Why are so many OTT shows conceptually -and visually- dark? An interview with the man who foretells the fate of films and video content across platforms - Ormax Media's Shailesh Kapoor, who feels OTT as a collective platform is running on "borrowed sensibilities" in India.
In 2011, when Shah Rukh Khan made Ra.One, he spent hours - late evening to 4:00 am the following morning - with media consultancy Ormax Media's founder and CEO Shailesh Kapoor to discuss the potential popularity of the film. Kapoor and team presented the findings of their research; the film tested well among kids, but not among adults. Kapoor wasn't too surprised when the film didn't do well at the box office.
Ormax was launched by Vispy Doctor back in 1985 as a qualitative research outfit for marketing companies. In 2008, Kapoor and Doctor got together to launch Ormax Media, and the firm began testing video content, primarily TV shows and movies. In 2012 Ormax Media started testing OTT shows, though momentum for this line picked up only in 2016 as more players entered the VOD market. So far, the team has tested scripts and episodes for 23 OTT shows. They also test trailers, songs, titles, show taglines, posters, and marketing campaigns. Last year Ormax Media tested close to 45 film scripts. Somewhere in 2015, Ormax Media got into script testing - vetting of content through audio narration.
Kapoor's clientele includes Star India, Viacom, Sony Pictures Networks, ZEEL, Amazon Prime Video, Disney, Sun TV, Turner International, Times Network, Jagran Prakashan, Dharma Productions, TVF, AIB, Endemol, RSVP and Junglee Pictures, among others.
The research, a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, yields an 'Advocacy Score', a numeric 'word of mouth' score, out of 100, which, in a nutshell, reflects - 'What percentage of people liked the content enough to recommend it to their friends?'
For movies, the entire product is tested. For TV content, one episode (20-25 minutes) and a 10 minute audio narrative of how the story will go ahead are tested. For OTT content, the first two episodes (about 90 minutes) are tested.
Video content -(and I'm including feature films in this bucket, just for a moment)- is consumed across three mediums. To what extent is viewing behaviour tied to the medium?
Viewing behaviour is entirely a function of the medium - TV versus OTT versus going to the theatre. We're still not a country/culture where video content has become one entity. It is still very category-segregated. There is a lot of overlap between films and OTT in terms of the audience. There's less overlap between GEC audiences with the other two types.
In India, people don't watch TV alone. There's no concept of 'private TV' here; TV time is family time. In America, where TV is about individual viewing, OTT and TV viewing are not fundamentally different. But in India, TV viewing is about family taste, OTT is about personal taste.
In India, an 18 year old who watches Game of Thrones on OTT would be happy to watch a Naagin on TV, with the family - not grudgingly. Similarly, the 40+ audience/parents would watch Bigg Boss, Khatron Ke Khiladi on TV because the youngster in the house wants to. They're warming up to what their children are advocating; until three years back, they were completely dismissive of such content. If a consensus can't be reached for a show, then the youngster will go watch it online.
How have the three types of content evolved over the past decade?
Very differently. Over the last seven to eight years GECs have been in standstill mode. After 2010-11, content innovation in Hindi GECs stopped (unlike in Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi GECs). The only real evolution in Hindi GECs is - non-fiction has got more acceptability. But that's more like a default advantage given to non-fiction because fiction has not evolved.
The real change has taken place in films - there've been new types of stories that are not in the traditional action-romance-comedy space. After Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, biopics were made, we now have films like Raazi, Stree doing much better than they would have even one year back. The main traits of the lead characters in movies have evolved, especially female. But theatre is a 'niche' medium because only three to four crore people go to theatres for Hindi content.
Is there a behaviour pattern that's common to all three kinds of content?
Over the last five to six years, exposure to international content has gone up in a huge way. This is because of digital, and because the Hollywood theatrical business in India has more than doubled. This includes not just English content, but dubbed films too. Today, Conjuring is a bigger franchise in India than many Bollywood films. So when a horror property now comes out on TV/Netflix, you have a benchmark that is international. The benchmark is not a Vikram Bhatt horror film. And I'm not talking about premium audiences. These are middle class people in the 15-30 years segment.
Specifically about OTT content, what are the early trends from a platform perspective?
OTT is too new to have any trends. There has been a lot of experimentation so far. And quantity. The mentality is 'Do 20 things, one will work'. That has been the general approach. It tells you the process of selection is not very sharp. Platforms announce 10-20 new shows at a time. Most don't even get sampled. Sacred Games may change that mindset... focus on just one property, you don't need quantity.
Interesting. And what about OTT trends from the viewer's perspective?
The audience is very new here. They're still discovering what they'd like to watch in digital.
Over the last few years, these shows have got bigger 'face value' because of the stars they feature - Saif in (Netflix's) Sacred Games, Madhavan did (Amazon's) Breathe, and Ram Kapoor who is a 'traditional', known face thanks to TV (he's on ALTBalaji). You have people you 'know'. In Pitchers, Permanent Roommates (TVF shows) - the actors became YouTube stars because of those shows; they were not known.
So this has really helped OTT platforms, because there's a comfort level new audiences get. It's good marketing and will expand the viewer base. It has helped bring credibility and legitimacy to the medium, which had a secondary status before these known faces came on board.
In six to 12 months though, that will no longer be a big selling point, unless Salman, Shah Rukh or Ranbir do an 'internet show'.
What's your reading on the apparent appetite for 'difficult to watch', 'cringe content' on OTT platforms, be it violent shows like Ghoul or disturbing dramas like Black Mirror? They may be great shows, but there's just something about this new dark genre...
Over the past year or two, the content has become more intense. On digital and in films too, watching edgier content has become more acceptable. Exposure to international content, not just Hollywood, has played a definite role in creating that sensibility.
Also, it is because of solo viewing. People feel liberated while watching OTT content. Three-four years ago, was any solo viewing really happening at all? No. As an idea, solo viewing has been driven largely by OTT platforms. Previously, after 'family time' was over, they would listen to the radio or read a book as 'solo time' - one or two hours before going to sleep - but not watch content.
On OTT, people can watch violence, sex, abusive language - things which, all their lives, they've been told are out of bounds, on TV and in cinemas. For long, content has been sanitised everywhere. There was no place people could watch content like this. We're now exposed to American content like Game of Thrones. Even in 'regular' superhero films people are now used to seeing action of a certain type, the kind we don't see in Indian films. People looking for such content now find it on OTT, which is why they've warmed up to these platforms so fast.
Then there's the problem of 'dark' looking shows, not just metaphorically...
There's a need for more visually bright content! For some reason you do not have bright shows on OTT, at all. Mass Indian content is all bright and colourful, but we don't have content that visually, production-wise, resembles a DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, (on OTT). Everything is dark, sepia toned, night-shot...
Absolutely, but why?
The reason is - film guys are experimenting with things on digital, because they can't in films.
The moment you get film makers onto OTT, they will want to scale it up, give a 'certain' feel to it. Simple stories with very few characters, of the kind that are being shown in movies today (say, a Shubh Mangal Saavdhan) are, interestingly, not being made for OTT.
But traditional Indian audiences do not like watching dark-looking content, even if it is funny (not dark conceptually). If it's not visually rich, you are immediately reducing the mass potential of content. But will a Zoya Akhtar, or an Anurag Kashyap make a Permanent Roommates? No, it'll be too simple for them.
If OTT gets more visually bright and light stuff, then one can still expect 'the Indian family' to watch it instead of TV at 8:00 pm. Hotstar tried Sarabhai, but that's still a franchise. Where are the original shows that use lights at the production level? Maybe that'll happen if a Raju Hirani or a Rohit Shetty made internet content...
So what's the biggest concern here?
After a point, people will get tired of sameness. OTT right now doesn't have this problem because everything is new. But after a point, a dark gangster show - which for some reason everybody is doing - will not cut it. Internet content needs a larger variety of genres. Now there is horror and gangster type content. We need romance, comedy (fiction; the existing lot is non-fiction like Comicstaan). Genre exploration on OTT seems skewed to the tastes of the people making the shows, rather than to the tastes of the audience.
The problem with this kind of edgy content is, it can be misunderstood as meaning - 'People want to see bizarre stuff'. But India is not a very bizarre market; people just want to be entertained. Whenever you try to do stuff that is way off, it's not palatable for the medium or the TG. So the tricky part is - the marriage between being different and yet relevant.
What are the challenges in testing OTT content?
The way films have a clear 'first day opening' benchmark of success (in the first day, a film has to open to Rs 50 lakh - that's the critical mass of people that then go out and talk about it), OTT doesn't have any defined rules yet. Like the first day for TV, can it be the first month for OTT? Maybe. Platforms don't share numbers, so in the absence of any other data, the main kind of testing at the moment is analysis of actual advocacy data.
Interestingly, OTT content testing is being done not to 'fix' content, but rather, to figure out marketing opportunities for the show and platform, which includes deciding how the show must be positioned, what the trailer should include, and most importantly, whether that show can be the platform's tentpole property on the back of which the platform can be marketed to OTT audiences.
Right, testing is your problem. What are the main challenges OTT platforms themselves have to tackle?
OTT as a platform needs to develop its own sensibilities. In digital, a lot will depend on the kind of people that eventually form the OTT category as content creators. Right now the film guys are doing shows (Anurag Kashyap did Sacred Games, Excel produced Inside Edge for Amazon).
So a lot of film sensibility is coming into OTT. After a point, OTT cannot rely on this borrowed sensibility. Somewhere, what'll happen is - they'll end up making long format films, edgy films! In fact, a lot of TV production guys have departments that make OTT content.
Every category is driven by three to five key content creating companies. For TV, it was Balaji, for films it is Dharma, Yash Raj... what this (group) will be for OTT is not very clear yet. OTT needs to have an independent thought process, an identity. Right now, the identity is - it doesn't have censorship, you can watch it alone at home, it is cheaper than going out to the theatre.
Today, what is the Taarak Mehta equivalent of OTT? That cannot be a Pitchers or a Sacred Games. OTT needs that one unifying show that will work in small and big towns. Right now, most SVOD platforms are segmenting audiences. And videos on AVOD platforms and on YouTube are still in a space where the content is 'basic' - comedy, low cost properties, sports, GEC catch-up.
Another problem is - a lot of online content viewing is still happening through pirated sources. Many people here don't know that torrents are illegal.
A senior media buyer recently wrote a post on LinkedIn about the problem of 'too much content'. What's your take on this?
The consumer doesn't see it like that for sure. For the consumer, the choice is based on exposure to communication - trailers, promos - or social advocacy in their own groups on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp. The issue is awareness itself; earlier, the top show on TV would easily touch 80-90 per cent awareness within two weeks following its promo release. Today, even 60 per cent is wow. Even getting registered in people's minds is becoming difficult today, because there's so much content out there. Only the marquee ones stand out. This makes marketing an even bigger challenge.
Also, the concern with too much content is - too much mediocre content. Earlier we had 100 units of content of which 10 were good. Now we have 1,000 units, but still only 10 are good. Because of so much content, the longtail becomes really weak.
How badly do people react to content with brand integrations? And what's the broad arc for this sort of content?
The future belongs to what used to be called AFPs, that is, content created for the brand, rather than content into which a brand is plugged. Example, Mere Dad Ki Maruti, HUL's 6-Pack Band.
Strategic initiatives in which the brand is like a sponsor/supporter will work. Product placements, not so much. That's why media agencies now have content creation departments for this. Earlier it was just about brand insertions.
What's the toughest part of your job?
Complexity of media. Video is consumed across WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube... it's a rather messy continuum of things. You don't know where to segregate what. We are not clear on whether to treat video content as one... or three.
Is a housewife watching Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai on Hotstar OTT or GEC? Films are being watched on OTT as well. So is OTT a third island or are all three one big piece of land with territories and intersections?
Today, a lot of testing is about determining which platform to fit content on. Now in film testing, after showing people content, a standard question is - 'Online or theatre - where are you more likely to watch it?'
What are the most common types of errors in your process?
Typical errors are under or over estimating the extent to which content will work or won't. The direction is rarely incorrect; it's the degree that is sometimes hard to predict.
(This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs!Reporter on September 15, 2018).
Mirror, mirror, on the wall...Will this content work at all?
This fortnight, we interviewed the most sought after modern day soothsayer - Shailesh Kapoor of Ormax Media, whose job it is to predict whether video content will work or not. The way 'share-ability' is the most important thing for all kinds of online content, 'social advocacy' is the hallowed index for video content across OTT platforms, movies and TV. That is essentially the 'word of mouth' value a piece of video content commands. Social advocacy is how video content is discovered. The only question content creators ought to ask themselves is - "After watching this, will people tell their friends to watch it?" It's as simple as that. If only making 'recommendable' content was just as easy.
I spoke to Shailesh about the psychology of the Indian 'video consumer'. What do Indians want to watch? What kind of content will work in the days ahead? One of the most interesting takeaways from my chat with him was - today, the nature of video-on-demand content is determined more by the sensibilities of the people making it than by the preferences of the people watching it. That's partly why a lot of the content on OTT platforms tends to be dark, both metaphorically (edgy, disturbing, violent) and literally (low on brightness, light). Film makers experience a sense of liberation when they craft OTT content because the platform affords freedom of the kind our censorship-plagued feature film canvas doesn't.
Speaking of liberation, the 'OTT watcher' in India also experiences a rare sense of freedom while consuming content on these platforms, because it is, by design, a solo viewing experience. In India, video content consumption has, traditionally, been either a 'family activity' (television) or a community event (movies in theatres). OTT has changed that. Consequently, the appetite for dark, intense content has developed. Shailesh cautions against overdoing this kind of content: "OTT needs more variety...""