ZEE5 India and Bharat’s home-grown video streaming platform and multilingual storyteller, announced a compelling content line-up in Tamil at a glittering star-studded gala on Tuesday – Oru Awesome Thodakkam in Chennai, adding to the excitement of the upcoming Tamil New year.
Siju Prabhakaran – Chief Cluster Officer – South (Linear & OTT) – ZEE Entertainment Enterprises Ltd spoke to Medianews4U on the OTT surge in the pandemic, regional content and much more.
The pandemic is seeing an explosion of OTT in the Indian entertainment scene. What are your thoughts on this?
I think even before the pandemic, we were moving in the direction where the consumption of OTT had started increasing. There was the phenomenon of catch up TV, which was very prevalent. I think the pandemic just accelerated the whole thing much, much more than what audiences expected because they had all the time. I think content was there, a lot of direct digital releases happened on all the platforms, and the captivated time, the availability of content, great storytelling, all this, I think, definitely did accelerate the whole thing. We had a lot of content, which we did across India in regional markets. We saw tremendous success in some of the content that we did. We did film like ‘Dikkiloona’, we did another film called Malaysia to amnesia, and we did a great coming of age story called Mudhal Nee Mudivum Nee. We did another film called ‘Vinodhaya Sitham’. These are all different genres, different kinds of films, which otherwise might not have come out. But thanks to OTT, thanks to the time period that we are in, they did extremely well. But I think the real moment was when Vilangu happened on the platform, Vilangu after almost a long break, was our first web series, and we received a phenomenal response, cutting across age groups, cutting across genders. Vilangu has been appreciated; the industry has appreciated it so it’s undoubtedly one of the best Tamil web series which has been launched till now. This definitely means that the audience is kind of ready for great content. Their appetite for originals is very high. It puts a lot of responsibility on platforms like us to have the ability of entertaining our viewers with different kinds of genres. The audiences are not just looking for one kind of genre. This is my Point of view on the surge of OTT.
Today, there are a plethora of regional OTT platforms. I mean, even in Tamil, there are many. How has Zee5 created differentiated content for audiences across different geographies and demographics?
I think this is a category or for any category, the understanding that there is more content being created, more consumption happens and therefore, it’s good for the category in itself, I would say the Zee5 hallmark or unique aspect or differentiation has always been understanding the region, understanding the culture, understanding each of the market for what they are and then kind of catering to the content requirement, based on the regional audience understanding. We have very successfully demonstrated that in the linear business for many, many years that is something which is going to be and therefore the whole thing of as you go local, you will go global because the kind of stories that we are telling are very, very unique and the kind of genres that we are catering to are very new. Therefore, there is a space for us to not only have a Tamilian viewer, and the beauty of OTT is that you are seeing consumption beyond the language, today we do see Tamil content being consumed in Telugu and Vilangu series, is a great example of how pinnacle content which is being consumed in Karnataka and Tamil and we all know the Malayalam film industry phenomenon. I think the big differentiation is in understanding the pulse. Second is the kind of creators that we’re going to be working with, they are some of the best in the industry. But at the same time, we are also partnering with newcomers because freshness is something which should be and these are newcomers and the whole gatekeeper concept is going thanks to OTT where there is the viewer and the creator. The creator can directly reach to the consumers if you have a great story to tell and I think these are evolving things which we keep looking at the creator ecosystem, which is very, very exciting. The kinds of genres that we’re going to be creating and how unique they are, focusing on quality is another aspect, I don’t think that we are going to put any curated content out there, we really want to kind of select the best for our viewers. These are some filters that we put for ourselves like quality, rootedness, and the best of filmmakers.
South Indian content today has become the flavour of the season. I mean people are consuming Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu content across India, and even abroad, without understanding the language thanks to the subtitling. What is the strategy behind this phenomenon?
I think one clear advantage that any language not only South language has is the strong culture background and that becomes a very, very strong bet for content to be created. Second is to being authentic to the genre that you are, if you’re making an out and out high octane entertainment film for example, Pushpa then you have to stay true to that. But if you’re really focusing on content and the kind of storytelling which is very realistic, which is layered, which is not black and white, which is grey, then you need to stay true to that, I believe this is a period every industry has that sort of a theme and this is a period where across markets, we have seen creation from what is coming from South being very true to the land or the culture and to the genre. I think that authenticity is something which is becoming a breeding label for South Indian content creators, but I think we have just gotten started with a lot of new creators who have great ideas, which is waiting to be told. I think the OTT revolution is going to be where you will have brilliant stories being told which will be consumed by the audience as per their convenience, as per their language. Then obviously, there is a tagline or a brand value of you watching your content in your own language. There is always that sense of pride which comes into play. That is something which we will see, going forward, increasingly in the major markets.
Today in the south Zee has created a niche for itself, be it TV or OTT, how has this synergy been attained?
Basically, I think that in the heart of it, is the viewer or the consumer. When you look at the different end, the viewer is the same. They juggle between TV, they go to OTT, they go to theatre, they go to a mall and I think as content creators, we are all vying for their attention, their time, their love, their brand love. So when we look at different mediums, one is an appointment viewing medium, where we build habit through the kind of content for an audience which is very clearly is mass, there is a huge set of population, which watches TV content, this is a medium where they want variety, they want convenience, and they want great content in their language. So that is something which you expect from the OTT audience but at the same time, the synergies are great, because one thing that you’re seeing now apart from his co viewing happening in the OTT space and increasingly.
Looking at how the medium treats, storytelling at the core, whether you’re doing it for TV or OTT is understanding where the viewer is coming from and what they are looking at. Connected TV is another great thing you will see and that the latest FICCI report says, that almost 40 million homes will have connected TV by 2025 or so which would mean that there will be catch up TV which is happening, there is also a large audience which will watch linear TV, there will be a large audience which is going to get inducted into original content through these themes. This understanding of the audience requirement and then creating the content that they would want to watch with variety, with freshness, collaborating with the right kind of creators and learning from every show that you do because in all fairness, this whole series world is something which we are all learning as we’re getting into it,
But do you think it is also because you understand the culture of the South Market and this has helped you in creating content?
As I mentioned the viewer, it is the viewer in the context of the culture that he or she comes from, there is a live experience of the viewer in what background they have come from, in some of the regional markets, socially relevant subjects we are doing and these come from very, very deep rooted understanding. We are doing a series on the Chairman election in South Tamil Nadu told in a very gripping political thriller format and this comes from a very clear understanding. We’re telling another story from the POV of a House in Chennai, from the 1960s to 2000s. That means we say that this houses was great for some and some didn’t have the best experience. People come and go in a house, what if the house had to tell the story of many people who come and stayed there, but it is told from a standpoint which is very, very relevant, even for today’s audience. Then there is another story on Life and Death. This is a story of 5 people traveling the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu who face death during a road trip. The story travels from Kanyakumari to Chennai, and these are very rooted stories from that particular place. This can be handled by only creators who kind of have that sort of an understanding. Then we put our consumer understanding on top of it, what exactly the viewer is wanting to kind of extrapolate and read the content cues that we would want to take.
Today, there’s so much content, local content, regional content, international content, today’s audiences are becoming spoilt for choice and we know they love to experiment and explore new content in different genres. How are you seeing today’s audiences?
I think this is the golden age for the content creators; it is also the best time for content consumers, because thanks to technology, sitting here you can watch any world content and we know what Korean content has done or Iranian films were doing and now Malayalam films are grabbing eyeballs. We know how regional Tamil and Telugu films are traveling across India. Today, we are seeing that audiences and it’s also kind of a confluence of the audience wanting more creators and having that sort of an appetite to create what the audience wants. This is something that is great for the whole content business. To just give an example that there was a film called ‘The Great Indian kitchen’, you really didn’t know the platform in which it came on, but once the film was seen the platform was known. So that is the power of content. Similar is what it is going to be if there is great content, the discovery of that content is an altogether different discussion, which I’m sure is something which audiences will kind of figure out and also which is the brand which is being very consistent with its promise. We are promising our viewers and announcing a slate of 12 to 15 shows every month and you can expect something great in form of series.
Will you be now producing content in the other South Indian languages?
All the four markets, films is something which we are quite familiar with something which we keep doing and we do have a very aggressive content, film acquisition for all the markets. But when it comes to originals, currently we are focusing more on Tamil and Telugu market. These are the places where we will have originals consistently through the year month on month.Other markets are very, very important markets for us we would we would get in there at the right time.
What is going to be your focus for 2022-23, India has now entered into the new normal? People have started getting to work, do you think that OTT viewing will reduce or come down?
Pandemic times were extraordinary times and so you had an audience which was at home. But the days of how we work have changed. We are seeing work from home. We are seeing some hardcoding of behavioural changes in people. We are seeing content consumption in OTT as a behavioural change, or something that we are also seeing people now, getting back to theatre, we are seeing travel coming back and we know for a fact that content consumption during travel is a very high consuming space. So, I think people will consume as per their convenience, people from the language will want to create content in their language and that is definitely a big shift. We might have seen early days where people were watching English content because of unavailability of regional content and have great strength for the sheer consumption of content.
What are what are some of the out of the box marketing initiatives for all these shows? Would you be concentrating only on digital or going all across platforms?
See the trend is that it is not only the metros which are contributing to content consumption, it is the tier 2-3 cities which has started increasing the broadband penetration with smartphones, Smart TV penetration increasing in these places, you do see consumption increasing in small towns also. Our marketing will be focused across the market which is definitely social and digital is a very big component of it. The virility of content is very important. We do keep doing interesting things. The announcement that we are doing today is one such initiative and we will as we go along for each show, we will have a very concentrated marketing effect, which kind of creates the right kind of impact.