The rise of OTT (over-the-top) platforms and web-series in India are responsible for a new evolution in the media and entertainment sector. According to a latest report by Ernst & Young, there has been a 49% growth in digital subscription revenues in 2020. As compared to the 10.5 million in 2019, in 2020, 28 million Indians paid for 53 million OTT subscriptions. Another survey on media consumption by Ormax Media reveals that it is the web-series which are more popular than movies or any other content in these platforms.
What is a Web-Series?
Web-series are basically fictional or non-fictional long format storytelling in episodic forms which are available in various online streaming platforms. Available for watching across devices with internet connectivity and a decent bandwidth, the boom has been so powerful that erstwhile movie studios, distributors (ErosNow, ShemarooMe) and cellular network giants (JioCinema, Airtel Xstream) and even e-commerce sites (Flipkart Video) have jumped onto the bandwagon of producing and delivering web content resulting in a competitive environment of content production.
The Popularity of Web-Series
This not-so-new phenomenon rose to popularity because – young India was infuriated by the lacklustorous performance of general entertainment content in television. Various research studies have found that, it is the young population not more than 29 years, who prefers web content over television. This is because, the web-series are fresh off the bake and offers bold and challenging stories with diverse subjects. Also thanks to cheap internet and smart phones, spending time on the internet has become the favorite pastime of the millennials today. Netflix entered the Indian market in 2016 and Reliance Jio launched its free 4G services roughly around the same time. It was then followed by a pack of other OTT performers. A low subscription charge and less exposure to advertisements have ensured this exponential growth of OTT services and web-series therein. Meanwhile, content creation has become extremely challenging as netizens are extremely critical of what they are being subjected to. This is why the production companies are in a constant run to offer more realistic dramas and genre pieces with empowering narratives, relevant issues and wise representations.
Challenges to other Medium of Expression
Many consider this proliferation of web-series and OTT as the death of television and the decline of cinema. But studies reveal that the loyal viewers of television are still intact nonetheless their base has shifted from urban to rural audience. The lockdown has also affected movies as the films have started taking the OTT route compromising on the theatrical experience. The cultural life of movies too has decreased as conversations around cinema barely last longer than it takes to watch them today. Meanwhile, web-series have replaced these conversations as the viewers’ gratification is linked beyond entertainment, catharsis, companionship, value reinforcement, and information acquisition, to social interaction as well.
Locating the Web-Series in Media History
The build up for the high consumption of web-series today can be traced back to the exposure of the young urban audiences to American TV series in the early 2010s after abandoning the television for good. Then The Viral Fever (TVF) and the likes came in quick succession to YouTube in India and through it the trend of web series kicked off by 2013. TVF Picthers, Permanent Roommates, Y-Films’ (a subsidiary of Yash Raj Films) Bang Baaja Baaraat, Man’s World, Blush’s Alisha were some of the earliest entrants of this format. However, these shows were limited to very niche demography until subscriptions to Netflix had arrived to become the flag bearer of a modern lifestyle. Web-series also benefitted from the then non-existent censorship norms and rues as the web was free and largely unregulated.
The Revenue Model
Web-series started out with free streaming in YouTube but as the streaming platforms started offering a better revenue model, the free content moved from YouTube to behind paywalls. Each platform follows different but competitive models – subscription based, transaction based, ad based, hybrid model, multi-format model, etc. Some being upgrades from TV channels, cellular networks, e-commerce site and media players, already had the leverage of an existing user base while others had the benefit of a first mover. YouTube on the other hand followed a model based on sponsorship and advertising with additional monetization from free streaming. But, today even YouTube has gone for an alternative subscription based and ad free premium coverage.
Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown
As web-series and OTT are considered to be the heir to traditional TV and open digital platforms, it was the pandemic and the lockdown that opened the floodgates that took web-series to their heights. The subscriber bases of the platforms registered a significant rise during this time. They have also provided a deserving space for independent filmmakers, credible actors and regional cinema which otherwise existed at the mercy of a market monopoly. While the web space is considered TV in the west, Bollywood entertainment awards have started recognizing web-series as distinct to TV and cinema. The Filmfare OTT Awards of 2020 was one the first of its kind to recognize the creative and technical excellence of web-series.
The Success Mantra
With the choice of new content everyday and each season and episode now of shorter durations, they have hit the bull’s eye, i.e., the thirst for new content and the limited span of attention of the present generation. This offered perfect leverage over the never ending Indian TV shows or the 24 episodes per season format of American Television. The power now resides in the hands of viewers what they want to watch, when, where and how much as most platforms release entire seasons at a go. The continuing prominence of web-series has also led to the emergence of new storytellers seeking new medium of expression. Platforms like Hoichoi (Bengali), Aha (Telugu), SunNXT (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam), etc. have made regional content accessible to the entire country. The count of such regional OTT platforms has increased significantly after 2020.
Realizing its unparalleled potential, bigger stars too have got down into the business of web-series. The visual grammar of storytelling has also evolved such that going back to the over used mid-shots and close-ups of TV series are a cringe affair now. In recent times, the ban on pornographic websites has also led to the surge of a certain kind of content in India. Platforms like Ullu, ALT Balaji are churning out huge profits from this shift as they go about targeting users in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. Netflix and Amazon Prime are more focused on catering to their urban and metropolitan base.
As 2020 is considered the breakthrough year for OTT in India, a little revolution is also brewing in the video consumption market of North-East India. The launch of streaming platforms like Reeldrama, Niri9, HelloTv, etc have provided subscribers with a variety of movies and web-series from Assam and the North-East. As big screen actors and filmmakers have started collaborating for the same, the success of their efforts and the prospects of the OTT and web-series scenario in Assam will be the subject of another deliberation.