The Indian entertainment industry is witnessing an explosion of content. The last major break in the Indian content landscape dates back to 2000, when the TV industry took off with the arrival of KBC and daily soap operas, headlined by Kyunkii Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii.
This was also the time when multiplexes were beginning to spring up in major cities and the theatrical business was enjoying a resurgence. 2001 was a major year on the theatrical front, with a diverse mix of films – Gadar, Lagaan, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Dil Chahta Hai – finding audiences in different socio-economic strata.
Over the past 20 years, the growth of India’s content economy has been largely predictable. Television expanded into regional languages, and theater capacities, and thus the box office, continued to increase. But in terms of the quality and nature of content, things have remained largely stagnant over this period.
Around 2015, the category of streaming (also called OTT) started to proliferate in India. That’s when we first heard the term “web-series” (a term unique to India). In the early years, this content was still niche, watched only by a small portion of young male audiences in metropolitan areas. However, with the arrival of major players like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar and others, and the Jio “revolution” which led to a considerable drop in data costs, the streaming revolution took off in 2018-19. , then saw a period of accelerated growth during the pandemic-induced shutdowns in 2020 and 2021.
In the first two months of this year alone, more than 25 Hindi streaming shows and original movies have been launched on the various streaming platforms. Add to that the equivalent content in regional languages, and we’re looking at over 50 launches in eight weeks. And these figures do not include the free content available in all its forms on platforms like YouTube, nor the vast exposure to international content (Hollywood, Korean, etc.) that Indian audiences now enjoy on all platforms.
If you talk to any director, actor, writer or technician in the Indian entertainment industry, they will tell you that they have never had so many job choices as they do now. New platforms are launching, especially in the different regional languages, and everyone wants to grab a share of their wallet. This scenario contrasts sharply with television, where sharing eyes, not money, has been broadcasters’ obsession for several years. TV remains largely ad-supported in India, and you just need more audience to watch you to extract more money from your advertisers.
While the digital media industry also relies on advertising, two global giants (Google and Facebook) control much of this spending. Most platforms have opted for a premium paid subscription model or one that relies on a mix of paid and free content (sometimes referred to as “freemium”). The obsession now is to increase the number of paid subscribers, both retaining existing subscribers and attracting new ones.
However, things are not as easy as they seem. There are only around 100 million paid OTT accounts in India active as of today, owned by around 40-45 million unique individuals. Less than 10% of India’s population watches paid content, although a much larger share (around 25%) consumes free content through platforms such as YouTube and social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the various short video applications.
The pandemic surge is now a thing of the past, and platforms will struggle to grow their subscriber base at rates close to the 20-30% per year growth rates they have seen over the 2020-21 period. A significant share of subscriptions is driven by live cricket content, and this market is saturated, leaving the burden of growth on original shows and movies, where the success rate remains low. Only about 10% of web series catch the attention of the public and continue to register a considerable number of viewers. The streaming category is more about quantity than quality, and that’s not a long-term sustainable plan.
But the biggest impediment to the growth of the streaming category is Indian audiences’ inhibition to pay for content. Television has been a low-cost medium for years. A family of four can watch over 100 channels for just ₹350 per month, which is less than ₹3 per family member per day. While audiences in major cities have warmed to streaming content, the next line of markets (mini-metros and smaller towns) are more skeptical. Add to that the hacking factor, and the challenge only gets worse.
The content explosion we are seeing is very real. But is this sustainable in the years to come is a question that remains unanswered. Many analysts believe that television will die a natural death in India within the next few years and will be replaced by streaming as the primary medium for video content. This prophecy is flawed, to the point of being ridiculous.
Television is a family-oriented mass medium and has more than eight times the reach of the paid digital content universe in India. If streaming platforms aspire to grow more than 10-15% per year, they must find ways to deliver quality content that forces audiences to part with their hard-earned revenue. And they need to educate audiences outside of the metros on why paying for content isn’t such a bad idea after all.
We are in for exciting times ahead. And content creators certainly aren’t complaining.