Anirban Roy Choudhury
Interviews

"The future of factual entertainment will get fuelled by subscription": Avinash Kaul, Network18  

Managing director, A+E Networks, TV18, and CEO, broadcast, Network18 believes, "The next OTT era will be one of factual entertainment."

Facebook and other social media platforms are stepping on to uncharted territory. People are getting to know about new recipes, learning about new breeds of pets, finding new places to travel while scrolling through their feeds.

In such a scenario, the infotainment, or factual entertainment genre on television not only has competition within (the genre), but a serious battle is also on for the consumer's time. Also, having content that is different from what is available on social media, is critical. One such show in the factual entertainment space is History TV18's 'OMG! Yeh Mera India'.

History TV18, which is a part of the A+E Networks, has announced the seventh season of the show. Avinash Kaul, managing director, A+E Networks, TV18, and CEO, broadcast, Network18, says that the show is more popular on digital than it is on TV. So, should the infotainment genre be worried? "No," says Kaul.

In an interview with afaqs!, he talks about the future of factual entertainment/infotainment genre. He believes that the digital growth will complement the genre. "The next OTT era will be one of factual entertainment."

Edited excerpts:

How did it all start? And, in its seventh season now, what does 'OMG! Yeh Mera India' mean for History TV18?

We wanted to look at people who make history every day. There is old history, contemporary history, and every day history. How you survived COVID last year (2020) is also a history, and you will narrate it to the next generation. Only a few stories will find space in the history books.

On the other hand, the news channels are busy with current affairs and don't necessarily have the bandwidth to look into what happened in the past. The general entertainment channels (GECs) are mostly busy with fiction… Where will the masses who are doing 'Oh My God' stuff every day get chronicled? That is how we started 'OMG! Yeh Mera India'. 

On TV, 18 crore people have watched the show (as measured by Broadcast Audience Research Council India). On digital, the show has so far fetched 84 crore views and 550 crore impressions.

"I firmly believe that the next OTT era will be one of factual entertainment"
Avinash Kaul

You said that the show travels. What is so unique about this particular format?

The new format is such that there are four three-five-minute episodes in each episode. Such content goes viral. When there is so much negativity around, these inspirational stories propel people to think differently.

These are not big industrialists or well-known people. In fact, they often become well-known only after featuring on 'OMG! Yeh Mera India'... Every year, the stories change, the narrative changes, and there are new geographies that we travel to.

How do you identify the stories?

There are a lot of entries that come in and, at the same time, we also source the stories. It helps to be a part of the large news network, where we have 1,200-plus reporters spread across the country.

Once the stories are sourced, there are various filters to check the 'virality' of a story, the wow factor, or if it will make people say OMG! Then, we go to the location and shoot an episode.

You featured Chandro Tomar (89-year-old 'Shooter Dadi' from UP) in one of your episodes. It later became a feature film ('Saand Ki Aankh'). What does it mean economically? Does it become a qualifier for advertisers?

For a show like 'OMG! Yeh Mera India', it is not just about the ratings. It is more than that. The sponsors are associating (themselves) with something that is positive, non-toxic and, at the same time, hugely inspirational. What also helps is the digital footprint, 84 crore views is a massive number across 300 stories we've told so far.

In the A+E family internationally, there are very few formats that have made it to the seventh season. So, when a client looks at the show, he already knows about it. It is likely that he has received a video on his local WhatsApp group. Now that is something that I can't measure. I can only measure YouTube and Facebook...

You can't measure or monetise WhatsApp and locals shares. Is it not taking away from your pie?

We know that the content on WhatsApp is not measured or monetised. Even then, it is our content and the brand is getting built. When the advertisers come on-board, they also look at the digital footprint. Today, when we sell, we don't sell linear TV, we also sell digital. The brands notice. So, it doesn't really matter which platform you are on, as long as the content is being consumed and loved.

How are you viewing the growth of OTT, which is getting into the factual entertainment space? There is CuriosityStream globally, Discovery Plus in India...

For brands like History TV18, it is the content that matters. We are a content creator and have an outlet in the form of a linear TV channel. Even when the content travels digitally, it is History TV18's content.

Earlier, the expectation was that people will come at a particular time and watch our content on TV. Over the last few years, especially after 4G launched in India, the dynamics have changed. More videos are being consumed online. So, as content producers, should we force people to see it only on the TV screen? We can't force consumers... So, we try to make the content available on all the platforms.

If you look at the OTT players, they have a subscription layer. Also, OTT in India has been led by entertainment, and not by factual entertainment. D+ (Discovery Plus) has taken some initiatives now, but the percentage of content compared to entertainment is nowhere.

"OTT has shown that people are willing to pay"
Avinash Kaul

Last year, we saw how a couple of BARC bar-o-meters here and there can make a huge difference for the niche genres. Should the advertisers stop looking at the ratings for infotainment?

I won't say that don't look at ratings, or any other indicators. Obviously, it is fragile and when you are measuring 1.3 billion-plus people with 40,000 metres, you are putting a lot of pressure on the system.

What we are trying to tell the advertisers is to look at the nature of content... Look at the resurgence of 'Ramayan' and 'Mahabharata' during the COVID disruption. The indicators will always have certain shortcomings here and there. What we try and sell is the sheer nature of the content.

What will fuel the future of factual entertainment in India?

The future of factual entertainment will get fuelled by subscription, and digital will contribute to it… Many advertisers are agnostic of everything, and look at one baseline and that is the reach. As all the infotainment channels are pay, unlike news, in absolute viewership terms, there is a certain deficit because you aren't available at 198 million households.

Will people pay for factual entertainment?

OTT has shown that people are willing to pay. If you look at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) numbers, GECs don't make much when it comes to monthly subscription. Then there are platforms like Netflix that charge Rs 750 per month. People would not have paid Rs 750 to any platform a few years back.

You said digital will contribute to the growth of infotainment, instead of challenging it, how?

OTT in India will mature in the next couple of years. The regulators have already come up with the guidelines, and the production cycles will take note of it. In the early days, one needed edgy content to acquire customers. Then the discussion started on family content on OTT... I firmly believe that the next OTT era will be one of factual entertainment.