What exactly are these 'Originals' and how does this space really work?
As the cliché goes, you should be living under a rock to have not come across the word 'Originals' yet. You don't even need to be part of the content (or for that matter any) business; just as a consumer of entertainment, this one word describing shows on the internet suddenly seems omnipresent. The obvious ones are the from the stable of biggies like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and in their wake, Indian platforms Voot, Zee5, SonyLIV and the like, followed by non-TV broadcast linked apps like ALTBalaji, Viu, Yupp TV, etc.
The mother ship of content YouTube is of course the latest to join in with its own 'Original' show ARRived, headlined by A.R.Rahman (though intuitively, it was the most organic and obvious thing to do quite a while ago). IGTV, the video arm of the social media app Instagram is on its way to launching a set of 'Original' shows, as is Snapchat, calling them 'Snap Originals'.
Pass these platforms and head back to the other publishers on YouTube, across languages, and surprise, surprise (not)! Most independent creators like TVF, Dice Media, Hoichoi, etc. have a bunch of 'Originals' too. Even conventional broadcast channels that run their own YouTube channels (see link to the author's article on this subject below) have a set of shows that are christened 'Originals', even if they have an additional TV run.
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Not to mention old TV shows that resurface on the digital platform, promptly re-named 'Originals', for example ALTBalaji's show 'Zaban Sambhal Ke'.
So, what exactly are these Originals and how does this space really work? We at Mirchi run this as a full-time business, through which we have released shows in multiple languages (as Mirchi Play Originals). So we thought we would try and shed whatever little light we possibly can on this ecosystem (yet another word that has jumped out of school biology books and is being belted around without mercy, but that is another discussion altogether).
First, the nomenclature. It all of course started with Netflix. Till around 2012 it was purely a video platform - an aggregator of TV shows and movies, all made available at a single internet-powered destination, which itself was a disrupted extension of their original... oops... initial business (started in 1997) of hiring/lending movie DVDs. Eventually, given that all the negotiating powers still resided with the content rights owners (studios/producers), and was therefore open to competitive pressure, Netflix figured that the only way to stay competitive and dominate this domain was to make their own shows and movies and reduce dependence on these content/film studios.
These shows, starting with the iconic 'House of Cards' featuring the now outcast (in more ways than one) Kevin Spacey, and the path breaking 'Narcos' and 'Orange Is the New Black' came to be known as 'Netflix Originals', purely to differentiate them from the other licensed shows/movies from other producers also available on the same platform. Broadcasters across the world have always created original programming but it's unlikely that any show has ever been called an 'Original' before.
Netflix then extended this to film production and quickly scaled up to become the single biggest creator of 'original content' in the world. They are expected to spend around USD 12 billion in 2018 purely on content - which apparently is more than the spends of the top Hollywood studios put together. And the 'direct to OTT movies' dynamic is a disruption in itself and is ruffling a lot of feathers in Hollywood. But that too is another story altogether, as this article is not about Netflix or Hollywood studios.
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The term 'Originals', however, stuck on and came to be adopted by other competing players, including Amazon Prime Video and then Indian players like Voot, SonyLIV and now Zee5, for their native productions. This is only fair since these are platforms where you also find TV shows (from the broadcaster's own stable) and other licensed content. Netflix and Prime have also been investing heavily in India on producing shows that they hope will get consumed globally (including by the sizeable diaspora). 'Sacred Games', Netflix's first Indian 'Original', dubbed in four languages and sub-titled in another twenty four, has reportedly been watched by more viewers outside India than in the country.
But then when pure content players like ALTBalaji, or even TVF, Hoichoi and Dice Media (that only create their own 'original' shows anyway) call these content pieces/series 'Originals', it is fair to conclude that the term has become part of the industry's lexicon and has a commonly perceived meaning. It (the term 'Original') therefore also creates a certain consumer expectation when attached to a show.
'Originals' therefore can be defined as content pieces/shows (mostly video) of a certain production standard, available on an internet-powered platform, mostly unfolding across multiple episodes of reasonable length (typically 20-50 minutes each), that have not been seen on TV or another screen before. Most often, these are fiction pieces with the same cast and setting across episodes and often follow a continuous, linear story, though there is no such defined rule. Indians also tend to call such shows 'webseries' which is not very far from what 'Originals' really are.
Amusingly, broadcasters are now labelling their TV shows, or repurposed forms of the same, 'Originals', on their digital platforms, possibly to meet the aforementioned consumer expectation. The most recent example is the very popular talk show 'Koffee with Karan' that airs on the Star Network. Just hop on to Hotstar and the same show is called a 'Star World Original'!
This term, interestingly, has now also found usage beyond the video format, on audio streaming platforms. Neha Dhupia hosts a talk show on Saavn, as do film critics Anupama Chopra and Rajeev Masand together - these are 'Saavn Originals'. Similarly, Gaana puts out non-film music as well as talk shows produced by them as 'Gaana Originals'. Again, on both these platforms, the bulk of the content published is music, which is licensed from labels and therefore the 'Originals' are supposed to indicate content pieces native to the platform.
From a content creators' perspective, this 'Originals' business is not very different from film production, to the extent that an idea is developed, filmed (or recorded for audio platforms) with actors, by creative and technical teams and the result is marketed and shown (played) to the viewer for her entertainment, with money being spent in the process by the producer. The viewer gets to watch it 'on demand', that is, wherever and whenever she wants, as long as she has access to the platform the show is available on.
Note that often this content is legitimately free for the consumer, as most of the video destinations/apps are still in customer acquisition mode and either put most of their content out for free or give out free trails for whatever is behind the paywall. (Psst: If you haven't read about the ingenious ways in which Indian viewers are hacking the Netflix/Amazon subscription fees system, Google it and get amused, unless you are a participant of course!)
The cost, recovery and other commercial dynamics for these producers are a totally different ball game, which requires a separate discussion. It's early days and there are a lot of investor-backed, loss-carrying, future-facing businesses... like most tech start-ups. But for now, given the glut of platforms and content companies trying to vie for your attention, enjoy all the 'Original' content action, while it lasts!
The author is national head, original content and licensing, ENIL (Radio Mirchi). The original version of this article was published on the author's LinkedIn page recently.
Author's note: All images have been sourced from the internet and belong to respective copyright owners.