Venkata Susmita Biswas
OTT Streaming

Zee5 skips the stars and goes instead for “authentic storytelling”

Nimisha Pandey, chief content officer — Hindi originals, Zee5 on the preferences of audiences, Zee5’s content strategy, collaborating with creative partners, and more.

India’s video streaming growth story is at an inflection point. Audiences from urban centres are quickly reaching stagnation levels; small-town India will chart the next phase of growth. With these market dynamics in play, Zee5 is doubling down on serving Bharat. 

Zee5, the video streaming platform backed by Zee Entertainment Enterprises, has always addressed the content needs of audiences with a non-metro background with shows like Rangbaaz (in its third season now), Ishq Aaj Kal and Jamai 2.0

Both Ishq Aaj Kal and Jamai 2.0 were spin-offs of TV shows aired on Zee and Rangbaaz is the story of a gangster-turned-politician from Bihar. The TV spin-offs “were created to leverage the huge AVOD user base and drive them towards becoming paid subscribers” reads a Q2FY20 earnings release. In 2019 Zee5 entered into a strategic partnership with AltBalaji which let the OTT platform leverage the content library of the latter. 

The platform's user base has grown from 105 million MAUs in FY22 to 112.4 million in Q2FY23. Its annual revenue stood at Rs 549.6 crore in the previous fiscal, up 31% from Rs 419.1 crore in FY21. In Q2FY23, the platform earned Rs 167 crore in revenue.

Every choice that Zee5 made about content put Hindi Speaking Markets front and centre at a time when millennial consumers, who were the first adopters of video streaming, spent hours bingeing shows on international platforms. The pandemic rewired audiences and their demands from OTT platforms. 

Discerning audiences

Platforms like Zee5 are now battling content fatigue among viewers; finding fresh stories to tell an audience that spent two years streaming a wide spectrum of shows across languages and genres. 

Nimisha Pandey, chief content officer — Hindi originals, Zee5, says that experimentation and sampling "ended up in broadening the horizons for the audience and made Indian viewers a lot more discerning.” 

Zee5 is using this fatigue as the propellant it needs to excel. In 2021, it entered into a partnership with The Viral Fever (TVF) to produce originals and has since been curating shows that will appeal to audiences with multiple taste profiles. Not just that, Zee5 has also hopped onto the adaptation bandwagon — adapting international shows for Indian audiences. 

Zee5 skips the stars and goes instead for “authentic storytelling”

Pandey says that in the last two years Zee5 has begun to focus less on volume and instead prioritise “premium content” — through a combination of various elements such as scale, talent, production timelines, etc. Among the early examples of premium content, Pandey cites Broken News, which is an adaptation of a BBC One show Press.  

“We are doing fewer originals now than we were three years ago.”

Then came TVF’s Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt Ltd, Duranga a K-Drama adaptation (Flower of Evil), a spy drama Mukhbir and most recently the much-awaited season 2 of TVF’s iconic web series Pitchers.  

“We are doing fewer originals now than we were three years ago.” She says it was important for the platform to not spread itself too thin to be on par with global platforms. “We pivoted because of the awareness that for a longer value-proposition it will always be quality over quantity that would make sense.”

Zee5 still releases one original a month, but these are spread across multiple languages, not just Hindi. A total of 14 Hindi Originals were launched in 2022. The streaming platform now works with leading talent from the industry and that’s where it invests a chunk of its expenditure on content. 

Openness to watching content in different languages and dubbed shows has also meant that Zee5’s executives are no longer depending on a single pocket of audiences for growth. “While audiences are now fluid, we are aware that certain kinds of content appeal to certain taste clusters. So when we make a Rangbaaz we will also make a Tripling or when we have a show like Saas Bahu Achaar we will also make Abhay.”

The long game

Zee5, unlike some other OTT platforms, seems to steer clear of the pressure of creating tentpole shows. Despite housing a wide library of content, audiences rarely associate the platform with one hugely successful show. Why would the platform not follow this strategy? 

“We are not looking at creating a tentpole show that will appeal to everyone. You will notice from the shows we have commissioned that we have not opted for a star-first approach.” Pandey firmly believes that one show “will never work for everyone”. As the executive who shapes the content slate of the platform she does not want to “give into the temptation of making one show that everybody likes”.

“It is not data that decides which story to tell. I use data as a compass and not a map.”

The strategy therefore has been to avoid the ‘projectification’ of content which by default involves stars from the industry and excessive marketing. Pandey is instead prioritising “authentic storytelling” which means the platform will choose the right talent for the job.

Her “content and creator-first approach” she says has brought in a shift in how the platform evaluates and green-lights content. OTT-platforms tend to rely on data and let the business goals define and inform their content choices. 

“It is not data that decides which story to tell”, she says, adding “I use data as a compass and not a map”. Explaining the content-first approach she says, Zee5 does not go after stars, does not mount ‘projects’, and gives creators freedom and respect to create. 

“Once I green light a show, it becomes my job to ensure bad things don’t happen to a good show. It is for me to protect and empower the creator.”

“We are not looking at creating a tentpole show that will appeal to everyone. You will notice from the shows we have commissioned that we have not opted for a star-first approach.”

It is this approach that she hopes will bring audiences to Zee5 and retain viewers. “It is about consistently telling the consumer that our offerings will be worth your time and we will give you value for money.” Pandey says that delivering a tentpole show to attract viewers could result in viewers tuning in just for that show and then dropping off. 

To tackle retention issues, some platforms are now releasing shows weekly instead of dropping a whole season in one go. In a previous interview with afaqs! MX Player’s Gautam Talwar said 50-episode long shows like Roohaniyat are aimed at retaining users on the platform. “If viewers like the characters in the show they will keep coming back everyday, not necessarily at the same time like TV appointment viewing but visit on a daily basis at a time of their choosing,” Talwar said. 

Zee5 is not too worried about viewers returning to the platform because catch-up TV and its movie library continue to be a big attraction. Pandey says Zee5 will stay true to the promise of bingeing shows. 

Consumption patterns 

Bingeing may continue to be the preferred mode of consuming OTT content but a change in the device on which people binge is set to redefine content on these platforms. 

“When OTT platforms first entered the India market people mainly watched shows on their mobile phones. However, in the last year or two we have seen a rise in C-TV viewing,” says Pandey. She says C-TV viewing has led to the introduction of new genres — in particular content that is suitable for co-viewing.   

She says that there is a noticeable pattern in the kind of shows people continue to watch on mobile devices versus C-TVs. And it is the uptake in C-TVs that has reduced the quantum of crime shows on OTTs. 

“C-TV viewing has led to the introduction of new genres — in particular content that is suitable for co-viewing.”  

As Zee5 enters its sixth year in February, the lines between OTT and TV are beginning to blur. Viewers are watching their favourite TV shows on-demand on their televisions but through their OTT platforms. They are also subscribing to OTT platforms in bundles like they do for television channels.

In five years video streaming consumption has almost begun to resemble that of television save for the convenience of on-demand viewing. What are the next five years going to look like?

We are watching out for what Zee5 has in store next.

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