Amit Ravindernath Sharma’s Badhaai Ho is the story of a 50-something middle class couple who discover that they are expecting a baby. The horror and embarrassment this accidental pregnancy causes in their grown-up sons, neighbours, friends, et al, makes for a hilarious watch. Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao are outstanding as the Kaushiks. Neither of them is a box-office draw; the only 'star' in the film is Ayushmann Khurrana. Yet this well-written story, an estimated Rs 0.3 billion production from the Times Group’s Junglee Pictures has already raked in Rs 1.4 billion globally.
About five years back a film like Badhaai Ho wouldn’t have stood a chance at the box office. But if there is one thing 2018 has blown to smithereens, it is our notion of who the audience is and what it wants. It is not millennials or tweens or double-income-no-kids couples or any of the things marketers and researchers have been telling us for years. It is in fact, clusters of people across geographies, ages and social classes who enjoy a cracking good story.
It could be the aunt in Dehradun who watches Naagin (Colors), the friend in Kolkata who is into Stranger Things (Netflix) or your kid in Mumbai watching Lego videos. They did that earlier too. However, as options multiply (TV, online, theatres), platforms proliferate (Voot, Sony Liv, Viu) and technology (cable, DTH, streaming) enables you to watch content on almost any device, all audiences are beginning to count.
It could be the 13 million who pay between Rs 50-100 a month to watch films on ErosNow. Or the 313 million people that tuned in to watch the last season of the Pro-Kabaddi League on Star Network. Or the 114 million people who go to T-Series channels on YouTube to listen to devotional songs or watch film trailers. You cannot put them in a silo by age or other demographics. The only variable you can play with is audience taste. That, incidentally, is how Netflix clusters its 137 million subscribers.
The potpourri of options, technologies, falling prices and increasing bandwidth is exposing audiences to the best content on TV, online and in print. And this sustained exposure to choice and variety is in turn forcing the Rs 1,473 billion Indian media and entertainment industry to adapt in order to capture these splintering audiences.
The film industry has learnt its lesson very fast. So script workshops, better money for writers, a focus on the director have become hygiene factors now. The industry has had an incredible year on the back of good, strong stories, or what the trade calls ‘content films’, such as Andhadhun, Stree, Raazi, Sarkar (Tamil), Rangasthalam (Telugu), Bharat Ane Nenu (Telugu), among others. It is also a coveted source of content for every major video app in India.
However, television is failing on the storytelling front. Over the last three years, the share of Hindi general entertainment channels (GEC) in the overall viewership pie has been falling. The genre brings in roughly a third of the (ad) revenues for the Rs 660 billion Indian TV industry. The share of Tamil, Telugu, Bangla or Marathi GEC too haven’t grown, though they haven’t fallen either.
The popular myth is that OTT (over-the-top video content via the internet) is killing the TV market. But if that were so, TV viewership wouldn’t have risen by 13 per cent over 2017. Total viewers too jumped to 836 million over the same period — up from 790 million in 2016, according to data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council. Besides, the 447 million Indians with broadband connections spend about 50 minutes a day watching online video, which is way below the average 3 hours and 45 minutes (and growing) spent on watching TV. Note also that films have done well in a year when OTT has taken off. Therefore, the growth of online video has been supplementary, not cannibalistic.
Indian television is losing audiences in GEC (not sports or news) because the five large players - Star, Sony, Zee, Viacom18 and Sun – that comprise 74 per cent of total TV viewership, have become risk-averse and bureaucratic. Every major TV producer in Mumbai will tell you about the pain of dealing with number-crunching programming teams that take months to decide on a show, then pull it off air the moment ratings flounder. The TV programmer today has no feel for a show, a script, or an idea and how it could connect with audiences. The only prism through which he sees audiences is data.
Ironically 75 per cent of what goes into the content selection process at Netflix is “intuitive”, says Reed Hastings, CEO, Netflix. This, remember, is a firm that is redefining the world of entertainment. “We read scripts, then think of casting and analyse the show afterwards. The creative part is totally instinctive,” says Hastings.
It is a quality the film industry is getting back as it experiments with new writers, directors and different stories. It is a quality Indian television had. If Star hadn’t taken a risk in 2000, it wouldn’t have done Kaun Banega Crorepati and Colors wouldn’t be where it is today without Balika Vadhu in 2008.
The audience is ready. Can Indian media deliver?