Anirban Roy Choudhury

"Competition is everywhere": Nachiket Pantvaidya, ALTBalaji

An interview with Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO, ALTBalaji on targeting viewers who fall between Naagin and Narcos.

Balaji Telefilms' online video on demand platform, ALTBalaji has been active since April this year. Shows that have begun generating buzz include Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat, Dev DD, Romil and Juggal. The content, that features TV and film actors, is aimed at redefining the web-series format, popularly considered a launch pad for newcomers.

"Competition is everywhere": Nachiket Pantvaidya, ALTBalaji

Upcoming shows include Bengali title Dhimaner Dinkaal and Hindi series featuring Rajkumar Rao, Bose.

At present, shows on ALTBalaji are in Tamil and Hindi, one Bengali title to follow soon. The team plans to start dubbing its original content in all South Indian languages (except Kannada) from September onwards. There are plans to create original content for these markets too.

We spoke to Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO, ALTBalaji who joined the company in 2015, about what this platform offers. Pantvaidya is a veteran in the broadcast space and has experience of leading TV programming in Star Plus and Sony. Turns out, he is looking to target the addressable market perched bang in the middle of Naagin and Narcos.

Edited Excerpts

What do your early data trends suggest about the way your content is being received? What part of the data has surprised you?

We are moving towards four million downloads; our registered users are watching 50 minutes per day. We are seeing billings from over 25 countries.

We realise that there is a wider age group than we assumed watching content, that is, 18-40 years.

How do you zero in on your shows? What kind of research goes into the process and how is it different from that which is done before green-lighting a TV show?

Unlike TV, our research is show-agnostic... it's done to understand trends.

We find that there's an incredible demand for regional content in India; the internet is not just for the elite in in this country.

About 1.7 percent of the total TV viewing audience watches English (content) on TV. But on the internet that number is 10-15 percent. So, that 85 percent - those who are not watching English content on the internet - points us towards bringing in languages other then English.

The internet is not a geographic phenomenon limited to big cities. Our data reveals that in the list of the top 20 cities in which ALTBalaji's content is consumed are cities like Anand and Jaipur, alongside Dubai and Mumbai.

Speaking of regional content, what motivated you to get into this space?

70 percent of our (projected) business, at least in the first year, is through subscription in India and 30 percent, from outside India. So, a language like Bengali finds traction not only among Bengalis residing outside India but also among the Bangladeshi audience.

We did one Tamil show already and that found traction in Singapore, Malaysia, etc. where there is a 'settled' Tamil population.

Another reason is - in the regional content space, there's a huge gap between TV content and movies. Regional TV content is created at one-sixth or one-seventh the cost of a Hindi TV show. So we become an 'upgraded offering' for them.

How expensive is it to create shows for your VOD platform?

The per episode production cost of an ALT show roughly is 2.5X of TV.

The cameras used are of a higher standard.

On television, when you are making 200 episodes, it's economy of scale... so you can take your fixed cost and divide it. But when you divide it for 10 episodes, the cost per episode is much higher.

What then, is the strategy when it comes to your content? What gaps are you looking to fill with your content?

There is a huge gap between Naagin and Narcos - that is our target.

"Competition is everywhere": Nachiket Pantvaidya, ALTBalaji

We do 'badge value programming' by getting people like Nimrat Kaur and Rajkumar Rao.

We offer TV audiences an upgraded version of TV content. So we take popular TV stars in stories which are digital; 'Karle Tu Bhi Mohhabbat' (Ram Kapoor, Sakshi Tanwar) is an example.

TV audience today is the largest base. We do not believe that the TV audience is drastically different from digital.... we just need to upgrade them. So to give an analogy, we need to upgrade them from home food to a thali... but not to sushi.

TV today does not cater to the male audience as much as it does to the female audience. This is the gap between programming in the West and in India. We want to create content for the entire spectrum of viewers.

But then aren't too many players trying to do the same thing? What differentiates ALT from other digital players in the same space?

Our business model is totally different...

We do not offer 'one free month' like others. For each show of ours, we keep five episodes available for free, three of which are available on YouTube. After that one needs to go to the app. A consumer will only pay once she/he wants to watch beyond five episodes. This is a unique model, not only in India but also elsewhere.

We are a subscription-driven platform with Indian original content, making us the only platform to target the urban masses across 50 cities. Western content will narrow the audience.

We partner with various distribution platforms, wallets, payment gateways, ISPs, telcos... all this makes us very different from others in the market at this stage.

You're charging Rs. 300 per year. How soon will that change? And how expensive is it slated to get? You have a 36-month break even plan...

There will be some price changes in the near future. I cannot give you any more details on that at this stage. The current packages are introductory offers. We'll keep the pricing between Re. 1 to Rs. 2 per day.

When we planned our content, there was no demonetisation, there was no Jio, the internet was not as affordable as it is now. So, our timing turned out to be good.

We're taking things one quarter at a time. With the way things are going, we'll be able to break even as planned - in 36 months.

What to your mind is your biggest competition?

There are TV channels that are putting TV shows on digital, there are international players coming into the market with the intention of creating original shows, there are teams that have a very strong technological backbone entering the market... there's competition everywhere.

What's the big challenge at this stage?

Scaling up our content. And meeting the demands - for quality and quantity - of our consumers.

Also, the mentality now is: 'I have paid, now show me more... why only 10 episodes?' It will take us some time to explain the 'season phenomenon' to consumers who are not used to it.

Our biggest opportunity is the TV audiences. We do not look down on them; we think this is a fertile audience that is paying for TV services. From an SVOD (subscription-based video on demand) point of view, they are very attractive.

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