Anirban Roy Choudhury

The purpose of Hotstar Specials is to turn viewers into paid subscribers: Nikhil Madhok, Hotstar

An exclusive interview with the head of content at Hotstar which announced its new title "Hostages".

Star India's video on demand platform Hotstar, which came into being in February 2015, waited four years to make its full-fledged entry onto the 'Originals' bandwagon. Though it streamed few digital-only shows on the platform, those were few and far between. In early 2019, Hotstar announced that it would start creating premium shows and launched a new vertical - Hotstar Specials.

The organisation said that Star, as a group, creates thousands of hours of original content for various TV channels, those are also available on Hotstar and thus, it was launching a separate vertical where it would put all its digital-only premium dramas. In March 2019, Specials made its debut with a sports docudrama "Roar of the Lion" which featured Mahendra Singh Dhoni narrating his highs and lows during the two years that the IPL franchise - Chennai Super Kings - was banned from the tourney. The thriller 'Criminal Justice' and Political drama, "City of Dreams" followed and today, Hotstar announced the release of a new show - Hostages.

The purpose of Hotstar Specials is to turn viewers into paid subscribers: Nikhil Madhok, Hotstar

Nikhil Madhok is running the Specials division at Hotstar as head-original content. He has been in the broadcast business for more than a decade. Before that, he was general manager marketing at Hindustan Unilever looking after Lifebuoy. The marketer turned broadcaster spoke with afaqs! about Hotstar Specials and here is what he had to say:

Edited Excerpts

It has been some time since you launched Hotstar Specials, how has the response been?

We launched our first special on March 20, 2019 and a total of three Specials, so far. All three have actually done well for us, in terms of viewers' response and from a business perspective in driving subscribers. Of the three, Criminal Justice has gone on to be a massive hit not only for Hotstar but in the entire OTT space. We are just three Specials old, it would take a year for us to analyse how it has improved the viewership and time spent.

How would you explain the profile of the Hotstar Specials viewers and where do they come from?

The maximum viewers are from the 18-35 segment. I would say from a qualitative perspective, 'Roar of the lion,'as expected got a much bigger share of viewers from CSK fans and Tamil Nadu.

Overall, it is pretty spread out. We have picked up viewers from all states. Some of the bigger states contribute more, but we are also getting Hotstar Specials viewership from cities below a 10 lakh population too. The bulk of viewers may come from top metros, but that does not mean that users from smaller towns are not watching or not willing to pay. The number may be small but it is there. The quality of Hotstar Specials shows are premium, but we are not creating this only for a niche audience. We want Hotstar Specials to be the bridge that brings people into the pay universe.

You launched three shows during the IPL; as an ex-marketer, how did IPL as a platform, help you promote your shows?

IPL became a great launch platform for the three Specials. We strategically timed it because when people are already on the platform and have already opened the Hotstar app, it is much easier to tell them that a new Special has been launched on the platform. Another benefit of launching the shows during IPL was the fact that we promoted the Specials during the ad breaks. The easiest way to get someone to discover your new show is by recommending it to them when they are on the platform.

'Hostages' is your fourth Specials show; you have international content on the platform and soon you will have Disney+ merging, how do you plan to tackle the challenge of discovery?

It is a challenge and in fact, it is one for all OTT platforms, there is no easy solution. We do have an internal engineering and product team, some of them sit in Bangalore while some are based out of Beijing. They are trying to solve this issue by enhancing the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The idea is to understand the viewer better to improve the quality of recommendations that we can make at scale. It is a continuous process. I would not say that we have solved the problem, but we are in the process of getting better at it.

What about letting people outside the Hotstar universe know about your shows? With so many platforms releasing so many shows, won't you run out of billboards?

It is actually a challenge for the smaller players in the market. By habit, about 300 million users are streaming on Hotstar, so when you have attained that scale and command such loyalty, it is less of a challenge. For us, discovery within the platform is a bigger challenge than making people aware that a new show is now streaming on Hotstar.

So, with Specials, what is it that you are targeting to get new players on the platform or convert existing ones to paid subscribers?

At 300 million, we have a large number of people who are already on the platform. Our main target with Specials is how to create content that consumers love and love enough to pay for. What we are trying to do at this stage is offer a variety of shows. What we have seen in the OTT space is there are a lot of shows which feature violence, so we wanted to create a sense of variety. As a result, the first one we launched was a sports docudrama, then followed up with a political thriller and the next one in our line-up is the Indian remake of 'The Office'. In the beginning, it is important to experiment and offer something new; only then we will be able to understand what it is that people like and customise accordingly.

What do you mean when you say 'something new'? How many new pieces are you looking at?

When we say something new, we mean ideally it should be a genre or a story or the kind of storytelling that does not exist on Hotstar. Remember, Star TV's entire content resides on Hotstar which users can access for free. So, Specials is the initiative to bring something new to Hotstar for which people are willing to pay money to access. Right now, the state at which the industry is in and the kind of quality and standard we want to maintain doing a launch a month is a good frequency. Maybe after the first year, we may increase this to two launches a month.

What according to you, is the biggest challenge for Hotstar Specials at this stage?

Creating high-quality, premium drama takes a lot of effort. If you want to do something meaningful, it requires 12-15 months. So, the challenge is - how do you commission/green light something today which would be ready after 15 months and yet remain relevant at that point in time.

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