‘SVODs are the saving grace for Indian television production market’

Content production powerhouse Endemol Shine India is working towards reducing its dependence on un-scripted content which currently makes up the bulk of its business.

Abhishek Rege, who helms Endemol Shine India, is looking to reduce dependence by focussing more on the scripted side of the business particularly in the OTT space. The competitive intensity in the OTT space has also helped matters.

In an interview with TelevisionPost.com’s Ashwin Pinto, Rege feels that going forward in the coming five to seven years it will be important to focus on premium shows. He is also focussing on nurturing creative talent and talent discovery.

Excerpts:

What goals has Endemol Shine India set for itself in 2020?

For 2020, I would say that our biggest point of focus is scripted content largely in the OTT space. This focus on scripted is from the point of view of reducing our dependence on our unscripted shows which are our reality shows and talent shows and to get our contribution of scripted to non-scripted at a P&L level to a 50:50 ratio. So, as a part of our growth strategy, we have invested heavily in book rights and original ideas in addition to our global scripted catalogue.

How are OTT platforms giving you more opportunities?

The opportunity is huge. OTT is about premium, finite content. Execution and planning are Endemol Shine India’s big forte and these are the most critical points for creating such content. That plays up to our strengths. It is a huge opportunity for companies like us who have international lineage and expertise.

From a short-term perspective as well there is a lot of pressure on advertising and sales on the linear television business. So, as we go ahead in the next few months, we do see some pressure building up on that side of the business. So, SVODs are the saving grace for the Indian television production market from that perspective as well the OTT sector is in a growth phase and therefore spending.

With regards to consolidation in that space, we think that like any mature market/ industry, eventually five to seven OTT players will be here for the long run and will continue to matter. When we plan our future growth numbers we base our assumptions on this. We do not consider all 30 odd platforms as our clients even today. We will need to prioritise.

What are some of the projects that you are doing on OTT?

We have already done two shows with ALTBalaji ‘The Test Case’ and ‘Mission Over Mars’. Presently, we are finishing our production of ‘Bombay Begums’ for Netflix. In association with Ram Madhavani and Equinox, we are working on a format called ‘Penoza’ from our global catalogue. The adaptation is being called ‘Arya’ and is being made for Hotstar. There are a few more projects in the pipeline which we cannot discuss till we close them out contractually.

What are the OTT platforms looking for when it comes to content?

They are open to a lot of genres. There is no specific target. The best part of OTT is that if a genre works, you can do more and more of the same. In television, however, one would not want all your slots to be similar.

Does it give more opportunities for experimentation?

Yes and No! It is open to different subjects, subjects which have a smaller following as opposed to television where you need something that will always cater to a large mass audience and will reach a larger TG. In the case of OTT, the TG could be a smaller number of people. You can bring in newer stuff that way.

But at the end of the day, it is an entertainment medium. It is driven by paid subscription and must be in the right zone where subscribers are enticed to pay and watch it. In that sense, you will really have to think about what level of experimentation you will want to do. But you get to do completely different stuff that you would not do on linear television.

When you work with a platform like Netflix is it important for a show to be able to travel globally as well besides India?

I think that OTT functions on the idea that if you invest a certain amount of money then you must get a certain amount of audience. They also think of budgets in that way. If you have typical genres that only have a certain number of people watching like horror, dark comedy or satire then they will spend only so much money.

From a global perspective, you would ideally want every show that you do to be a global hit. But they also realise that some shows are meant for a certain diaspora or a certain territory. They are open to different scenarios.

Do production values make a show premium or is it about the script having more nuance and depth? How do you define a premium show?

The definition of premium means that it is a costly show. From a production perspective, it would need strong writing and great production quality. The differential would come in the choice of actors as well. For example, if the show is led by A-listers, it would be even more expensive. With top actors, great writing and production being top notch, it is understood that such a show will take enough time to develop and there will always be a certain cost that comes with it.

There is a dearth of talent when it comes to creating premium shows. What is the way forward?

If you look at a five to seven-year period, multiple premium shows will have to be made every year. The problem is the showrunners, creative talent available who can actually take control of a project. This is really critical job in making a great show and that is what we need to grow. One of the ways to do this is to hone fresher talent and give them opportunities. We believe in that. We are working towards that.

In the case of ‘The Ibis Trilogy’ for example, we will have HoDs from the UK/ Europe. But the idea is that the local teams will come from India so that they are exposed to scaled-up production. These are the guys who could possibly do the next big-scale production all by themselves. That is the whole outlook. We have to hone home-grown talent for sure.

Is there a big difference in the budgets that you work between OTT and TV?

Absolutely! The difference is that TV gives you a commitment of episodes of a quarter or a year, at the minimum. With a daily soap it is a 52-week commitment. So, costs get amortised over a large number of episodes. Therefore, the cost comes down. You also shoot in fixed locations and sets. This is how cost control happens. But in OTT, you want to make it as real as possible. You want to shoot in multiple locations. You want to hire big directors. When you do that and scenes are shot in multiple locations etc., your setup time is more. So, the number of days of shoot per episode is more. The effort taken is more. That makes it costly.

How did the idea of adapting Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Ibis Trilogy’ come about?

Basically, we were looking at this internally. We were deciding on how to pick Indian authors who are bestsellers globally and bring that to fore. The idea was to not only to help showcase their work, but also showcasing the production opportunities in India for a global product.

These stories already work for global audiences who have read the books. They are relatable for larger platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Secondly, these books have a large story base in India and so the production would largely be based in India. We would therefore be the ones who would be producing it and would have a lion’s share in the co-production angle.

How long does it take to do a show?

From a green light point of view, it could be 18 months. Some shows have taken more time than that. But typically, the turnaround time for an OTT show is 11-12 months give or take a month or two.

Could you talk about the investments that Endemol Shine India makes in creative talent from directors to writers?

We have a lot of tie-ups. One is looking at our own catalogue and seeing what can be adapted and who will do it. Secondly it is about original ideas and concepts that we develop in conjecture with various writers to figure out what works for us. Third are the book rights.

On the original story front, depending on the genre, we reach out to a director or writer who will serve as a showrunner/writer or director. We then invest in developing the storyline, the adaptation and how it will look. That development cost is what we invest in and this bears fruit as we go ahead. Similarly, we also invest in book rights and have a similar development process for that as well. This is a necessary investment to build our scripted content and to get more and more commissions down the line.

What have been key learnings for you?

Every episode needs to have a hook at the end so that the viewer goes on to the next one. As long as you keep those hooks, you will go on to the next episode and then the next season. I think that one of the key learnings is to always invest more and more time and effort on writing. If you get that right, then a lot of your problems are solved. Everything else can be put together basis the writing. An idea or concept can come from any corner and we need to find them. We do show workshops etc. to keep the quality high.

How many shows will you have on-air this year?

Between TV and OTT, we would have 20 odd shows on-air this year. About 5 to 7 of them would be premium OTT shows and 14 would be TV shows.

What trends are being seen in terms of audience preferences? How have these evolved over the past three years?

I think that the trend is that shows continue to need to be a little massy. It is not just about differentiated content but also relatability. Shows like ‘Mirzapur’, ‘Sacred Games’, ‘The Family Man’ have connected with the audiences really well. Genres that are preferred seem to be crime and comedy.

What have you learnt from the success of ‘Bigg Boss’?

We need to do it in more languages! We are happy that it has worked really well across languages and it keeps us on our toes to meet expectations. We apply fresh minds to that show so that we stay relevant in each language and in each season. We have six versions with over 630 episodes in a 365-day calendar year. We are now looking at a Sri Lankan version and are looking into more regional language versions.

How important is to tweak the format of a show like ‘Khatron Ki Khiladi’ so that viewers do not get bored?

Viewers come back because they like the original basic format. The difference is to create layers as a new season starts. Also, new contestants come in which gives the show a different flavour.

Today what is the big challenge in scaling up?

Talent and getting the right crews. This is the biggest job we have on hand. We have great writers coming up and we need more of them, we need great teams to be put together.

You expect India to be like America where going forward TV shows will have a finite number of episodes. How will that change the way you approach story ideation, arcs?

Linear TV is already looking at options for 150-200 episodes of a daily show. The aim is to try fresher stories and get a closure for the audience. If you look at Star Plus in the old days they used to have one-hour episodes of weeklies like ‘Sanjivani’ and ‘Saara Aakash’ etc. , if you have a hook, the season length does not matter.

We have seen Colors experiment with a shorter season and bringing it back through a generation leap. Regional channels like Zee Marathi have done it with late-night shows. The weekend scripted shows like ‘CID’ or the comedies like ‘Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai’ or ‘Khichdi’ have been episodic and finite seasons. It is just that we did not realise that it was a finite season because it was scheduled in a certain manner.

It is too early to say if we are going back in that direction or not. But going forward products/ shows will need to stand out. Over the years, various shows have created some networks as leaders in the American market with shows like ‘Boston Legal’, ‘Seinfeld’, ‘Friends’, ‘Big Bang Theory’ etc.. So maybe shows with finite episodes and multiple seasons could become the norm of the day.

Is IP ownership important for Endemol Shine India?

Of course! We thrive on this and it is the base of our business. It is the foundation for us. We will build ideas in the scripted and non-scripted space to license to partners.

Will you look at your own OTT platform?

As far as the present strategy goes, we prefer to stay independent and hence an investment in any platform looks unlikely for now.

One of your goals is for shows to have returning seasons. How do you ensure this in a difficult environment?

If the first season worked due to a great plot, then getting a new season should not be a problem. The challenge is not about the business going into the next season. The challenge is the creativity. The season that you fail in will be your last anyway. A returning season needs less marketing cost. People know the brand and so the push does not need to be as much. Promoting within the OTT service/ app is enough. Viewers will automatically ask when a new season will come if they like a show.

How do you control costs without compromising quality?

It is all about intelligent design, how well you handle your production and how you provide creative solutions. There are different ways to approach production scheduling, VFX etc. It is about how you manage these things that will keep your costs down. The more you plan, the better the control.

How are you boosting interactivity in content?

Frankly, not all shows can offer interactivity. Reality content is a passive consumption. Gameshows will give you higher interactivity.

We believe, interactivity is basically the engagement of viewers. There are other ways of engagement like the content around content, behind the scenes, etc. Today the engagement on snacky content is very high with platforms like YouTube and other broadcaster affiliated platforms. It lets you catch up on shows that will not take a lot of your time. ‘Bigg Boss’ allows us to put a lot of content around content. This makes people identify with the contestants and thus the show and format.

Endemol Shine India has returned to making movies. What are the plans in this arena?

We have plans for this. We have not yet done it. We also want to ensure that if and when we do get back, it is a serious long-term plan and not a start and stop arrangement. Our timeline is flexible to do this as that is not our key focus.

Would you look at co-productions?

Yes! In fact ‘The Ibis Trilogy’ is a co-production between us and our sister concerns in the UK. We have HODs from UK leading the project along with us. This is a huge co-production. ‘Arya’ is a sort of co-production while we own the format and Equinox brings in a strong creative skill set with Ram Madhvani’s adaptation of the format.

Do you think that the three screens of the big screen, small screen and digital will co-exist?

Each screen will co-exist and will be three different mediums to watch content. The difference is the screen you choose to watch it on. You can watch OTT content on your phone or on the TV. For TV content this is also true. If it is personal viewing you will watch it on the mobile. Jio has just promised a new movie every week on your phone. The screens are a medium for watching content. For family viewing, you can cast content on your TV. It is about how socially you want to consume content.

India has not exported formats that much. Will this change?

The IP of a show rests with broadcasters and it is not their focus area presently to license formats. But we do hope things change in the near future.

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