‘We invest in stories which have the potential to reach 100 to 250 million consumers’

Ekta Kapoor-led Balaji Telefilms’ video on demand (VoD) platform is planning to ramp up original content offering as it takes on foreign over the top (OTT) giants Amazon Prime Video and Netflix.

ALTBalaji’s content strategy from the beginning has been to invest in original content that will appeal to the millennials. The VoD platform has launched 11 to 12 shows and intends to take its content offering to 200 to 300 hours.

TelevisionPost.com’s Swagata Panjari caught up with ALTBalaji’s CMO Manav Sethi to know about the initial response to ALTBalaji, consumption trends, challenges in digital video, and plans ahead.

What is ALTBalaji’s content game plan?

When we launched in the April 2017, we said that we are going to do around 200 to 300 hours of original programming. Thus far, we have launched around 11 to 12 shows including a comedy original Pammi Aunty and this does not include standup comedies. We have done stand-ups in regional language which nobody else has done.

Going forward our focus is largely on the shows that are been announced and are in the pipeline. By the end of March 2018, our plan is to achieve our goal of 150 to 200 hours of programming and we are committed to doing that.

By early 2018, we are also planning to launch remaining episodes of Nagesh Kukunoor’s Test Case and by the end of November 2017, we are set to launch ALTBalaji marquee show Bose Dead or Alive. Bose Dead or Alive which is directed by Hansal Mehta and stars Rajkummar Rao is our biggest launch of the year.

For next year, we are also working on a show with Ronit Roy. We will also launch the second season of our popular shows Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat and Dev DD. We are looking at launching some regional shows as well.

What are the viewership patterns that ALTBalaji has witnessed since its launch?

We have observed that the consumption of content has moved from Wi-Fi to Mobile. From our total pie, we have 90% consumption from our mobile devices and 10% on the web. On mobile consumption, Reliance Jio is at the forefront. When we looked at our six months data and telco share in terms of contribution done by them in our content consumption, Jio was at 54%. A single telco is contributing more than half of my consumption. Which I guess is also the reason why the recent investment of Reliance in Balaji Telefilms happened.

Also, when it comes to content viewing, English is not the main language for entertainment. Hindi content is leading the pack whereas, in regional languages, Tamil content is consumed the most. We are looking forward to launching shows in Bengali, Gujarati, and Punjabi. When we realized the trailer of our Bengali show we saw a spike in traffic from Dhaka. It proves that if there is a good content there will be content consumption from borders and outside India. There is some homogeneity of consumption beyond borders which is why we are the only platform to be live in 80 countries.

‘Going forward our focus is largely on the shows that are been announced and are in the pipeline. By the end of March 2018, our plan is to achieve our goal of 150 to 200 hours of programming and we are committed to doing that

What are the challenges faced since the launch of ALTBalaji?

Our industry is not very structured. Actors and actresses don’t report on time. People don’t honor the timelines. Unlike Hollywood, we don’t have a disciplined culture. That is our biggest challenge and because we are successful production house on TV we have some leverage on that but it still continues to be challenged.

Acquiring the maturity in storytelling has also been a great challenge. Our country specializes in soap operas and movies. Movies are three hours of storytelling whereas soap operas are 100 episodes long. Identifying the story for digital that appeal to masses is important. For digital, one has to tell the story arc in 10 episodes of 20 minutes each and it has to be structured in a way that when one episode ends the viewers must be motivated enough to watch the second episode.

There are also short-term challenges like investments for digital. One good thing about digital is the shelf life of the content. The show that goes on TV, last for 30 minutes and if there is re-run one gets 30 min extra, whereas the on ALTBalaji the show remains for 24/7 consumption. On the digital platform, monetisation is an on-going process. Also when people come on a digital platform to watch a show they end up viewing three other shows as well so that is the key.

For instance: For one of the show we got a million views within 30 days of its going live. According to our six-month data that a million views have turned into 10 million views. If I had to look into ROI from the hourly program cost standpoint if you had asked a month after the release of the show I would have said we are recovering but now I have recovered and made money on that.

Are you open to doing syndication deals with TV channels for digital content?

We are open for syndication but the story has to be extraordinary. When I say syndication it is TV to digital not digital and digital or digital to TV. For TV to digital syndication, the story should be great and interesting so much so that the viewers want to watch it again on ALTBalaji despite watching it first on TV. In that case, we are open for the deal, but the shows that are made for ALTBalaji will stay on ALTBalaji, it won’t be aired on TV.

What are the main criteria for producing web shows?

Right now, we are focusing on simple criteria of producing deep-rooted original dramas. Unlike The Viral Fever (TVF) or All India Bakchod (AIB) or any other digital guys who run YouTube networks, our content focus is deep-rooted dramas and not the flimsy stories. We invest in stories which have far-reaching impact and has potential to reach 100 to 250 million consumers along with correct build up.

Are you open to collaborating with upcoming directors, actors, and producers?

When it comes to collaborating with directors and actors we are open for all. If there is a person who has successive hits in terms of soap opera then Balaji Telefilms is in the forefront. Ekta Kapoor has been at the helm of it and has been able to put up an ecosystem of writer, actors, directors, editors and other creative teams. We already have formats and ecosystem in place which nobody in the country has. We have a separate team. In fact, our delight moment will be when I go back to my consumers and say here is your one episode a day.

‘We invest in stories which have far-reaching impact and has potential to reach 100 to 250 million consumers along with correct build up

Does web offer more creative independence compared to TV?

For us, TV always remained as family consumption device which is why we talk about households and not individuals. Whereas mobile is an individual consumption device. Just because an 18-year-old can’t watch Ragini MMS sitting in his drawing room with his family doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have potential. The good thing about India is its diversity. We have 100 markets of 10 million each and because we have 1.2 billion population. When you break it into segment you can create content which will appeal to the audience of the particular size so as to justify your P&L

The focus that we have to keep on is the quality of the story and if you don’t have the experience you may not get successive hit and it will drag on the P&L. The game changes when you come with experience backgrounds like Balaji Telefilms and leader like Ekta Kapoor. That is our comfort.

How successful has ALTBalaji been in getting consumers to pay for content?

ALTBalaji has been able to break the notion that Indians don’t want to pay for content. We are the first ones to break that notion as we are completely ad-free. We don’t have dramas which are already on TV, we don’t have catch-up content we only have original shows. Viewers can’t consume our complete show unless it’s paid. So, our thesis has been successful and our conversion rate of free to paid subscribers is also very healthy.

We are also at the forefront of change which is from TV to digital and with Reliance Jio heavily investing in video capacity, what we have seen so far is the tip of the iceberg. We have only 165 to 200 million cable and satellite homes and about 200 million TV homes but there are 1 billion or so mobile phones of which there are 400 million smartphones. There is a humongous explosion which will happen in this country which has traditionally been entertainment starved.

How has the strategy to offer first three episodes for free worked for ALTBalaji?

We thought that if we are on the cusps of changing the trends for India then let people at least sample the content. We offered viewers an option of viewing three episodes for free and then have them registered to watch the rest of the episodes. This gave me a lot of consumer data and identity and also gave me handle on what consumers are viewing. The Holy Grail in digital is the attribution to the consumers. Unlike TV channels, I directly own the consumer I am also collecting a lot of search insights which ad-funded platforms won’t be able to do. So, we are able to create consumptions which are void of ad barriers.

We have case study wherein consumer visited the platform for a particular show but ended up binged watching three more show. The response is humongous, we have seen that 30% of viewers have binged watch the shows on ALTBalaji and largely on mobile.

What was the strategy behind tying up with mobile wallets?

The strategy behind these partnerships was to change the mindset of consumers who pay for content. We thought that when it comes to micro-transaction the viewers should be able to pay it, in one click. We didn’t have a humongous budget like Hotstar, Amazon, and Netflix. We did partnerships with payment wallets as they have a vast user base and in return offer our content and brand to them. Even they saw the potential in the deal. In fact, one of our strategic partners MobiKwik got new consumers, through this deal. Recently, we have done a key partnership with Vodafone wherein Vodafone Play will feature ALTBalaji shows. Thus, offering me incremental reach with zero investment and reach around 20 million viewers.

What is ALTBalaji’s marketing strategy?

The marketing spends for ALTBalaji is mainly focused on digital. 90% of the platforms marketing budget is for online. All my customer retention, engagement, acquisition, investments come from online.

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