They're late to the party but Balalji Telefilms’ over-the-top (OTT) media platform, ALT Digital, has big plans for an April 15 launch.
In the second ('beta') phase of software testing on Android and iOS, it will be up against national and international OTT (audio, video and other media transmitted via the internet without a multiple-system operator controlling or distributing the content) platforms such as Hotstar, VOOT, Sony LIV, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Balaji had announced it plans to launch an OTT service almost two years earlier. The launch has been delayed for around nine months. Explains chief executive officer Nachiket Pantvaidya, \"There were some things we wanted to be absolutely sure of before going ‘live’. Two of these were the tech and the content. We have a content pipeline for the first six months – the first three months’ content is ready to stream and the next three is in production. Lastly, we wanted to wait and observe the effects of demonetisation before launching.”
The beta version (where a sampling of the intended audience tries the product) of the app and website was launched on February 21. The team will observe the response and feedback. It currently has international shows like The Doctor Blake Mysteries and The Murdoch Mysteries and movies from the Balaji Motion Pictures stable like Shor in the City and Lootera.
The April 15 launch will see two major features – eight ALT original shows will go online together and the platform will open up to worldwide audiences. A completely paid service, ALT will be priced at Rs 60 a month in India and $2 (or the local currency equivalent) abroad. With eight shows, Balaji's ALT will have the most robust library of original content from India on an OTT platform.
While most platforms, VOOT being the exception, now charge for exclusive content, the paying habit among digital consumers is not popular. Even after the huge slate of international and original content that Netflix brought to Indian shores, it reported only 600 hours of content viewed in India in its first year. To combat this hurdle, Pantvaidya feels every episode of ALT’s shows need to have a 'hook', compelling the viewer to watch the next one.
“We will put out the first two episodes of all the shows on social media. These can be accessed by anyone. The first five of any show will be available on the app/website for free. From the 6th episode onwards, the content will be behind the pay wall. Having said that, we believe every episode has to have a hook for the viewer to come back, as viewing habits on digital are different and viewers can see episodes at a stretch or split an episode in two as per convenience,” he explains.
The launch with eight shows will include a Tamil one. The company plans to have 18 new shows in the first six months and a total of 32 new ones a year. Apart from Hindi and Tamil, it will explore content in Bengali and Punjabi. While regional languages are expected to help penetrate the Indian market, ALT hopes also to attract the South Asia audience through Punjabi (Pakistan) and Bengali (Bangladesh), and a chunk of the diaspora.
Of course, accepts Pantvaidya, this is the plan for now and it could be tweaked as the service goes live and viewers send feedback. Interestingly, unlike other OTT entities, ALT does not find original content very expensive. “It’s more effort on the development stage, for sure, but execution needn’t cost a bomb if done intelligently,” he feels.
The bulk of the content it intends to put out will mostly be fictional, for now. The stories are diverse, from a homosexual love story to the journey of India’s first female combatant in the military. Pantvaidya feels digital audiences need not be restricted to a certain age group or region. “We aren’t making any claims that what works on TV cannot work on digital. We feel that all the content we put out needs to have that ‘ALT twist’. So, we’re doing a gay love story, which does not harp on the trials of such a relationship but looks at it in a new light. We are doing our own take on Devdas, with a female protagonist. Devdas has been translated to the big and small screen many times but this is a new way of interpreting it,” he says.
This is the reason the platform will also have a show with Ram Kapoor and Sakshi Tanwar, a hit pair on television who featured in one of Balaji Telefilms' most successful shows, Bade Acche Lagte Hain. Pantvaidya and team say they believe in putting out something for everyone and building an audience consisting of different niches ALT will cater to.
ALT is also in talks with telecom companies and original equipment makers (OEMs) for tie-ups to help improve the reach of the platform. Pantvaidya says there is a dearth of consistent Indian original content on Indian OTT platforms and having a robust line-up will help ALT strike deals with telcos and OEMs. And, since ALT is subscription-focused and not depending on advertising, its partners can hope to get a share of subscription revenue as well.