‘There are no rules when it comes to content consumption’
The content creators and producers are having a gala time as competition among over the top (OTT) platforms heats up. Digital content company The Viral Fever (TVF) is also riding the OTT wave by licencing its shows to content starved OTT platforms. The Viral Fever Originals chief content Officer, head Sameer Saxena in a chat with TelevisionPost.com’s Ashwin Pinto spoke about how the year has gone by and the plan for 2020.
When TVF was set up what was the gap in the market that you saw?
At that time, the kind of content that was being made for television and cinema was similar in nature for a long time and we felt that people wanted to see something different. The kind of ideas that we had in mind we felt we needed to put out. Those ideas we felt were something the audience would want to watch because they were not getting that on television or film. This is the gap that we tapped into and it worked for us.
How did you go about filling that gap?
We started off with mini sketches and started to tell sketches with stories around them. People started appreciating them and that is how the whole journey began. For example, the very first video that we did was a spoof on MTV’s popular show ‘Roadies‘. But we felt that there is an audience who while enjoying ‘Roadies’ also felt that there was a joke in the way things happened on the show. We capitalised on that. We set those jokes in the sketches that we created. The audience loved what we did. They connected with the jokes that we created.
Was 2019 a year where TVF did a lot of experimentation?
Yes! In fact, one of our biggest experiments was ‘Kota Factory’. This is India’s first-ever black and white show. We were very skeptical about whether or not to do it. Would the audience like it? But we were also convinced by the idea as to why we should do a black and white show. That is why we said that we should take the risk and do the experiment. The experiment was a huge success.
What is the advantage of working in black and white?
There is no advantage as such. We did black and white because it made sense. Students there live a monotonous life. They go to class, study and come back. There aren’t too many colours in their life. White represents their happiness and black represents their sadness. We wanted to tap into this and it jelled with the kind of storytelling that we had in mind. People completely connected with it.
How many shows did you do in 2019 and what is the plan for 2020?
This year, we did about 10-12 big originals. Next year, we will easily do 15-20 shows. Some shows like ‘Kota Factory’, ‘Cubicles’, and ‘Hostel Daze’ will return for a second season while there will be new IPs that we will be launching.
What criteria do you follow before greenlighting a show?
It has to be the story and what we want to say with that show. That is very important for us. We are very particular that we say something with a show. If there is nothing to say, if the story is just about okay we don’t go ahead and make it. We have to be very convinced about the story.
With so much content online what is the trick to standing out from the crowd?
I don’t know if there is a trick. The only way to stand out is if you do complete, honest work. That is the only secret and I guess that this is something that we have been doing. This is our focus. Whatever story we say we try to be completely honest. We do not dilute it due to other factors. We will not put a trending thing in a show just for views if we feel that the show does not need it. As long as you are honest, the content will resonate and obviously you have to be good at what you do.
You have to be good at every stage from scripting to execution. You have to ensure that people do not get bored with what you are creating. If the content is good enough then people will stick with it. At the time we did our first big series ‘Permanent Roommates’ there was a YouTube study which said that if a video is over five minutes people don’t watch it. But our show’s finale was 40 minutes and got a retention ratio of 80%. There are no rules when it comes to content consumption.
Tell us about the team expansion in 2019?
This year we expanded our team by about 15-20%. We are always on the lookout for creators, writers, directors. We also work with a lot of new faces. This year we had new faces for shows like ‘Hostel Daze’. We are always on the lookout for new people. We strongly believe that there is a lot of talent out there in the industry and we definitely need to tap into that to scale up.
How big a challenge is it to identify the right talent?
It is a very big challenge and a very difficult task. But you have to put in the effort and time. You invest in 10 people and one will come as being good whether it is a writer, actor, or director. But you have to spend time.
Could you talk about your partnerships with OTT platforms?
This year, we have had partnerships with all the big OTT players. So we worked with MX Player this year. In fact, they launched with ‘Immature’ which was produced by us. Recently we released ‘Cheesecake’ on MX Player. We partnered with SonyLIV and gave them the second season of ‘Tripling’ and ‘Gullak’. We have licenced some shows to Netflix. ‘Hostel Daze’ just released on Amazon Prime Video. Our aim is to expand our relationships next year.
What is it that the OTT platforms look for in a show?
It is pretty simple. Every OTT platform is looking for good stories. When they talk to us the best thing is that they appreciate and understand our sensibilities. For them having a good story in place is very important. All the OTT platforms that we have worked with are open to exploring ideas. They don’t tell us that they only want one thing. They are open to working in different genres and exploring different stories. We move ahead on ideas that they accept.
When you look at content trends on OTT in 2019 what genres did viewers gravitate towards?
Anything that is entertaining and engaging even if it is a different genre from the regular thing. While ‘Sacred Games’ worked ‘Kota Factory’ also worked which is a pure drama with bits of comedy. Family shows also work. Then ‘Hostel Daze’ is a pure fun show. As long as the story is entertaining and engaging it will be accepted.
How big a white space is regional content?
We all need to explore this. We ourselves are working on a few shows in this space. We will start with Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. That is the plan and hopefully, from there we will expand into other languages.
Does OTT allow for more experimentation compared to TV?
Yes! They are different mediums and cater to a different audience set. TV is a very big medium. A lot of people watch it. There is a sensibility that works there. Digital is slightly different. OTT platforms are slightly more experimental. Our TG is mostly in the range of 18-35 mostly from Tier 1 and 2 towns and cities. Not much consumption is coming from the South but we plan to change that.
For returning seasons do you tweak formats so that they do not become stale?
Not necessarily! If it is fiction then you cannot do anything about the format. It is about having a good story to tell. That is the only thing that we have to worry about. If we do not have a good story then we do not go ahead with another season. We have not done another season in non-fiction. You could look to bring in more fun, add new elements to it. But if something is not broken why experiment?
Are there genres that are underserved?
Horror has a lot of potential. I personally love horror. We are working on a concept. We hope to make a good show and it will have a supernatural element. In India, we don’t make good horror. It is more like a comedy where you don’t get scared. The day we start making people scared is the day that we have made progress.
Why do Indian content creators struggle with horror?
Horror is a very difficult genre to work in. Maybe it is slightly less difficult than comedy. You have to play on the treatment, on the psychology of the audience. You have to be ahead of them all the time. Scaring the audience is not easy. You have to be very unpredictable. Unfortunately what we do is make it very in your face, out there, make it too loud, too gory. That is when people laugh instead of being scared.
Is Stephen King a blueprint?
If we can achieve even like 10% of that then we will scare the audience. I would aspire to ideally do something better than ‘The Shining’. What we do eventually is up to us.
How has Reliance Jio changed the game?
A lot! With Jio the mobile accessibility has gone to Tier-3 towns and people there are exploring digital content for the first time. A lot of creators are coming from there as there is now an audience for that. People in small towns are getting exposed to digital content. They obviously consume more and more content.
Since you do licencing deals with multiple OTT platforms doesn’t that reduce consumption on your own platform?
It does. But then we also have our own shows. We do a lot of sketches, short videos. This happens on a daily basis.
Is content consumption growing for short-form or long-form content?
Both are growing. Long-form of late has been growing. But short-form is also something that people also watch a lot of.
Are co-productions going to be important as it reduces risk?
We are open to it. This is not just because it reduces risk. If there is a bandwidth constraint then why not?
Do you have global expansion plans?
Yes! We will get into details on this in 2020 in terms of how we want to go about it. But we have some plans.
Could you talk about brand integration and the effort it takes to make it seamless?
Brand integration is something that we have developed an expertise in over the last couple of years. We were the first ones to do this in the digital space. It takes a lot of time just to put thoughts around it and writing it and making it seamless. We try to not force fit a brand into any content. That just does not work. The audience is intelligent enough to understand that an ad is happening in the middle of storytelling. It takes time, expertise and learnings from our past to figure out the best way to go about it.
In the past with some of our sketches brands asked us to put their brand for a certain period of time. We went ahead and found that it did not work. Over time brands have also understood and know that one cannot approach things in an in your face manner. The brand integration has to be more subtle and intelligent. The audience will also appreciate the brand. The audience will know that the brand understands their sensibility. We did ‘Tripling’ with Tiago and it was a huge success. It actually became a case study. UnAcademy was involved with ‘Kota Factory’.
I&B ministry is talking about regulating online content. Are you concerned that this might reduce experimentation?
It depends on the mandate. I hope that it does not hinder people from experimenting. As long as it is just a certification thing then that is fine. But if it is something else then it might be a concern. But again these are very early days to talk about it. I hope that we do not reach a stage where we reduce experimentation.
TVF has its own filters in place before giving any piece of content the go-ahead. TVF is known for making content that is very family oriented which is something that does not cross a line in any way. Cuss words might be used specifically with a show for instance about young guys. But if it is a show that targets the family then that will not happen.