Anirban Roy Choudhury

Sameer Nair - The Storyteller

In 2005, Aditya Birla Group’s film studio Applause Entertainment co-produced Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee starrer ‘Black’, a Hindi feature film. While it did well, the Birlas decided to move away from the production business. In 2017, the group hired Sameer Nair and revived the studio. Since then, Applause Entertainment has played its part in growing the Indian digital video ecosystem.

Nair, CEO, Applause Entertainment, joined the studio with the ambition of creating premium dramas for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and the like. So far, as many as four shows are streaming on Hotstar, one on Amazon Prime Video (‘Mind The Malhotras’), ‘Hello Mini’ on MX Player and Tamil show ‘Iru Dhuruvam’ on SonyLIV. Within a span of two years, the studio has already managed to market around 10 shows which are at various stages of postproduction, and has several more in the pipeline.

This business of making shows, for the small screen, and then selling them to video-on-demand (VOD) platforms is relatively new in India. Historically, television broadcasters like Star, Zee, Sony, commissioned shows to production houses like Balaji Telefilms, Swastik, etc. – the risk was undertaken by the broadcaster and, in return, the broadcaster owned the intellectual property forever. That’s how the ecosystem was designed. However, studios like Applause create shows themselves – and with it, comes the risk and the reward.

Before joining Applause, Nair was group CEO at Balaji Telefilms; it was during his tenure that the group launched its VOD platform ALTBalaji. Nair started his broadcast journey with Star India in 1994 as its first programming head and is credited with shaping Indian television. At Star India, where he went on to become the CEO, he was closely involved with fortune-turning shows like ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ and the ‘K’ series - ‘Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki’, ‘Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’, ‘Kasauti Zindagi Kay’.

In 2006, he joined Prannoy Roy’s NDTV to lead the then new general entertainment business; he was the CEO of NDTV Imagine, a channel that never really found its stride. Of late, Nair has pivoted towards making movies, documentaries and shortform fiction.

Edited Excerpts:

When you joined Star TV, private television was in its early stages, just like digital is today – do you see similarities?

Yes, now there is a whole range of OTT platforms coming up, just like how satellite television was in the early 1990s and 2000s. There is a lot of interest in the market, lot of new players are getting in, there’s competition, the market is growing, the audience is growing, there are many ideas... in entertainment, business models succeed and fail primarily basis audience appreciation.

In the early ’90s, when the television business was being built; we were creating content, but at the same time, we were also laying cables for distribution. In the OTT world, distribution is already in place – of a billion homes, 400 million have got access to high speed internet, screens already exist. In fact, content is playing catch up to distribution.

YouTube has 300 million monthly active users, so the audience is already there. In the television business, there was no audience back then.

Sameer Nair - The Storyteller

What about the big differences? Unlike TV, digital platforms don’t share ratings - how do you know how your shows have fared?

There are three ways: social chatter, the feedback we get from platforms, and the real litmus test – the opportunity to make a second season.

What drove you to the content business – art or commerce?

I’ve always been a storyteller, be it in advertising, television or in the studio business. There’s the creative part of it and then there is commerce. It is not art for art’s sake or art for commerce’s sake; it’s actually art for applause, appreciation and acclaim. Eventually, the result is some sort of commercial benefit for all stakeholders. There are producers investing in the shows, so it is important to not lose money. It is called showbiz or show business, after all.

Also, I am drawn to entrepreneurial ideas, building teams from scratch, and then creating the business brick by brick, I like doing it.

“In the early ’90s, when the television business was being built, we were creating content but at the same time, we were also laying cables for distribution. In the OTT world, distribution is already in place – in fact, content is playing catch up to distribution.”
Sameer Nair

Has our industry warmed up to the concept of studios supplying content to platforms?

The model is new for the market. It’s exciting. It’s like a hybrid movie model. Historically, studios have been making films that have been financed in different ways - pre-sell, studio finance, raising money to make films and then selling different rights. It’s a globally established model that we’ve brought to the drama series business. In a sense, we look at drama series as cinematic television.

We, at Applause, have produced 15 shows so far, of which 10 have been licensed/sold. There are around nine more shows, at various stages of postproduction.

Do you see trends in the Indian digital ecosystem following those in the Western market?

The West evolved differently, not just on the tech front... even content. In the West, there was a lot of premium drama on television. We, in India, missed that moment. The West always had their studios and production companies, and they have always created this kind of content. There, the audience simply moved from consuming it on linear television to digital. For them, a Netflix is not an invention of content as much it is an invention of distribution.

India never had that kind of premium cinematic television, because we got into daily soaps. That is the need gap we’ve spotted. No one can come here and buy a big library for this gap... it doesn’t exist.

Tell us about the process of commissioning; do you speak with the platforms before making a show?

There is risk involved in what we do. So far, we have been commissioning shows on our own. We collaborate with content creators and talk to the platforms after the show is made. For second seasons of shows, we collaborate with the creator and the platform.

Does your revenue depend on the viewership of the show?

Unfortunately, no. But that’s fair... because platforms have a business to run. They have large overhead costs and operating expenses. So, if we are creating a show and licensing it to a platform, exclusively, for a certain period of time, there is a premium on that and then they monetise it. When they monetise, it becomes a basket of programming for a basket of revenue. A consumer who buys a monthly subscription never buys a show; he/she buys the service. Some shows do well, some don’t.

You have adapted a few international hits like ‘Hostages’, ‘The Office’ – was it just a ‘launch strategy’? What about originals?

Many big TV shows are adaptations – ‘KBC’ is an adaptation, ‘Bigg Boss’ is a remake. The Americans do it all the time; the famous ‘Homeland’ is an adaptation of an Israeli show, ‘The Office’ is an adaptation of a British show. I don’t think there is any other country where they get caught up in this who ‘Oh but why can’t you do originals’ thing. I think it’s a very facile argument. Adapting something is extremely difficult... if you do it badly, or if you do not make your own, enough to resonate with your audience, it is not going to succeed.

Also, it is better to legitimately adopt than rip off, which so much of my community does all the time in any case. The American ‘Office’ is my favourite show and we are very proud that we could make the Indian version. When we made KBC (Star, 2000), we never messed around with it. I started the show 19-20 years ago and just a couple of days back, I saw a lady win a crore. It is still the same show.

This does not mean adaptations are an easier sell. Finally, you still have to tell a great story, you still have to cast it, and then adapt it so the whole process has to be repeated.

“In this content business, everything is competition. The biggest competition for OTT platforms is something like TikTok. It’s about fighting for peoples’ time; the more time they spend on social media, the less time they have to consume a series.”
Sameer Nair

Right. Speaking of ‘The Office’, did you discuss it with Hotstar before you commissioned the BBC to make the Indian version?

No, we did not discuss ‘The Office’ with Hotstar before it was made. It was a show that had to be made and we did it. And we can do in the future too.

There is a huge, hungry audience of about 500 million, as per our last count, and it is growing. Obviously television has fatigued... it is not dying, but is slowing down. This whole thing about binge viewing, new stories and new genres is catching up. It is a lot more individualistic, on-demand viewing. We will see all sorts of stories being thrown at this audience, both adaptations and originals.

What are your plans for regional content - do you see takers for premium dramas here?

We have done three Tamil shows, we are doing one Gujarati show and one Kannada-Dakhinish (Indo-Aryan language spoken in South India) show. If you are trying to build a big, robust subscription or advertising-supported market, you need to expand. That is how TV expanded as well... there were Hindi channels and just one Sun TV... now, everyone has expanded everywhere.

Our immediate expansion plans include expanding the scope of what we define as storytelling. Currently, we have been completely focussed on drama series, but we are also looking to build a movie business. We are planning to work on a whole range of middle to high budget movies – that’s our focus point.

We are working on a few international collaborations, which means, we are working with international players to co-create series and movies for either the Indian market or international markets. We are getting into shortform fiction as well, which is about stories and not two people dancing... that, is TikTok. I believe short-form (under 20 minutes) fiction is going to be big in India.

What are your views on AVOD and do you see more of your content out there?

We have just done a show which is going to come on MX Player, an AVOD platform. We produced it as a single series and now they are inserting ads in it.

There are two types of digital content pipelines – subscription-led platforms like Netflix and Amazon, and free, ad-supported ones. When people watch subscription services for long periods of time, they’re not exposed to advertising messages during that time. It would be interesting to see the domino effect this has on advertising.

Excel Entertainment creates drama series for OTT platforms, Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment just produced one, Dharma and Yash Raj are also doing it – how do you appraise competition in the studio business? Is there enough money in the market to fuel the growth of premium dramas in India?

Even with all of this, I think we are too few. In this content business, everything is competition. The biggest competition for OTT platforms is something like TikTok. It’s about fighting for peoples’ time; the more time they spend on social media, the less time they have to consume a series. But competition is welcome; it raises the bar, makes you feel alive.

While we keep talking about digital being young and nascent, the fact is that a lot of the players in the business are old and established, say, broadcasters, international players, or even e-commerce, technology companies and telcos. So, while it’s a growing market, it’s also a mature one. Everyone is trying to figure out how best to monetise. I don’t think money is a problem as a lot of the players involved in this are deeppocketed. India is a large market and we could reach 500 million paying customers.

The market is large enough to accommodate everyone. It’s about economics. It is not about ‘Should there be so many platforms?’. It’s about ‘Can so many platforms afford to exist?

Editor's Note:

“ The future of content is, increasingly, a war for your attention, your time, your money, in that order...”

That’s a line from a 2017 TEDx talk by Sameer Nair, CEO of Applause Entertainment, a content and IP creation studio. Nair started out wanting to become an astronaut, ended up studying hotel management, and somehow landed up in the Indian media and entertainment space, where he spent over three decades and created one of the deepest dents on the business, especially during his time at Star. Credited with making saas-bahu soaps a staple for viewers of Indian television and for bringing Kaun Banega Crorepati into our lives and vocabulary, Nair is now preoccupied with creating “premium drama” content for the modern day consumer. Premium cinematic television, as he calls it, is a genre of content that India, unlike the West, has skipped. That’s the gap he is looking to fill, online.

While Arianna Huffington routinely implores us, through her speeches and books, to sleep adequately and on time, Nair concedes that the content business is rivalled by not competing studios or platforms but “everything else”, like going to the theatre for a movie or to a restaurant for dinner, and... sleeping. One of the existential questions we face today is: Should I watch the next episode or go to bed? I recall author Chetan Bhagat saying something similar, years back, in the context of books and how they compete with anything that makes demands on a potential reader’s precious leisure time and finite attention.

For this interview, Nair welcomed our reporter into his spacious Pali Hill home at Bandra, Mumbai. Though he refused to wear a suit for the shoot - “I’ve never been a suit person, you know...” - he, with a lot of help from the missus, indulged the whims of our photographers, with a smile. Pause the show you’re binge-ing, sit back and enjoy this detailed interview.

Ashwini Gangal

Executive Editor

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