Venkata Susmita Biswas

Lot of the in-home SVoD consumption is on C-TVs: Voot Select’s Ferzad Palia

SVoD platform Voot Select has a new four-episode docu-series based on the 2020/21 India tour of Australia, titled Bandon Mein Tha Dum.

Voot Select was launched just a month before the entire world was put under lockdown because of a raging pandemic. In its first year, one million people became paid users of the platform. Two years on, Voot Select has experimented with a variety of content, from 24-hour live streams, exclusive access for paid subscribers ahead of the AVoD premier, and has been building a sports content portfolio too.

Ferzad Palia, head, SVoD and international business, Viacom18, speaks to afaqs! about learnings from these experiments, how the pandemic benefitted the platform, and more.

Edited excerpts:

The platform is a little over two years old now, what have been some areas of growth and what is driving this growth?

In February 2021, we had announced that we were the fastest platform to reach one million paid subscribers. Since then, we have seen manifold growth. We have been fortunate that our content and strategy have worked wonderfully well for us.

We have entered into new genres and got more aggressive on those that we were already strong on, whether it's reality TV, originals, the international slate. Our Kannada play is also working very well for us. So, it's been a great two years, from a learning and growth perspective, and we managed to do it efficiently, which is also extremely important in the business that we're in.

The last two years, especially 2020, and a big chunk of 2021 became a catalyst for the sampling of the OTT genre, in general. So, we have been beneficiaries of that audience pool swelling quicker than we would have expected.

And, the other part is whether you can bring people to you once, but if you don't have something that they like, they're not coming back. The proof of the pudding is that when they came, they liked something that you had. The holy grail for a subscription business is retention. Sometimes, terms that we don't talk about as much as we talk about customer acquisition is retention and churn. We've seen very encouraging signs both on an acquisition front and from a retention point of view as well, which could only happen if your offering is working.

In an interview with afaqs! Chanpreet Arora, SVP and business head, Voot AVoD had said that the cost of great content cannot be borne by subscription alone. How do you make sure that there is an equitable balance between AVoD and SVoD?

There are audiences who are keen on consuming content for free and those who are willing to pay for a next level of experience. By experiences, it's not only in the form of originals or movies, but for experiences like access to content 24-hours before the television premiere or all day live streaming in the case of Bigg Boss.

We also introduced the concept of having the first episode of an original property available for free. We continue to do that on a case to case basis. Then after an extended period of time (six months to a year) and offer it for free for a certain period. It is very important for us to get a very broad base of users to sample the content we have and to that end we undertake multiple strategies and innovate on the model as well.

Video streaming platforms that have sports content, stand apart from the rest because of this exclusive content to which they own rights. Analysts say platforms that have sports content can't be easily dislodged from their pole positions. You have a fair number of such sports properties, is that an area you wish to focus more on and strengthen?

Sports is a space we experimented in very recently. About 6-8 months back is when we started with the three European leagues — Serie A, League 1, La Liga — and the NBA. Now, more recently, we have all the badminton tournaments, football and other premium sports like the ATP masters, on the platform.

For us, it's really been an experiment with the properties that we've had on the platform. The kind of response that we got with Thomas Cup semifinals and finals was that very different kinds of audiences came to the platform and sampled various other content and are sticking around with us. We are very well geared up, from a product and technology point of view. Our experiment with sports over the last few months has been from a content perspective.

Having said that, I don't think the game is about one platform dislodging another, in all honesty, because video streaming is not one of those categories where either you win or somebody else wins, as it is in some other categories.

Right now, consumers use multiple apps. Of course, beyond a point, the consumer will make a finite number of choices. But right now, the industry is not at that stage. And, I don't expect it to be there for a long time. There is tremendous scope for everyone to grow with and without sports content.

How is the usage of the service spread across devices? Is it heavily driven by mobile consumption? Is Connected-TV (C-TV) consumption catching up?

We have seen enormous growth in C-TV consumption from users of Voot Select who are paid users. We see this as a continuing trend because it's also related to content that one watches with family. While consumption started off as predominantly being on mobile devices, the skew has reduced dramatically. While it is still in favour of mobile, C-TV is catching up at a very rapid pace.

There are days when we have seen an equal contribution of C-TV and mobile. While that is the exception more than the norm, it gives you a sense of the trend for the future. On-the-go consumption is largely on mobile devices. A lot of consumption of SVoD content takes place at home and what we have noticed is that a lot of the in-home consumption is on C-TVs.

You have tried out various formats, from 24-hour live to a special 24-hour window for paying users with Bigg Boss OTT. What have been some of the learnings?

I have to admit that Bigg Boss OTT was a much bigger success than any of us really thought it could be. It was such a big success that our platform crashed in the first half hour. We had hundreds of thousands on a particular stream at the same time. What we learnt from our experiments is that there is a lot more that we need to do at our back-end to make our platform stronger. These are all the learnings that you only get, once you do it.

What are some markets where you want to improve the user penetration of the paid service?

We are taking various steps to expand the audience pool. The SVoD market is largely focused on the top 10 cities right now. But we are seeing very good growth coming from smaller markets. I expect that to grow significantly in the not so distant future. This will be both on the d2c side and b2b2c (distribution partners) side.

There are several new video streaming distribution solutions, from DTH tie-ups, telco tie-ups and some other independent offers too. Are the distribution partnerships mainly going to drive the adoption beyond the top 10 cities?

In a market like India and many others, there is no option for it to be only direct-to-consumer. It will be a combination of D2C and distribution partners. The ratios will differ in various markets, based on price point, distribution strength of a partner and tech integration. These partnerships are not easy to pull off, in terms of integrations as well.

There are potentially 150 million television households, which could become video streaming households. For D2C to reach all 150 million homes, is very difficult. And, that's where the balance comes in. When you partner with those who have significant distribution strength, with which sort of complementary offering, whether that is broadband, telecom or DTH, you stand to reach a larger section of the audience.

The balance between D2C and B2B2C is critical for a player. Because in our business, it is very important to be able to know a lot more about the customer, to customise experiences. That is where it becomes extremely important to partner with the right people, while making sure that we are not just going out for the width of reach, but also for a very correctly created integration, which allows the best possible user experience.

And yes, I do see a significant role in the increase in penetration of SVoD and platforms like ours to come from these B2B2C partnerships and distribution models.

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