Ashwini Gangal
Interviews

"Digital video is brutal": Arunabh Kumar, The Viral Fever

Thanks to affordable smartphones, video consumption on mobile has been growing in India. Now, with the coming of 4G, it threatens to explode. Online digital video is the next big thing. Players in this business have, consequently, been attracting considerable attention, of late. Usually, investor money goes to e-commerce players, but YouTube content creators are also attracting attention in the big, bad VC world.

We bring you one such. Meet Arunabh Kumar, 33, founder of The Viral Fever (TVF), an organised online entertainment network. In February this year, TVF raised USD 10 million (Rs. 66 crore) from Tiger Global, an investment firm that reportedly picked up 25 per cent stake in the company.

An alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur, Arunabh became the poster boy of Indian digital video rather serendipitously. He has worked as a research consultant, in Mumbai, for the US Air Force and has assisted director Farah Khan on the movie Om Shanti Om. When MTV rejected his idea for a youth-centric TV show, he decided to make YouTube his medium and started creating content for online consumption.

Today, the TVF Network has a subscriber base of 1.73 million. TVF boasts 16 shows of which nine are 'TVF Originals' and seven, curated. Besides its YouTube channel, TVF airs its shows on TVF Play, a mobile app, one that has been installed over three lakh times, across android and iOS devices, so far. 'It's not on TV, it's on TVF', is the catchphrase.

Established in 2010, TVF has collaborated with over 40 brands including names like Lenovo, Head & Shoulders, Flipkart, Pond's, Ola, Duracell and Kingfisher.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

How does TVF define its target audience?

Progressive young Indians, like those sitting here - (we're perched on high stools at The Bagel Shop, a funky little eatery, with an Americanised menu, at Carter Road, Bandra). Nobody here is really waiting for the next episode of Diya Aur Bati Hum (hit TV show on Star Plus) but they've all seen Game of Thrones and Friends. We don't have India-centric shows like that.

In 2010-11, when I asked people what their last 'television memory' is, it was either a match or news. The entire generation had stopped watching fiction-scripted programmes on TV. I realised TV had completely alienated our generation. They're more bothered about the 100 million housewives, and 'villager crowd', who watch their shows.

TVF has a lot of fans in Tier II cities. Our content is desi, country, massy and not very elite. We have fans in places like Jaipur, Surat, Ahmedabad, Nashik, Pilani, Vellore... in fact, we are least recognised in Mumbai.

TVF was born when MTV turned down your idea for a TV show - a charming anecdote in hindsight. But do you think it was an isolated instance or does it say something about the nature of the TV business?
"Digital video is brutal": Arunabh Kumar, The Viral Fever
I cherish that rejection. Had they selected my TV show, I don't know what I would be doing today.

But yes, the rejection said something. It was not a one off, isolated incident. It wasn't just one channel that rejected us. All the so-called youth channels in the country did. Everybody in the business had this unavoidable inertia.

There was a pattern that ran through everyone... not just in the TV business, but in the entire creative community. I have a term for it - 'Creative Feudalism'. There are feudal lords in television, advertising and films. These are the guys who decide everything. I had a problem with that.

But I applied my left brain. I didn't want to be a delusional artiste. We at TVF have a theory - we will not be disillusioned by our own art and will always try to do the maths behind it.

I remember making a work flow chart for MTV about how we'll save money, time and space if we use DSLR cameras. Half of them were too uneducated to even understand that. The other half didn't bother to read it. If you have creative choices to make and don't take data-led decisions, I'll judge you and think you're foolish.

Over six months, these incidents made me realise that, 'Agar mein yeh fight marta rahunga toh main boodha ho jaunga...' I had a very stupid, naive idea - 'Let's build an online MTV for India...'

Now, we actually do more original content every month than MTV.

Recently, your company was in the news for raising funds. What prompted the need for funding? What will you use it for?

Investors appreciate the way we've achieved scale and built a brand without raising money. But investment gives you validation that people trust this sector. It makes us feel legitimate.

We wanted funding partly because we want to make films. And partly, it's for basic, hygiene factors like proper processes; previously, we didn't have departments like Human Resources, Accounts, etc. Our website TheViralFever.com was corrupted and we didn't have money to fix the bug. That's why we had to change the name from TheViralFever to TVF Play.

The thing about the digital content business is - you can't throw money at a problem. People here are masters of their own domain. They will shut you down after a minute if they don't like the show.

You can't put a one page Bombay Times article and make everyone watch your show, like they do for movies. Ours is a cultural product. Tomorrow, the Uber of content can't suddenly come in and start giving bigger discounts and scare us off. It's not commoditised.

"Digital video is brutal": Arunabh Kumar, The Viral Fever
So you're saying money is a lot more rewarding in other industries as compared to the one you're in...

Yes. In distribution-heavy businesses like television, it is more rewarding. You can just invest Rs.10 crore and paint the entire country red with hoardings and make sure people watch your show.

But even if you spend Rs.200 crore behind a web series, there's still a chance no one will watch it. They may sample it, but not necessarily watch it. Digital video is brutal.

So now that you've secured the money, what's the next big challenge?

To return the money! There's pressure. Now we either go big or go home.

Typically, there are content creators, aggregators and platforms. You are a content creator. But by adding curated content into your mix, are you trying to turn TVF Play into a platform?

For us, TVF Play is a community place for our loyal fans. We aggregate not because we want to aggregate but because we've discovered something that we think our audience will love. We're never consciously scaling up by aggregating. Aggregators like ScoopWhoop and Buzzfeed are brands built on the back of others' content. We don't enjoy curating content.

Indian audience is lazy. YouTube is just the 'search destination'. People don't want to go onto a YouTube channel and look up playlists. That's when we decided to have a universe of TVF shows, arranged nicely. So TVF Play is not a platform for us. It is our community. We have a community base of almost five million. We don't want to mess around with them by aggregating some crap.

Several TV networks have launched video-on-demand platforms (Star's Hotstar, Viacom18's Voot and Zee's Ozee, etc.) which are like libraries of their TV content. Some even want to make web series. What do you make of this trend?

Yes, for a TV network, such an app is like a repository of all its TV shows. As for the web series all the big guys are getting into... well, after our web series became popular, they think 'Okay, if a bunch of kids with a zero dollar marketing budget can do it, even we can pull it off'.

Frankly, our numbers are stupendous. Pitchers has around four million views per episode, as does Permanent Roommates. That's like a TV show with three or four TRP. These networks are just shocked by the numbers.

Ours is a country of 95 per cent single TV homes. Is digital video drawing viewers because they don't like what they see on TV or because they don't have free access to TV?

It's because there's nothing for them to watch on TV. I don't think their moms will really throw a fit if they watch their kind of shows on TV. Besides, most channels air a single episode twice or thrice.

Nowadays, many people are doing away with the TV; they watch everything on the laptop. The shift from TV to online is something to be cognizant of. People don't want appointment viewing. They want to be able to watch things whenever they want. And they want to be able to choose what they watch. The screen no longer decides what you watch.

How much of your revenue do you expect to get from brand integration (like CommonFloor.com and Ola in Permanent Roommates) versus ad revenue?

The ratio of brand integration to ad revenue on YouTube is around 90:10.

Brand sponsorship is our business model. We'll work with just ten brands a year. We'll ask them for very big cheques. But we'll deep dive with them.

Some of the best examples of branded content are from TVF. A beer brand can't get a better line than 'Tu Beer Hai' - (a line from TVF's show Pitchers; Kingfisher is being promoted). No agency can come up with a line like that. And we've done it in much, much less than what an agency would charge.

We make brands part of popular culture. We don't spend Rs.2 crore making a 30 second ad, then spend another Rs.20 crore on it, and finally when it's played, everyone is pissing in their washroom. We're not in the business of TV commercials, nor do we give passive, free commercial time before a show.

Before the Google Reunions happened, TVF came up with Emotional Atyachaar, 17-minute-long content for Freecharge, in May 2013. We deserve to be given 20 times the budget of TV commercials. But brands are still spending 90 per cent of their budget on TVCs.

A Note From the Editor

Five months back, we profiled the members of All India Bakchod - Gursimran Khamba, Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya - because the comedy collective, best known for its YouTube content, landed a show on the Star Network. In our Cover Story then, we took note of how these popular digital content creators traversed the path between YouTube and primetime television.

This time, we're putting a YouTube content creator, Arunabh Kumar, founder of The Viral Fever (TVF), on the Cover because he gave mainstream TV a complete miss and took to YouTube. And how! Here's what happened - Over half a decade back, when MTV rejected his idea for a youth-centric TV show, he decided to reach his target audience, the 14-to-34-year-old, progressive Indian, through online videos.

Today, TVF's YouTube channel, that's raking in subscribers by the million, is home to popular shows like Permanent Roommates and Pitchers. The former is about a young Indian couple that's living in together and the latter, about a group of youngsters keen to launch a startup. These shows are Arunabh's solution to his pet peeve - Why don't we have Indian TV shows like Friends or The Big Bang Theory?

TVF's most viewed video is one called Bollywood Aam Aadmi Party; it's been viewed 5.5 million times on YouTube. Though TVF gained popularity on the back of comedy content, today, viewers don't expect jokes from them; they expect great stories.

Arunabh, better known by his virtual alias 'The Qtiyapa Guy', is also gaining popularity as an actor; he plays a central character, Yogi, in Pitchers. In person, though, he looks nothing like the clean-shaven entrepreneur he plays on-screen, thanks to the Ramdev-esque beard he's sporting these days.

At afaqs! Reporter, two of our last nine Cover Stories are interviews with YouTube content creators. Clearly, we think digital video is the next big thing.

Cheers to a hot new industry and the folks who run it.

ASHWINI GANGAL