ChuChu TV owes its origin to a two-year-old girl reciting the popular nursery rhyme - Chubby Cheeks - to her father. IT service provider, Vinoth Chandar walked into his home one day in 2013 and saw his daughter reciting the poem; as any father would, he grabbed his camera and recorded it with the intention of putting it up on YouTube.
What he actually did however, was something else entirely. He made an animated video of the same nursery rhyme; went to a music studio; got a singer to recite it; and uploaded that to YouTube in February of 2013. As it turns out, Chandar, an avid YouTuber, first watched 'Charlie Bit My Finger' back in 2011, a video that still has 'virality' experts scratching their heads in wonder.
Chandar, Creative Director of ChuChu TV, remembers thinking to himself, "Why can't I do something like this with my kids?" Uploading his animated 'Chubby Cheeks' video to YouTube brought with it plenty of surprises. On day one, the views crossed the 10,000 mark and three weeks after that, it surpassed 3,00,000 views.
"Even today, these numbers are considered huge; back then it was superb. It was enough to tell me that people liked the content," asserts Chandar. The 107 second video had a retention rate of 90 percent, which was way above the average.
Buoyed by the statistics, Chandar shared his joy with his partners BM Krishnan (Creative Head), Subbiramanian T (Head - Finance and Partnerships), Ajith Togo (Head - Legal) and Suresh Bhoopathy (Head - Operations and HR); the same group that set up an IT services company in 2001.
"I told them that video is the future and YouTube is a great place to invest. But at the same time, I had no idea how much money we could make on YouTube or what the scale of the business might be. I told them I'd like to do one more video to understand it better. They agreed and I hired one animator and one artist," says Chandar.
'Chubby Cheeks' was followed by 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' in May 2013 which got 10 times the numbers. Thus was born ChuChu TV, named after Chandar's daughter who, along with her brother, play leading roles in the scheme of things. After that, there was no looking back. Today, Chandar is the proud recipient of the YouTube Diamond Play Button, an honour given to creators that have gained more than 10 million subscribers.
ChuChu TV turned out to be the best friend of millions of preschoolers across the world. When it crossed the 10 million mark, it became Asia-Pacific's No.1 YouTube channel in the kids' genre. ChuChu TV Nursery Rhymes and Kids is ranked at 87 in the world, in terms of subscribers and 22 for views.
Chandar, whose father was the well-known Tamil music composer Chandrabose, began his encounter with YouTube in 2006. In his leisure hours, he, along with his childhood friend BM Krishnan, composed devotional songs and singles on "special occasions" like Rajanikanth's birthday and Valentine's Day and uploaded them to his personal YouTube channel. Fittingly enough, on Tamil Day 2017, YouTube hosted an event and in the presence of over 300 creators, awarded Chandar with the Diamond Play Button.
In 2009, when YouTube started sharing revenue with its video creators, Chandar received a $49 cheque for his channel. "That cheque told me that there is a lot of money there," he says. Whatever time he could squeeze out of his IT services business was spent on YouTube, studying trends watching new videos, following new creators.
Going back to basics, ChuChu went ahead and hired six more animators and artists to join the team of two. Chandar wanted help with creativity, so his friend Krishnan got on board. "He wanted to become a movie director, but his brother didn't let him pursue that and forced him to pursue a career in chartered accountancy instead. Krishnan is a CA but I had a lot of confidence in his creativity. He was the one who wrote the lyrics for the devotional songs we composed," reveals Chandar.
The duo sat down to figure out the next course of action. Krishnan, an avid reader and researcher found out that nursery rhymes are actually sarcastic representations of dark and sad events. "He came to me and told me that 'Ringa Ringa Roses' actually talks about the plague in 18th century England, 'Humpty Dumpty' is about a canon from World War II and is meant for adults, not kids, who love them because they rhyme. So, we thought, 'What if we change the nursery rhymes and give them a positive touch?' That took the brand to a different level," says Chandar.
RHYME TIME 2.0
'Jack and Jill' was ChuChu TV's first attempt at redefining nursery rhymes. In the video, Jack and Jill come tumbling down the hill, as they're supposed to. But the rest of it deviates from the script; Krishnan wrote new verses like - Where there is a will, there is a way; you got to walk all the way. Try and try, with your head high, you will succeed faster.' And Chandar added more visuals: he showed a dog struggling to reach its bone; an ant lifting a sugar cube; and a bird trying to reach the water with its beak. The rhyme went on: 'Jack and Jill, with a strong will, went again up the hill. Both were firm, not to fall and brought down the pail of water.' The accompanying visuals brought these lines to life.
A big part of ChuChu's success with children has to do with the characters. They include ChuChu, a little chubby girl (Chandar's daughter) and Chika, a boy with spiked hair (Chandar's son). The two of them became a part of a million preschoolers' lives. One day a comment was posted in relation to the characters and their fair skin tone that was chosen for the animation. "Someone from Nigeria wrote: 'Is ChuChu TV only for the fair?'" Chandar recalls. He acted instantly, adding two new characters to the mix, Chacha and Chiku, both with slightly darker skin tones. Three cute kittens called 'Cutiyans' followed because Chandar observed that animal-related merchandise, sells more than merchandise modelled on human characters.
ON A HIGH
As ChuChu soared higher with views jumping into the millions, the eight-member team grew to 40 in 2015 and three more partners joined full time. The Chennai based edutainment company used the moment to launch three new YouTube channels - ChuChu TV Surprise, ChuChu TV Brazil, and ChuChu TV Español - in 2015. A year after that, it launched two more - ChuChu TV Funzone and ChuChu TV Story Time.
"The US is No.1 when it comes to YouTube users and a large part of the American YouTube viewer pool is Spanish. So we thought of an 'Español' channel which caters to Spanish Americans as well as those from Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Spain. ChuChu TV Brazil caters to Portuguese-speaking people all over the world. We were getting a lot of comments on our English videos asking us to start a Portuguese channel," informs Chandar.
ChuChu has partners in the US and Spain who translate the lyrics and re-create the content that is then uploaded on the Español and Portuguese channels. By end-2017, ChuChu plans to launch Russian, French, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu channels. "In India, the next set of internet and YouTube users will come from regional markets,"
We are strengthening our team and plan to hire a creative team that will report to me and Krishnan. That will help us create more content" Chandar shares. ChuChu TV operates from one of the most expensive corporate towers in Chennai. Over 200 employees fill the giant office space, where people from various age groups work on different assignments at the same time.
GAME OF NUMBERS
ChuChu TV is watched in over 75 countries and its biggest market, the US, contributes to over 25 percent of the total viewership. Not too far behind is India which accounts for 18-20 percent. The other countries in the top five are the Philippines (No.3), Vietnam (No.4) and the UK (No.5).
As ChuChu TV's videos raked in millions of views, many brands reached out to Chandar and team for content integration opportunities. But they turned them down even though it meant losing a lot of potential revenue. "We have a no-integration policy. Our content is watched by kids and we don't want to force a brand on them. Also, we are watched globally and therefore, a brand which makes sense (as part of the content) here may or may not make sense in other markets. Brand integration makes no sense for us," he added emphatically.
As per the data gathered by Social Blade (a provider of statistics for content on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, et al), the firm's annual income from YouTube is estimated to be between Rs 100 to 178 crore.
Chandar tells us that YouTube revenue has been growing and 2016 has been the best year for them so far. Having a global audience base helps ChuChu TV generate sizable revenue from YouTube. "The CPM (cost per thousand) rate in India is $2 while in the US its $10. Our global audience has been growing year-on-year and subsequently YouTube revenues grew accordingly." Chandar adds.
Recently, ChuChu TV inked a long-term deal with subscription based video on demand platform, Amazon Prime Video. As part of the deal, ChuChu TV content will be available on Amazon Prime Video. "It's a good money deal," is all Chandar had to say when quizzed about the partnership adding, "There are many other streaming platforms and TV channels in other markets that are interested in our content and we are working on striking licensing deals with them too."
The team is now working on a 13-episode-long series 'ChuChu and Friends' which Chandar plans to license to a TV channel in India. Apart from generating added revenue, TV will help ChuChu TV build a sustainable merchandising business. ChuChu TV has already tied up with Mumbai-based merchandising and licensing giant Dream Theatre. "In two years' time, 10 percent of our total revenue should come from merchandising. It will be a huge challenge, but if we want to become the Disney of kids, we have to achieve this. What makes 10 percent realistic is the fact that we are eyeing the US and other global markets. If it was just India, piracy would have killed us." declares Chandar.
ChuChu TV is now investing in developing more content. "The first target was to break even and we've achieved it. Now it's time to scale up. The ideal situation for us would be a 60:40 revenue ratio, where 60 per cent comes from YouTube and 40 from merchandising, licensing and syndication, collectively." adds Chandar.
Today in India, the kids' genre has become a playground for many digital players. Viacom18's digital platform Voot has launched a kids-specific app - Voot Kids. Players like NexGTV, Sony Liv, Amazon Prime and Netflix, many of which have deep pockets, are taking this genre very seriously. But is Chandar worried?
"We've managed to survive and grow on YouTube; the platform where a new channel is launched every day. Last year, over 1,000 channels were launched in the preschool kids segment. It did not impact our growth at all. I don't see these new players coming in as a big challenge for us." he asserts.
The challenge, then, is to create IPs and make each character a brand. "We are creating 10 videos a month now, but need to do more. For that, we need to have a creative team and more resources." he explains.
With regards to investments, Chandar and team are interested in a strategic investor. "If a big media house that believes in our vision, like Disney, wants to come in and help us grow 10 times bigger, then yes we are open to the idea. We tried getting funding six months back and met a lot of people who were interested. But they did not have any understanding about our business and hence, decided against it." he added.
(This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on September 1, 2017.)
A Note From the Editor
"Crazy, young guys wearing bermudas, sitting in hi-tech cubicles, working on nursery rhymes..."
That's how the writer of this cover story describes the sprawling ChuChu TV office, located in Chennai's poshest commercial neighbourhood. The company was set up by the most creative techie we know, Vinoth Chandar, around four years back.
The first time Vinoth showed his daughter - she's nick-named Chu Chu - his version of the well-known 'Chubby Cheeks' nursery rhyme, she watched it over 100 times. That's when he decided to upload the video on YouTube to check if it would appeal to other kids out there. And appeal it did. It got around 3,00,000 views in just two weeks. Next, he uploaded his version of 'Twinkle Twinkle', and before he knew it, he had 5,000 subscribers, something that instantly caught the attention of the folks at YouTube - "magic" was the word they used.
Growing up (in the late 1990s), I recall watching a TV show called 'Kids say the Darndest Things'. True. But not as true as this statement - kids watch the things they like the darnedest number of times! Nina Elavia Jaipuria, who heads Viacom18's kids cluster in India, whom we interviewed last fortnight, said, "Kids love watching the same thing over and over again, they love hearing the same stories again and again. It gives them a sense of comfort, when they don't need to discover something new... they like to feel that they know it all." Such an interesting insight, isn't it?
Earlier this month, Vinoth's channel received the 'Diamond Play Button', an award from YouTube for crossing the '10 million subscribers' mark. He's a hit with parents too, thanks to the positive spin he gives traditional nursery rhymes; in the world of ChuChu TV, Jack and Jill manage to get their pail of water, after all.
And here's the best part: ChuChu TV has a 'no brand integration' policy.ASHWINI GANGAL