Benita Chacko

It’s a challenge to meet non-fiction content demand: Warner Bros Discovery’s Sai Abishek

The head of Factual and Lifestyle Cluster, South Asia, believes the category is at an inflection point.

In its close to three decades existence in India, Discovery has offered a plethora of content for its audience. Its shows range across genres like history, mythology, adventure survival, science, and lots more. However, its OTT platform Discovery+ is increasingly emerging as a destination for the true crime genre. Love Kills, Money Mafia, My Daughter Joined a Cult are some of its popular shows in the genre.

The true crime genre is among the top three on its platform and forms at least 20-25% of its content slate. The other two being history and mythology, and survival adventure.

Speaking about the importance of this genre, Sai Abishek, head of factual and lifestyle cluster, South Asia, Warner Bros. Discovery, says true crime is a prominent programming pillar for the network and it invests significantly in it.

Abishek asserts that this category is at an inflection point and this decade will likely be a game changer for the category. However, he feels the challenge is on the supply side as the genre is underfed. "The big challenge is to accelerate our efforts to grow the ecosystem and meet the demand for nonfiction content in India," he says.

The platform not only hosts the network's content, but also shows from rivals like BBC and A&E Network. Abhishek does not see them as competitors, rather as collaborators. Discovery seeks to expand the entire category, not just our platform, "There's no point in competing with each other. It's all going to be partnerships and collaboration of like-minded creatives coming together to build the category," he says.

Edited excerpts:

How important is the true crime genre for the platform and why?

We have a wide range of shows, not only produced in India but globally, with true crime being a prominent programming pillar. We have seen a significant increase in viewership in this genre. The crime genre has a deep-rooted history in literature, cinema, radio, and various other media forms. It seems to be ingrained in our DNA, as we all desire a sense of justice and want to know about the perpetrators. Additionally, we tend to enjoy seeing the bad in others vicariously. True crime shows offer a release.

We not only offer the shows in an entertaining way but also by showcasing real people's testimonies and delving deeper into the story than the news provides. Before commissioning such shows, we apply various filters to determine what works, whether it's a regular or extraordinary story, or what would be more entertaining. True crime is an essential genre that we continue to invest in, and we have many compelling stories in development that juggle multiple crime stories.

How do you zero in on a story? How do you decide that a particular story needs to be told?

Our team of producers keeps an eye out for stories that fall into two broad buckets: topical and historic. We also consider stories that offer deep access and exclusivity, looking for fresh and unique stories that have not been told before. Once we identify a story, we gauge the credibility of the team behind it, including the director, show runners, cinematographers, and editors, selecting those with a unique creative voice to tell the story. We do not generally consider stories that are mere reiterations of existing material. We have a good success rate using this approach.

How do you expand the reach of discovery+ shows?

We want to expand the entire category, not just our platform, which is why we offer shows from BBC, A&E, and other networks. We acquire a large number of shows. We have a live channel and library content. All of this is helping build our reach. But originals is going to be one of the key drivers to increase the reach. We're investing heavily in originals across various genres. We are putting it up not just on our platform but also looking for potential partnerships with other platforms. We're in discussions with some platforms to see how we can share some of these genres. Certainly, originals and partnerships are key drivers of increasing our reach.

Many of these platforms, like BBC and A&E Network are your competitors. So is collaboration the way forward for fuelling the growth in factual entertainment?

We don't see them as competitors, but as collaborators. As the leaders of the category, we believe in coming together with our strengths. The genre is much smaller than the mass genres like GECs. So it is crucial for people working in our category to come together and grow the reach. There's no point in competing with each other. Building the creative ecosystem is essential. It's all going to be partnerships and collaboration of like-minded creatives coming together to build the category. The category is at an inflection point. This is the right time for us to really grow the the category multi-fold.

Why do you believe this to be an inflection point?

There are several factors. Firstly, internet penetration is deepening. Secondly, post-COVID people are consuming all kinds of genres. People are much more open to seeing things that they've not seen before. So there is a healthy and growing audience. There is interest, but the supply is low. The genre is currently underfed, and the big challenge is to accelerate our efforts to grow the ecosystem and meet the demand for nonfiction content in India.

What are the other challenges plaguing the factual entertainment space?

This question has two parts: linear business and digital business. Both are intertwined. Linear business is under pressure due to the pandemic and distribution, impacting the type and volume of shows. Meanwhile, the audience has split its digital footprint across multiple platforms. The challenge is the supply side, as few people are making nonfiction and it takes time. The only way to solve it is to increase the volume. Platforms need to increase their non-fiction slate. Secondly, we need to put more spends on the table to empower storytellers. Both platforms and creators need to change, and it's happening already.

Lastly, we need to make nonfiction entertaining. We need to tell stories in an entertaining manner. Its also happening. We have fantastic talent in India and we also collaborate with experts from around the world.

Globally networks spend a lot more on factual entertainment. What will it take for India to establish this kind of model?

Western markets are at least a decade or two ahead of us in documentary and nonfiction storytelling. In India, the genre was predominantly dictated by television. It was limited to a few people and budgets were dictated by ad and distribution sales.

In the west, for example, HBO had premium quality documentary storytelling as its promises very early on. We never had this premium television segment at all in India. However, with the evolution of OTT platforms, we have the ability to make content for a wider audience and have more freedom in storytelling. It's happening now, but we've skipped one gen and gone straight to the next on to a different platform.

The evolution is happening, with exposure to global programming, discussions with filmmakers about treatment and budgets, and a healthy increase in budgets. While a specific date cannot be given, this decade is likely to be a game changer for the category.

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