Benita Chacko

Telugu OTT platform aha to rely on AVoD to break even

CEO Ajit Thakur speaks on the monetisation strategies, rising competition and the digital-only avatar of 'Indian Idol' in Telugu.

Launched in March 2020, aha was the first OTT platform to offer exclusive Telugu content. Launched during COVID-induced lockdowns and being the only one to offer Telugu content, the SVoD platform greatly benefitted from the OTT surge. It gained one million subscribers within a year of its launch. Today, it has about two million paid subscribers and over 10 million monthly average users.

With the lockdowns ending and lives going back to normal, the growth is expected to slow down now. Moreover, major OTT players across India are also considering entering this domain. In early June, ZEE5 announced its Telugu content slate with 11 originals.

To continue its pace of growth, aha will be introducing ads on its platform from this month.

Ajit Thakur, CEO at aha, believes that rather than countering its rivals, it only needs to focus on its strength of offering locally-relevant content. It has also increased its movie buying budgets to compete with the national players. Recently, aha also streamed the first-ever digital-only 'Indian Idol' in Telugu.

“While everybody is going to come to Hyderabad, we are going to Tier-II and III towns to build new markets. There are 50 million AVoD consumers and only 5-6 million SVoD viewers. We want to start converting the AVoD consumer now. Along with Prime Video, we will be amongst the top two apps in Telugu,” Thakur says.

“An average Indian male consumer has about two-and-a-half subscriptions. They could have one national and a local subscription. We want to be that other local choice,” he adds.

Monetisation strategies

An aha gold annual subscription is priced at Rs 699. Compared to Prime Video’s Rs 1,499 or Netflix’s monthly premium plan of Rs 649, this is quite moderately priced.

Speaking about its decision to take the AVoD route, Thakur says that the only way to break even was by monetising differently.

“In India, no OTT player is making money. So, we've been thinking long and hard, and realised this is the only way to break even for this business. We have eight million free users coming to the app every month. So, AVoD becomes an obvious option. We looked at how we can monetise the people who are at the bottom end of the paying tier or the people who are currently free users through ads.”

As a part of its monetisation strategy, aha has also set up sales teams across six centres to ‘offer brands a unique way to connect with the Telugu audience by integrating in the content of a 100% Telugu platform’. Within six months of setting up the team, aha has raked in $2 million of non-subscription revenue. It is also considering offering gaming and, at some point, evolve into a super app.

Thakur confidently claims that aha has abandoned the regional tag. Though it has aspirations to become a national player, it is not through offering Hindi content, but by offering more local content from across the country.

“Getting into Hindi is a big investment game and that will distract us from the local agenda. We don’t intend to get into Hindi at any point. We will foray into other regional languages, one by one. I believe that the more local you are, the bigger the opportunities for us, both in terms of subscription and monetisation. So, we're going to use a local strategy to build a big national platform eventually.”

First-ever digital-only 'Indian Idol'

Since it went on air in October 2004, 'Indian Idol' has become synonymous with reality television in the country. The Indian adaptation of Fremantle's hit show has completed 12 seasons on Sony Entertainment Television. Its regional adaptation in Marathi, also found its home on television on Sony Marathi. After almost two decades of being a television format show, aha presented a digital avatar in the form of Telugu 'Indian Idol'.

Streaming twice a week (Friday-Saturday) from February 25 to June 7, Telugu 'Indian Idol' has been the longest running show (14 weeks) on aha.

While the OTT-first approach is growing in popularity and many other reality shows have had an OTT-only release, they are usually on the broadcaster’s platforms. For example, the popular Star World show 'Koffee with Karan' will be launching only on Disney+ Hotstar soon.

Earlier, Viacom18 launched its Colors’ show 'Bigg Boss OTT' on Voot. This is the first time a popular Indian television reality show has got a digital-only adaptation on a non-broadcaster OTT platform.

Thakur mentions that the show is very close to his heart, as he had worked on the first season of the Hindi show during his time as the business head at Sony. “I was quite surprised that there is no 'Indian Idol' in South Indian languages. We saw that as an opportunity.”

It was in talks with Fremantle for some time, but the show was quite expensive. While 'Indian Idol' on television is a tent-pole property for Sony and rakes in huge ad revenues, being an SVoD platform, aha did not have brands to bank on. But for this show, aha got six brands, including Zepto and Instagram, on board, for integrations. It reengineered the format and brought down the number of episodes to 31. The original Hindi season has about 100 episodes.

“We don’t need so many episodes in season one. We wanted to get people oriented and familiar with the format,” Thakur adds.

Freed from the concerns of TRP ratings, the show could focus on the talent, sans the drama. But Thakur calls it a double-edged sword.

“Unlike with TRP, we get data in real-time, and for everybody. So, there’s no scope for mediocrity here because we get to know, in real-time, whether every single person in the audience has accepted or rejected the content.”

aha now plans to bring in the next season of the show and also take the format to Tamil, a new vertical the OTT platform launched in April.

Around 20-30% of the new subscribers came in the first six months of this year. But Thakur doesn’t attribute the growth completely to 'Indian Idol', as other content was also launched at the same time.

“Of the two million subscribers, on an average, at least half a million were watching every episode. We crossed one crore-plus votes by the end of the episodes. To have that many votes come in for the first season of a show that is in just one language, is quite incredible.”

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