Benita Chacko

“A pan-India market for entertainment content is getting created”: Disney+ Hotstar’s Gaurav Banerjee

Banerjee heads content at the OTT as also HSM Entertainment at the Disney Star Network. He analyses the Hotstar journey.

Around three years back, Disney+Hotstar stopped depending on catch-up television alone and launched Hotstar Specials, an ambitious content foray featuring shows from India’s most acclaimed storytellers.

Starting with the first show, Roar of the Lion, a 2019 documentary drama web series on MS Dhoni's career. The platform has since expanded its offering to include many more shows – across genres, like period action-drama, family crime drama, medical drama and murder mystery. Popular titles include Criminal Justice, Hostages and Grahan.

Last year, the team announced the launch of 16 new series, including The Empire, Aarya 2 and Special Ops 1.5. Spearheading this effort is Gaurav Banerjee, head, content, Disney+Hotstar and HSM Entertainment Network at Disney Star. He's been with Star TV network for 14 years now.

In an exclusive interview with Sreekant Khandekar, co-founder and CEO at afaqs!, as part of VDONXT Asia 2022, presented by VOOT, Banerjee fields questions about the OTT platform’s content strategy and more.

Edited excerpts.

Khandekar: Hotstar was one of the earliest OTT platforms. It is now seven years old. Have there been distinct phases in its life?

Banerjee: The first phase was largely AVOD (Advertising based Video On Demand). We wanted to create the habit of people watching long-form content via the internet, largely on their mobiles. We were taking on conventional wisdom of that time which said only short-form content worked.

Secondly, we had believed from the beginning that a combination of sports and entertainment could be powerful. The third part of it has been our foray into exclusive content through Hotstar Specials. The fourth part will be making and releasing movies directly on streaming - and not just small films, but also some of the biggest ones with the biggest stars.

The fifth phase, which began last week, is one where we have taken some of the key entertainment pillars which have dominated the TV world, and made exclusive versions of those available. A Tamil show, Bigg Boss Ultimate, is the first such. It is a fresh season with the same anchor, Kamal Hassan, and some of the biggest celebrities. It will be available only on Disney+ Hotstar.

Khandekar: Now that the theatres have opened, isn't the phase of releasing movies directly on the platform over?

Banerjee: No. We are delighted that theatres have opened. Consumers should have the choice to decide where they want to watch movies. A lot of them will go to the theatres and many others will prefer the comfort of their home, or the convenience of watching it on their mobile phones. Movies will continue to be created across the spectrum.

We will be delighted to have movies that release first in theatres and then come to us. But equally, we will remain committed to making movies exclusively. We are entering a phase where movies will get theatrical distribution first, and then get on to streaming. There will be other movies that go straight to streaming. Both will coexist.

Khandekar: Why did it take Disney+ Hotstar so long to launch original content?

Banerjee: In the beginning, we felt that we already had a lot of high quality Indian content. We were running Star shows which were immensely popular. From a point of growth, we needed to build our brand and the habit of people watching large-scale drama on their mobile phones. That's very different from how this market has grown in other major markets.

We needed to figure out how to create originals on scale, and do this really well. That took time and effort.

Yes, we have come in late. But we usually do come in late but then do a good job of it.

For example, on TV, we were not the first programmers in Hindi. But having got there, we continue to do a really good job even 20 years later. Again, the regional markets outside of Hindi were set up by other players and we entered later. But today we do very well in most of those markets.

Khandekar: Is catch-up TV still big on your platform?

Banerjee: Yes, it is. For some of our top shows, Anupamaa for example, a very large portion of the viewing happens on Disney+ Hotstar. We leave it to the consumers to decide where they would like to watch it.

Khandekar: When you first moved from television to OTT, what struck you most about the similarities and the differences between the two?

Banerjee: We put out our first set of shows on Disney+ Hotstar in 2019. I found it interesting that we could play with the length of the episodes as well as the series. We could take a much more creative view of things. That was a really big change.

Also, a lot of the big shows on TV in our country are long-running. That makes it a little difficult to attract talent. They don’t want to make a long-term commitment to any one story. Since the shows on OTT are short and can be completed in a couple of months, this opens the field to a lot of writers, directors and actors.

The third thing is that we're working across languages. Today, there is an opportunity for a Tamil show and a Malayalam movie to be watched across the length and breadth of this country. People are watching a lot of content via dubbing or via subtitles. Thus a pan-India market for entertainment content is getting created and consumers are going seamlessly from one piece of content to another.

Khandekar: You have been managing the entire creative process remotely for the past two years. Do you miss being in a room, brainstorming, arguing, creating?

Banerjee: Of course, we miss that! We all want the pleasure and excitement of human interaction. And that's very hard to replicate on any screen. But somehow it hasn't proved detrimental to creating good stories, because together with the challenges, there are some advantages as well.

Someone like me, for example, spends a lot of time talking to writers and creative people. Now, if these meetings were happening in my office in Lower Parel (in Mumbai), that would have meant that many of these creative partners, who have their offices in (distant) Andheri, would have wasted four hours travelling to and fro. Those hours can be used instead to improve the creative.

I find that working in this fashion frees up time for me, too. I can spend that time watching content, or reading scripts, both of which are a more productive use of executive time, than meetings often are.

Khandekar: Do you see any major shift in consumption trends in the coming year?

Banerjee: One, we are beginning to see a bit of optimism coming – and god knows we need that!

Two, the pandemic has accelerated a lot of changes that were taking place in society, and one of those really big changes is how assertive women in our country have become with regard to their aspirations. A lot of content that we are seeing on TV, on digital and in the movies underlines that in a very strong way. That has become far clearer than it has been at any other time before.

The third thing, which is missing a little bit, and perhaps would be great to see, is good, high-quality humour and comedy shows. The demand for this is incredible. Our ability to make good-quality shows is a challenge that we need to rise to, and we will meet that over the next few years.

Watch the full interview here:

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