Suraj Ramnath

"Self-regulation is the best way": Zee5's Tarun Katial on censorship of OTT content

We spoke to the chief executive officer of ZEE5 about the content, strategy and challenges of his VOD platform.

While Zee Entertainment Enterprises announced, through a press release in May, that Tarun Katial (43) has been roped in as chief executive officer for it's over the top (OTT) platform - Zee5, Katial has been involved in the planning and making of originals for the platform right from the end of 2016, while the merger of Big FM was on-going.

Katial was founder, chief operating officer and chief executive officer of Big FM from February 2006 up to May 2018. Prior to that, he worked with BTVI as a board member for three years. Katial also worked with Sony Pictures Entertainment as business head and executive vice president, Sony Entertainment Television. His impressive resume also includes work with Star TV, Ogilvy & Mather and Enterprise Nexus Lowe.

"Self-regulation is the best way": Zee5's Tarun Katial on censorship of OTT content

Tarun Katial

Recently, ZEE5 launched a Marathi web-series called Liftman and prior to that the platform launched a biopic - Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone. Today, the platform has launched a Bengali original - AranyaDeb, a story of Kolkata as a city, in reality, and imagination through the lives of two friends.

According to a source, the OTT platform is going to launch close to 90 originals in the next one year.

While Katial refuses to confirm or deny those numbers he did speak to us about the platform focusing on launching originals not only in Hindi but in regional languages too and about the various challenges that lay ahead.

Talking about his goal for ZEE5, Katial says, "It's very important that we give Indians a great platform that has inherent advantages like the convenience of viewing a variety of content in a language of their choice. All of these are the attributes that we bring to the table. Original content in various languages, network content at their own time and their own convenience shoulder content that is unseen on TV. So, it is a platform full of opportunities and possibilities."

In the past one year, OTT platforms like Amazon Prime came up with shows like Inside Edge, Netflix with Sacred Games and now ZEE5 with Karenjit Kaur and people seem to like these Indian pieces of original content. We asked him if that's the way ahead for a future where people will judge a platform's performance based on which one consistently gives them good, original content. He says, "I think the depth of the network, whether it is original with a great tech product with good data analytics and good recommendations, those would be the key for any OTT platform."

Talking about the focus on regional content, Katial says, "Language content is one of our pillars. All data shows us that the new 'Internet Indian' is coming into languages and Indians are colloquially, very proud of their culture and languages. So, that's the point. We try and embody these cultures in the stories and in their languages on our platform. Whether it is Tamil, Telegu, Bengali, Marathi or Kannada, we are going to be focusing on all the big markets which have large cultures and sub-cultures."

While Netflix had already launched 'Mostly Sunny' in the year 2016, we asked Katial if he was apprehensive while making Karenjit Kaur and what kind of response it received.

He says, "No, we were not at all apprehensive. This was about a series in its true form. I think Karenjit Kaur was a landmark show in India. I think it was a first big biopic in a series format. It was also a show that had its own share of curiosity attached to it because everyone knows Sunny Leone the outcome, but no one knows Karenjit Kaur the person. Hence, the show was named Karenjit Kaur and not Sunny Leone. We got an immense response. We have seen all the ratings, critics' reviews and platform up-take, all that has been unprecedented. Across markets, people have viewed the show right from Tamil Nadu to Chandigarh and from Guwahati to Pune... everywhere."

Speaking about the challenges for OTT and ZEE5, Katial says, "I think the major challenges will be to work with great creators and build great stories. It will be important to continue innovating product and tech. It will be important to use data to understand audiences. Those are our key tasks."

When asked what kind of content do subscribers of ZEE5 prefer to watch, he responds, "Films are a big hit along with original series. We premiered Padman, Veere di Wedding, Shaadi Me Zaroor Aana, and Parmanu and they all worked wonderfully for us. Parmanu was a shared title between us and Netflix. Most of them are exclusive, but this one was shared."

Currently, OTT is not a platform for the masses. But will the masses pay for DTH and OTT? Katial says, "Masses will make their own choices. Indians have also grown in their per capita income substantially and Urban India has the capacity to pay for it. Channels have film premiers on TV; nevertheless, people go to theatres and watch them. The proposition has to be strong. If the content is strong, people will pay for it."

ZEE5 is soon coming up with a music-based reality web-series - Lockdown - which is produced by rapper Badshah. Apart from that, the platform is going to launch Akoori, a web-series based on a quirky Parsi family. What else? "We are planning to come up with a series of digital-first movies. We will be rolling out a list of about 10 movies in the next one week; titles done by big Indian directors which will be available only on Zee5," he says.

In the recent past, there has been a lot of conversation regarding people raising issues about regulating digital content post the launch of Sacred Games. Is it important for the government to do so? Katial responds, "I think self-regulation is the best way of regulating content. OTT is a very personal medium and I don't think, at this point in time, there is any need to regulate the content. The government has been very good about regulating content on TV and it is self-regulation that works there as well. So, I don't see a reason why it would be any other way."

Now that Katial's LinkedIn profile shows that his involvement with Big FM ended in May, we asked him about the challenges he saw in radio and how different they are from OTT. "I think the challenges always remain the same - how do you create excitement with consumers; how do you create new use cases and new needs for consumers; how do you grow the pie; and how do you make sure the content is marketed well. These are just some classic challenges in a business. There's an opportunity to monetise and monetise well without compromising on content, so it is the same", he signs off.

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