Venkata Susmita Biswas

Our guiding philosophy is to make great content and get rich slow: Sameer Nair, Applause Entertainment

Applause Entertainment CEO says India’s video streaming business is likely to quadruple in size over the next five years.

Applause Entertainment, the content production house backed by the Aditya Birla Group completes five years this year. The studio wants to take Indian epics - Mahabharata and Ramayana - to a global audience and plans to focus on movies next.

Sameer Nair, media maven and CEO of the studio, speaks to afaqs! about the video streaming ecosystem, why he believes individual consumption is here to stay and the new shows that Applause Entertainment is working on next.

Edited excerpts:

From K serials and KBC to Scam 1992 and Rudra, what are the similarities and dissimilarities in the audiences for TV back in the 90s and OTT platforms of today?

Broadly, before Kaun Banega Crorepati and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, TV consumption was driven by weekly soaps. Doordarshan and channels like Star TV did a lot of innovation in terms of shows.

Then there were experiments with shows that were like one-hour movies. In the late 90s, Star TV ran a show Bestsellers which gave an opportunity to all the major league directors of today.

In the 2000s, TV underwent a fundamental change when daily soaps were introduced. Daily soaps very quickly dominated the schedule completely. Like a killer app, they completely decimated every other kind of storytelling. This is why even today, 22 years later, daily soaps continue to rule television along with reality shows, dance shows, singing shows, etc.

OTT brought into the mix new technology and unlike TV it is not linear, geographically bound or language bound. OTT is almost like a mall whereas TV was like a store.

OTT has given us the opportunity to create a lot more variety of content. As TV grew, makers needed to chase ratings. And, the bigger the rating, the lower the denominator. For 20 years the fiction business was all about movies or TV soaps. Now, a wider set of talent, actors, directors, and writers can work together to tell different kinds of stories.

The format is more start-middle-and-end whereas the daily soap starts and never ends. The series format follows a seasonal arc.

TV of the 2000s was dominated by family dramas and now on OTTs we see a dominance of crime drama. Is this because at that time primarily women watched TV whereas now the mobile phone is in the hands of the male members of the house?

Crime is the most popular genre in the world. The biggest and most successful shows globally are crime shows. Crime, action, and thriller shows tend to be popular followed by comedy, rom-coms, dramas, and the rest. The horror and supernatural genre is really big but hasn't really fared in India so far.

As TV grew, it was increasingly the woman who had the remote in the house and the male was pushed to the edges. This is why news also gets consumed at 10 pm. The main bulk of prime-time went towards the female audience.

With OTT, it is more of an individualistic viewing as it is not time-bound. I know enough women who watch a particular type of show on their own and a different type of show with the family. Watching together is a thing of the past.

Will the era of connected TVs usher in family viewing once again?

People will once again start watching together, but the thing is the medium allows you to not do it that way. They can still make an occasion out of it. Now the things that will bring people together are live sports or a big movie on an OTT platform.

Now, with so many individual devices, people are making choices to watch on their own. Younger audiences are choosing to watch different things. They also spend a lot more time on social media consuming snackable content.

In the future, people will continue to watch on their own devices because it is a consumer behaviour that has changed and it has got nothing to do with technology. Personalisation that has occurred is a matter of consumer behaviour and consumer taste.

When Applause Entertainment was launched, the strategy was to adapt shows and books rather than create original content. Was that because you were trying to learn what works in India? Now that you have completed five years, will we see fewer adaptations?

When we started out, the plan was to do adaptations of books and series. This was mainly to speed to market. Second, when you do an international adaptation you get to learn fast, see how they write, what the narrative arc is, what's the rhythm, the high points, etc.

Often times what happens with adaptations is that people say everyone has seen it. That's not true. Nobody has seen it from a large audience. So when we are adapting a show we are always making it for a new audience. The adaptation is not for those who have seen the original.

There are always good stories to tell - there is one Israeli show that we are reimagining for the Indian IT sector. Further, the animated series based on Amar Chitra Katha will be out in early 2024.

Reality shows like KBC, Indian Idol etc. have endured for two decades. Will that format perform well on video streaming platforms?

It is incredible to think that nothing has changed on TV between 2000 and now. We still have the daily soaps, and the reality shows are the same ones we saw 15-20 years ago.

The Netflix show My Next Guest Is could go on for several seasons in the way that Koffee with Karan has new guests every season. Jerry Seinfeld does Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He is making a lot of them and it is a format that allows him to do it.

Other shows like KBC were designed for that medium. It requires viewers to come and watch it when it airs. This is why a lot of these reality shows almost became like live events. Reality works well on TV because it is about creating a cultural moment. Streaming tends to be a destination where viewers watch and savour content. This is why things like documentaries, docu-reality and fiction shows work on OTT platforms.

What about live streaming…

It looks like sports and news are the only two formats left. Live is mainly going to be the big sporting events, a big cultural event like an awards show or big debates which can go live.

These genres still require immediate viewing. Beyond that most other formats can be watched later. In some of the competition formats where there is a competitive elimination element, one must see it the right away.

Platforms will definitely try various experiments with live streaming content and see how it works and how they can drive consumption.

We would be keen to try content that can be live streamed. We have not yet found the right thing. I am not entirely sure which is the right one to pursue but it is an interesting thing to do.

Content in non-Hindi languages now has a wider audience. What has made this possible?

In the last two-three years, the audience has been exposed to a lot of international content. When people can watch Korean dramas, shows like Money Heist and Narcos then technically, they can also watch a Tamil show or movie in the same manner.

Now we can make a Tamil show that is not just made for Tamilian audiences. The platforms have created a secular medium that gives consumers a lot of choices. The onus is on us to produce it well.

In the last two years we have seen a boom in OTT content consumption. Are you now able to claim the kind of price you would want to for the content you produce?

Our approach is more from a repeat order point of view. We are not trying to make a killing the first time. We are looking to build long-lasting relationships with the audience and platforms which means we must create good content. Our guiding philosophy is to make great content and get rich slow.

Applause Entertainment is planning to roll out 15 shows and 10 movies in FY24. What are the new genres and formats you will be piloting soon?

The big focus is to do the epics - Mahabharat, Ramayan - and all the other mythological stories around them. The plan is to make them for an international audience and take Indian epics to the world.

We are doing some documentaries and have taken baby steps in that direction. We started to develop a few. We are going to get more ambitious in our movie plans. We also have a series on Mahatma Gandhi that we are working on.

When you sit down for a similar chat when Applause Entertainment would have completed 10 years, how would the video streaming ecosystem look then?

The video streaming business would have at least quadrupled in size in the absolute sense, not just number of users. Number of users might have gone up 10 times, but the value of the market would have become at least four to five times of what it is today.

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