Anirban Roy Choudhury

“Indian OTT Needs More Show-runners”: Abhishek Rege  

CEO of Endemol Shine India on leaping from reality TV to fiction on OTT.

The streaming market in India is exploding. As per consultancy firm KPMG, India is estimated to have a pool of 500 million paying subscribers by 2023 – that is more than three times Netflix’s global subscriber base of 158.3 million. While platforms are gunning for volumes, writers and directors are trying to please the nation’s diverse, heterogeneous streaming audience. Meanwhile, it’s open season for content producers.

For production powerhouse Endemol Shine India, best known for its non-fiction (reality) shows on television (Bigg Boss, Khatron Ke Khiladi, MasterChef India, India’s Next Superstars, etc.), the OTT world is a relatively new, immensely challenging, yet potentially lucrative one. Here on, the production team is looking to strike an equal balance between television and OTT content.

Founded in 2015, Endemol Shine India is part of Endemol Shine Group, which was acquired by French studio Banijay Group last October. Interestingly, Abhishek Rege, CEO of Endemol Shine India, believes Banijay and Endemol will continue to compete with each other, instead of amalgamating under one umbrella.

For Rege, the digital video streaming space is a way to increase the amount of revenue the firm gets from its scripted content. To this end, his team is remaking Dutch show ‘Pinozza’ – as ‘Arya’ for Hotstar – creating Originals – like ‘Bombay Begums’ with director Alankrita Shrivastava for Netflix – and is bullish on acquiring book rights – this includes ‘The Sane Psychopath’, a show about mental health based on Salil Desai’s novel, content based on American novelist Robin Cook’s books, and a series based on Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Ibis Trilogy’ (director Shekhar Kapur and screenwriter Michael Hirst will work on it) that Rege hopes will catapult Endemol onto an international pedestal.

Through a quick chat with afaqs!Reporter, Rege, who has spent the last eight years at Endemol, shows us what the content ecosystem looks like through a production lens.

Edited Excerpts

As the world around it has changed, does Bigg Boss remain the biggest television entertainment property in India? How is OTT changing the game?

Yes, Bigg Boss remains our biggest show and we don’t see that changing anytime soon. In fact, we are in conversation with broadcasters as we intend to expand it to more languages.

With OTT players coming in, broadcasters might want to experiment with finite daily shows... we see a possibility of that trend emerging in India. Instead of a 260-episode show or soaps with an unlimited number of episodes, it might move to a fixed number of episodes – say, 150 or 200 – where it’s not too much of a cost-chunk, yet there is a definitive story and closure for the audience.

Interesting, but is that possible in a ‘daily viewing’ market like ours?

When we say ‘daily soaps’, we have to realise that at the end of the day, there are multiple tracks that are created for those shows on a regular basis. If there is a finite storyline, there will be an arc they would stick to and there will be fewer generation jumps (leaps) and frequent track changes. That could happen between seasons, which is a more logical way of approaching it.

Economics wise, if you look at a 150-episode kind of a scenario, it’s not that far off from a 260-episode contract. With finite shows, the focus will shift to writing and the interest level of both the writers as well as the viewers will stay up.

Also Read: "When it comes to unscripted content, TV has set a very high bar, so we need to be differentiated": Prime Video's Vijay Subramaniam

When Netflix and Amazon came to India, show-runners became the need of the hour. In American formats, the showrunner is either a director or a writer. The problem with talent here is at every level, not just when it comes to showrunners.
Abhishek Rege

Endemol is known for its non-scripted shows – do you see this format doing well on digital? What is your OTT strategy like?

In the last three years, we have grown about 45 per cent. Our strategic move is to ensure we grow more than 20 per cent year-on-year, as the market is opening up. We see growth coming in from scripted content, but at the same time, non-fiction will continue to grow too. The difference is, nonfiction will grow at a steady pace versus scripted, which will see a sudden jump.

Okay, what is the ideal ratio you would like to target between the two types?

Today, about 80 per cent of our revenue comes from non-scripted content, and 20 per cent from scripted content. The attempt is to attain a 50:50 ratio by 2022, if not 2021. This is a goal we have set for ourselves. I think it is a realistic goal. I say this on the back of the number of shows that are in the pipeline. I see growth in our ‘scripted revenue’ coming in from the content we will produce for OTT platforms.

Also Read: India to be among top global OTT markets: Kantar

Are your upcoming scripted shows commissioned by platforms? What is the business model?

For us, the financial model is still the commission-underwritten model. We go to platforms like Hotstar, Amazon, Netflix, or to broadcasters and tell them about the ideas we have.

In a lot of cases, we go with a package, which includes the idea, the director, the writer, and the show-runner. The better the package, the higher the chances of getting it done. The IP goes to the platform.

If shows are to be remade, or if prequels/ sequels have to be made, then the production house must remain the same.

Speaking of sequels, do you decide the number of seasons for a show at the outset? Of late, many highly anticipated sequels (Sacred Games, Inside Edge) didn’t live up to the hype...

Each season has to give the viewer closure. If the second season doesn’t give a viewer closure, he/she will feel the time spent watching season one has been a waste. So, there must be a sense of fulfilment for watching a season.

Also, each episode must end on a note that makes the viewer automatically tune into the next episode. The idea is to get them to binge; if you manage to do that, it is more likely that they will come back for the second season, which can either be a continuation of the first or start with a different plot.

How important are sequels for you to become profitable?

Sequels are proof of success and are, thus, very important. Unless the platform itself is in a brand-building phase, it won’t commission more than a season if the story does not click.

From our business perspective, we get paid a mark-up on the cost... which means, as the producer, we are taken care of. See, the multiseason concept helps the platform attain higher retention. Also, the sequel of a good first season is easier to market, compared to a new season where you have to invest a lot more. So, as you get more seasons in, the overall project cost keeps declining.

There’s a perception that only ‘premium’ shows are binge-worthy. How do you define premium?

The definition of premium content is – a very expensive show, with a lot of known faces on and off screen. The reality is, a lot of OTT players have now started looking at the specific requirements of each project; the Netflix that first came in and the Netflix of today are very different in terms of approach. The conversation has moved from ‘what do you want?’ to ‘what’s needed’. It’s very rationale driven today.Having said so, if you want to create a fantastic, blown-up, expensive property, there are players who will say “do it”, but in general, it’s more necessity-based today.

Also Read: Sameer Nair - The Storyteller

This sounds like cost-cutting...

For a series, if you have a big director, then you can then go ahead with a mid-range cast. When you invest heavily in a writer and a director, you have got one side covered. Similarly, if you decide to bring in fresh talent on the writer/director front, then you need to spend on a top tier cast.

Platforms have started taking a balanced approach now. I believe the marketing expense involved (money spent promoting shows) has played a role. This is not an appointment viewing medium and, therefore, platforms need to spend to ensure discovery. It is good that this is happening... otherwise we will end up doing fewer shows, instead of giving viewers more options.

Do we have enough talent to manage these, and other, requirements?

No, and that is the biggest problem. In television, we always had project heads leading a show. Sometimes, they were called creative directors, at times, the owner of the production house involved played that role. In the UK, they are called executive producers, in the US, they are known as show-runners.

When Netflix and Amazon came to India, showrunners became the need of the hour. In American formats, the show-runner is either a director or a writer. The problem with talent here is at every level, not just when it comes to show-runners.

We have a limited pool; there’s only a certain number of good directors who can direct premium shows. Now, if you want to have that director as show-runner as well, he/she needs to commit to the project full time. It’s the same for writers as well. And that is not possible at this stage. So, you might just have enough writers and directors, but you certainly do not have enough show-runners.

Editor's note:

"Online video content is all around us. I paused a tutorial I was watching on YouTube to attend a meeting to finalise the agenda for vdonxt asia, our upcoming event on the business of online video, before settling down to write this note, a preamble to an interview with the chief of a content studio – Endemol Shine India’s Abhishek Rege.

In the bargain, I am reminded of a chat I had over a year ago when the Indian OTT space was in mid-bloom, with Ormax’s Shailesh Kapoor, about how the Indian streaming world is running on sensibilities borrowed from Hindi feature films and why online dramas tend to be literally and metaphorically dark. We have since interviewed many a decision maker from the online video space; each time we’ve looked at the same subject, from a new lens. This time, Endemol’s Rege helps us appraise the content ecosystem from a production lens.

Rege’s lens is particularly interesting because Endemol is best known for producing reality shows on television, including Bigg Boss. Now, the team is bullish on web content, because Rege sees tremendous potential in scripted, versus non-scripted, web content.

Another thought provoking part of the discussion was around the way OTT trends have influenced TV shows; going forward, broadcasters, per Rege, might experiment with finite shows a lot more, instead of flogging endless storylines with no closure in sight.

Our reporter also discussed one of my favourite subjects with Rege – what makes a show premium? I’ve always wondered whether it’s got more to do with the production budget – locations and costumes – or the popularity of the director, the glamour quotient of the cast or the marketing spend pumped into promoting the show. Rege’s answer was one I’ve never heard before. Streaming platforms, he says, are more “balanced” today than they were a year or so ago... and we thought evolution took place over millennia."

Ashwini Gangal

Executive Editor