a laptop. Activities included surfing (74 per cent), chatting (73 per cent) and Facebook (65 per cent).
"We know simultaneous multi-screen behaviour is significant," he says, "Currently, advertisers make decisions based on individual-screen behaviour."
Sponsors that are already on board, on the app and on television, include AskMeBazaar.com, Idea and Tata Motors. For Manav Sethi, group CMO and head, digital strategy, AskMe, the audience overlap is an advantage, as it gives him incremental reach.
"We have around 250 million smartphones and 170 million TV households in India. AskMe is a 'new age, consumer internet brand' targeted at the youth. So the 250 million individuals, that is our target audience, can watch this show at a time and place of their choice, as opposed to on TV, which is mainly a family-viewing platform," he explains.
Moreover, this kind of content, he feels, lends itself to repeat-viewing and word of mouth promotion. Advertisers also see merit in the fact that the show is available in both English and Hindi, with separate content in each language.
The average duration of the television episodes of 'On Air with AIB' is 23 minutes. On Hotstar, it is between 23-35 minutes. According to sources, Hotstar is selling the show at a premium, and not at the regular CPM rates. Spots are being sold on a CPCV (Cost Per Completed View), and not on a CPC (Cost Per Click) or CPM (cost per thousand impressions) basis, say sources.
In fact, experts go as far as to categorise the rates as 'ultra-premium' or 'luxury' rates - Around Rs 1100-1200 (CPM) initially, versus an average range of just Rs 650 to 700 (CPM). Category -and image- building is the apparent objective.
Pratik Gupta, co-founder, FoxyMoron, a digital agency, says that young consumers are mostly into 'snacking content'. Gupta illustrates his point with a personal example: "I watch cricket religiously. There's a television set in my office but the game will be streaming on my iPad or on a PC near me, on Hotstar or Star Sports, even though the TV set is 15 feet away."
The future, he believes is bright. "We know an Arunabh, a Tanmay and a Rohan by their names, so there has never been a better time for individual content creators," he says.
International 'content creators' like comedian Russell Peters and TV host John Oliver on YouTube strengthens his case. Even iconic American satirists like Jerry Seinfeld, who earned their fan-base via television, have their own YouTube shows now.
Will YouTube continue to be a significant 'discoverability' platform for content creators? TVF's Kumar says, "When an ecosystem has a lot of adulteration and clutter, it is a sign of growth." Despite the presence of TVFPlay.com, an online universe for his shows, most of his "action" as he puts it, still takes place on YouTube.
While the Hotstar-AIB deal signifies growth in the consumption of online content across platforms, many feel digital will remain but a small piece of the pie while TV will be the dominant player for a long time to come.
Others remind us that until recently, mainstream TV networks were the primary source of content for YouTube, what with episodes being uploaded online only after the first TV telecast.
With platforms like Hotstar, Sony LIV, Zee's Ditto TV and Viacom's upcoming VOOT, this space is a growing one. It is open season for content creators, big and small. The branded content ecosystem appears to be a promising space.
Will we have more such tie-ups between digital content creators and television networks in the days ahead? Discussions, we hear, are underway. Watch this space.
A Note From the Editor
Earlier this year, when All India Bakchod's infamous Knockout Roast comedy show featuring Ranveer Singh, Arjun Kapoor and Karan Johar hit the World Wide Web, who would've thought the same group would land a mainline television show - On Air With AIB - on a network like Star?
From creating YouTube content that pulled in FIRs, to sitting behind a desk, in classic news reader style, in politician-type vests, talking about fire safety on primetime television, Gursimran Khamba, Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya have come a long way.
The episodes are made available on Star's mobile video streaming platform Hotstar before they're telecast on Star Plus, in Hindi, and Star World, in English.
While AIB, part of a burgeoning new breed of digital content creators, had found its set of loyalists on YouTube and digital media, the next big question that was beginning to lurk was: What next? Where can they go with all this popularity?
Now, the group's association with Star has opened up a whole new conversation that can help answer that.
And it's not just about moving from niche to mass, in terms of viewers and reach. This kind of association brings up several other pertinent arguments. For starters, it draws attention to the whole content-versus-medium discussion. Is content king? It sure is. But, the medium has also found a crown of its own. Another question is, should creating platform-agnostic content be the goal here on?
By landing this deal with Star, has AIB finally 'arrived' in the non-YouTube world? Sure. But how fantastic would it be if the year ahead saw more such tie-ups between digital 'stars' and broadcast networks?
In fact, for this Cover Story, when we asked Arunabh Kumar, founder, The Viral Fever, to comment on AIB's association with Star, his answer hardly sounded like that of a competitor. His positivity and candour are very telling. Clearly, he is looking at the larger picture.
And from where we're standing, the picture sure looks promising.