Anirban Roy Choudhury

"In the digital business, every hour is a Thursday": Tarun Katial

As ZEE5 turns one, Tarun Katial, CEO, ZEE5 India, chats with us about his content strategy and the experience of navigating the competitive world of over-the-top video.

February 14 2018 was when ZEE5 was launched with a bang. The digital video-ondemand (VOD) platform from the media conglomerate Zee Entertainment Enterprises grabbed immediate attention when it announced that it would release 90 original titles in Year One.

Back then, Netflix was yet to launch its first India Original, Amazon Prime Video had added two India Originals to its portfolio and ALTBalaji and VOOT had a few of those - but 90? An unprecedented move, it had its share of sceptics especially because of ZEEL's not-so-successful 'experiment' with Ditto TV, launched in 2012 and Ozee, which came into being in 2016.

A year later on February 14, 2019, ZEE5 - one of the last to enter the VOD war - claimed that it had 56.3 million monthly active users (MAU) and that it had registered a 36 per cent growth over the quarter ending September 2019. It also declared that users spend an average of 31 minutes per day on ZEE5. The app crossed 50 million gross downloads on the Android Play Store. So did the 90 original titles work?

"The depth matters," says Tarun Katial, CEO, ZEE5 India. According to Katial, the platform will release 72 new titles by April 2020, which means about three per month. These titles will include, episodic series, digitalonly movies, and short stories. In an exclusive interview with afaqs! Reporter Katial looks back - and ahead.

Edited Excerpts

You have held leadership positions in Star and Sony in the past. Weekly ratings give you an assessment of where your channel stands which is a source of motivation. How is it in digital?

Every hour is a Thursday in the digital business. We have real-time analytic data that comes directly on our smartphones and thus we know how we are performing every hour. We keep on analysing what content or feature or functionality has resulted in what outcome. The other thing that we constantly keep a track of is the result of each promotion. I come from a data background and I am very committed to data and planning out of it.

Fifty million gross downloads is a big number. How about retention?

We have very good retention rates. We probably have the best retention rates in the Indian space. That is also primarily because we tend to focus on intent-based downloads and most of our marketing efforts are all intent-based - contextual advertising, content marketing and so on.

This actually makes a difference between just acquiring customers and acquiring customers who want to watch you. What we do is slightly more progressive from just acquiring customers. We always followed the onion peel approach where first, we go after consumers who already consume Zee TV and the network (regional) content and then the others.

When you look back at the year gone by, what do you think are the highlights so far?

Launching a premium service was a big highlight for us. We are probably at the front end of premium and original content in the country. There were some global majors who had some bit of Indian original content and then there are some who have tried to use sports as a premium offering. We are the only Indian OTT player which has such vast library content in so many different languages. Launching so many premium shows in so many different languages was a big highlight for us.

In terms of technology what are the accomplishments that excite you?

The launch itself was a highlight - 12 languages on UI and putting up content in 12 languages was a big highlight. Voice search was another. India requires voice search for the new Indian consumer coming in as well as the top end consumer, they both are moving to voice search. Then building a video platform which is adaptive to various bandwidth and network constraints that India goes through. Building a whole Big Data engine on the backend has been a big accomplishment for the year and having a very big data team that churns out both descriptive and prescriptive models. We have developed a system where we are using a lot of AI on a lot of content. Things like auto previews, recommendation which lead to higher engagement.

Regional stays at the core of all your communications. How do you execute regional content sitting in Mumbai and what went behind coming up with regional subscription packs?

We identified markets and started building teams in regional markets. We understood that the regional markets have their own unique nuances and insights. It was important for us to make sure we had teams with local talent who understand the local consumer in each of the regional markets. So, we got senior media professionals to run the teams built in the regional markets.

We had a threshold of original content available in those languages. When I say threshold, I mean Original Series, Original Movies and Movie Premieres. We were also ready to launch our network content before television. That is why we decided to launch separate SVOD plans for the regional markets.

Who is it that your premium content is targeted at?

Television has its own formulae which did very well for several years and continues to do well, but because it lacks certain amount of personalisation and segmentation, it is always targeted at the lowest common denominator. Digital gave us the option to personalise and segment, it allowed us to target to the different taste clusters and different kind of content to be created and purposed for that target group. That gave opportunities to a lot of people waiting to tell great stories.

You have announced that ZEE5 will release 72 titles by April 2020. How do you plan to market so many shows as there are only certain number of available billboards?

You cannot market everything and we do not market everything. What happens is that you market a lot and then some of it gets discovered on the platform which - on its own - has a vast reach. Our experience is that you do stuff socially, digitally and then on the platform itself. For the marquee ones you go out and market.

How do you decide on what is marquee?

By the investment, cast and crew. But it is also about the stuff that you think has the largest and the widest appeal.

In terms of content consumption, what is the viewership share of catch-up TV content?

When it comes to the premium subscribers, catch-up TV content is not that high. But on the free side, the consumption of television content is very high and that is because catch TV content is what the free consumers consume.

You want to increase your subscriber base by 30X in the next two years. How do you intend to do that? Is your SVOD subscriber a new content consumer or are you looking to grab a pie out of the TV viewer base?

The subscribers will come from both B2B and B2C and through our ability to purpose the content and its volume. They will also come through partnerships with telcos, partnerships with other services, partners in the OEM space.

There is a fair amount of overlap between people who consume television through cable or DTH and SVOD on OTT platforms. Also, the SVOD consumer is slightly more discerning, slightly more variety seeking, more diverse and has a different taste. The SVOD consumer is also the one who is looking for the new and is an early adopter too.

Is there a particular indication of what works on SVOD? There is a criticism that SVOD platforms are banking on bold and adult-edgy content to rake in subscribers...

It is too early to define and make it a cookie-cutter approach like TV is becoming equal to daily soaps. I don't think we want to do that to the premium original content. You need to explore genres, stories, ideas, characters, real-life ideas and keep innovating otherwise we will start making daily soaps very soon.

Digital, since it is a personal medium gives, gives us the opportunity to do programming which is a little bold by nature. Having said so we have never done something that doesn't need to be done. In case there is a show which we felt is not suitable for family viewing, we mention it clearly with slates.

The shows you have announced include Bollywood celebrities as well acclaimed directors and big sets. With the number of subscribers that you have, how do those huge investments make economic sense?

These shows make economic sense because we need to remember that these have very deep lifetime value. And there is a newness each time. There are people who started watching House of Cards from Season One, but when the series was in its fifth season, it was brand new for them. Even today Karenjit Kaur happens to be my No.1 show on ZEE5 because many new subscribers who buy the subscription pack, watch the show which was launched nine months ago.

What do you think your biggest challenge is at this stage?

I just hope to have many, many, more subscribers out of our entire active user base. I believe that subscribers tend to spend equal time between premium content and TV shows. So, we need to convert those consumers in our ecosystem to premium subscribers.

A Note From the Editor

If there's one thing that amazes me about the Indian OTT segment - that comprises over 30 players, of which 10-15 have big numbers - it's the prolificity with which new content is churned. There is just so much content being produced! Just how many shows are we to watch?

ZEE5, freemium digital video-on-demand platform from the house of Zee Entertainment Enterprises, one of the last to enter the VOD battleground, began by announcing 90 original titles in its first year. Moreover, the platform will release 72 new titles by April 2020. Yet, Tarun Katial, CEO, ZEE5 India, insists it's the depth that matters. He's on our cover this issue, as ZEE5 turns one.

We spoke to Tarun about the competitive OTT game - particularly, ZEE5's audience acquisition strategy, what premium means in the OTT space, the importance of creating content for regional audiences, the growth of voice search, the content recommendation system he's got in place on the platform, and most importantly, his subscription related plans. Tarun is confident about being able to convert his non-paying users into paying users, soon. Interestingly, he tells us there's a fair amount of overlap between people who watch television and those who pay for content on OTT. But, on the contrary, from a consumer psychology perspective, one must look at not television, but the film industry, and film marketing, very closely if one is keen on understanding the online video pay space, believe media experts.

One point made by Tarun really stayed with me; it challenges the way we've been classifying content all this while: on OTT, unlike on TV - or even in the case of movies - how 'new' a show is, depends not on the release date, but on when a person discovers it. By that definition, for him, an old-yet-new show is Karenjit Kaur - The Untold Story of Sunny Leone. Every new subscriber watches it, he claims.

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