Shailesh Kapoor
Guest Article

Beyond binaries: understanding India’s entertainment landscape in the post-pandemic world

2022 will be streaming’s biggest year in India. But it could also be the biggest year for the box office.

It’s been a dream run for the streaming category in India over the last year-and-a-half. The COVID pandemic and the associated lockdowns negatively impacted other domains of entertainment, especially theatres. However, for streaming, the pandemic provided an out-of-the-blue opportunity for accelerated growth, with a sharp increase in both paid and non-paid audience bases.

As of July 2021, India’s paid streaming universe stands at 40.7 million people, who are paying for 96 million subscriptions, i.e., an average of 2.6 subscriptions per person. These subscriptions are being used by another 69.8 million, i.e., a total of 110 million people, which means that for every paying person, there are 1.7 others, typically family members, who are watching paid content.

The 110.5 million universe is about 31 per cent of India’s 353.2 million digital video universe, with the remaining 69 per cent watching only free content, such as YouTube and social media videos, and catch-up television.

These findings of the Ormax OTT Audience Report 2021 bring a sense of perspective to India’s streaming story. The 40.7 million number was around the 25 million mark in 2019, pre-pandemic. So, there has been a sharp growth, indeed. But at 110.5 million, it is only about 8 per cent of India’s estimated 2021 population.

Shailesh Kapoor
Shailesh Kapoor

Clearly, the paid (SVOD) streaming category in India is still in its formative years. While streaming has grown fast, and YouTube is now acquiring ‘mass’ status, the paid universe, captured by premium services like Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, is still a niche, urban phenomenon. We can expect the numbers to grow with each passing year. Because India’s paid streaming journey has only started.

India’s TV universe, as estimated by BARC India’s Broadcast India Report in 2019, is 836 million, which is more than twice India’s OTT universe, and almost eight times India’s paid OTT universe. And yet, the two media are often pitted against each other, in the over-simplistic TV versus OTT binary.

False binaries, it seems, are a norm in today’s world of clickbait headlines. The one I have grudgingly learnt to suffer over the last year is OTT versus theatres. Unlike TV, India’s theatrical universe is somewhat comparable in size to the paid OTT universe, standing at about 145.7 million pre-pandemic, as per Ormax’s Sizing the Cinema Report. The expected overlap between this 145.7 million and the 110.5 million paid OTT universe is likely to be substantial too. But that’s not enough ground to create a binary debate.

The two media are polar opposites of each other, in context of their consumption behaviour. Theatrical consumption is an outdoor activity, where the experience of visiting a theatre and hanging out with friends or family is as important, if not more important, than the content itself.

Streaming, on the other hand, is an intimate medium for personal consumption, and is as anti-communal as any entertainment consumption can possibly get. Even though 2.7 people are watching on one account, they are often watching individually, consuming different content at different times, based on their mood and taste. Theatrical is a ‘social’ idea, and streaming is the ‘anti-social’ end of the entertainment spectrum.

We will see this false binary break down in real time over the next few weeks, now that the Maharashtra government has allowed for theatres to reopen from October 22 and the floodgates have opened for major Hindi films to release. We will see a starved audience throng the theatres for the outdoor experience they have been craving and, yet, the streaming category will continue to prosper.

2022 will obviously be streaming’s biggest year in India. But it is also quite likely that it will be the biggest year for box office in India, given the healthy lineup of big films, including several from the South, which also have very promising Hindi dubbed versions lined up.

Implicit to these false binaries is the assumption that an audience member has finite time, and if she starts watching more streaming, she must cut down on her TV. Or, if she starts going to theatres, streaming consumption will suffer.

But that’s not how entertainment is perceived by the audience itself. Entertainment consumption time can come from a host of other leisure activities, including playing, reading and shopping (even sleeping). The time is never fixed, but adapts itself to options at hand. And that’s why, different media with different context (television = family, theatrical = outdoor, streaming = personal) can prosper together.

In this trinity, streaming is currently the best placed for growth. Television can only grow through higher penetration in media-dark parts of India, especially rural sectors in the Hindi heartland. Growing India’s theatrical universe is tough, as it’s linked to the habit of going out, which can take years to build or break.

But streaming is new, and still being discovered by many. It will continue to find takers, especially when regional platforms come up, and audiences in key language markets are served content that’s native in not just language, but also taste.

In all this, platforms must deal with the uniquely Indian challenge: India just does not know how to pay for content. We have been served 400-plus TV channels at less than Rs 10 per day for a family of five. Paying for content is not so much about the affordability, but about the notion of wanting to pay itself. “Why should I pay if so much is available for free anyway?” How well the streaming giants address this consumer mindset will determine how fast the growth over the next 2-3 years is.

Irrespective of how that pans out, we are set for some exciting times ahead. Let’s, then, move beyond the false binaries in favour of a more nuanced understanding of what lies ahead.

(The author is the founder and CEO of Ormax Media.)