Collapse of the Streaming Promise

After being hailed as the next great hope for entertainment, there is now a sense that something has gone terribly awry in the world of Indian OTTs
Collapse of the Streaming Promise
Collapse of the Streaming Promise

“The mid-budget show is going to die, the kind of shows that people like me make,” said creator of acclaimed web-shows like Kohrra (2023) and Paatal Lok (2020), Sudeep Sharma. Sharma made this statement while on journalist Suchin Mehrotra’s podcast, The Streaming Show. That wasn’t all. Sharma also served some home truths about Mumbai, India’s entertainment capital. “Ambition is not a word you hear in this town. At least I have not heard it in a while,” he said. 

When OTT platforms started gaining traction in India around 2015, they seemed like an avenue for new kinds of stories and filmmaking, for narratives like the ones Sharma told, with patience and particularity, gumption and grit, be it Sacred Games (2018) or Pataal Lok or School Of Lies (2023). “The business model a few years ago was to throw money and get a subscriber at any cost,” said Saugata Mukherjee, Head of Content at SonyLIV. “It doesn’t work and it hasn’t worked globally, where now companies are merging because the cost of content is very high and revenues are dropping.”

If the lockdown years saw the streaming audience swell by millions, the subsequent years have delivered an unpleasant reality check. According to Ormax Media, the 20% growth in the digital video audience it saw during the pandemic, between 2021-21, has slowed down to 13.5% between 2022-23. “I’ve been around for a while. These are the darkest times that I have seen,” Sharma said on The Streaming Show. Streaming platforms have collapsed or collided, like the messy SonyLIV-Zee5 merger that was ultimately called off. The fear of censorship has seen a noticeable dimming of the imagination and the space for ambitious storytelling has shrunk. With most platforms leaning towards increasing profits and holding on to subscribers, the commissioning strategy has also seen sharp changes. An industry insider who chose to remain anonymous told Film Companion, “Nobody is sanctioning any new projects until there is some clarity, because there is no money in the system.” 

Has saturation set in? Or worse, a slowdown? Or maybe it is just one of those years. 

Numbers and Accountability

In terms of viewership, according to Ormax Media, only three shows have been able to cross the 15 million mark — Indian Police Force on Amazon Prime Video, Hanuman on Disney+ Hotstar, and Heeramandi on Netflix. The recently-released Panchayat is on its way to join that list. Its opening week viewership numbers was 12 million, the highest of any show so far this year, and in its second week, Ormax reported a healthy 8.8 million views for the show.

“From 2021-2022, we have seen around a 20% growth in the digital video audience, which dropped to around 13.5% in 2022-2023.” — Keerat Grewal, Head of Business Development (Streaming, TV, Brands) at Ormax Media. 

 For context, 13 shows breached the 15 million mark in the whole of last year. “Last year we had Farzi at 37 million views, we had The Night Manager at 28.6 million, we had Taaza Khabar at 23 million, Asur (S02) at 21 million. This year doesn’t seem like it will be able to catch up to last year,” said Grewal.

None of the shows that swarmed their way to the top this year were in any way exceptional, path-breaking or successful as crossovers, though two of them were helmed by otherwise dependable auteurs — Rohit Shetty and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Even directors like Richie Mehta and Abhishek Chaubey whose filmmaking is excellent, came out with Poacher and Killer Soup — both began well but ended up being too intent upon being high-concept and in awe of their narrative trickery. Even when A-listers were brought on board to promote a show they are not in, like Alia Bhatt for Poacher, the effect was limited. 

There are few dependable sources and no broadly-agreed thresholds to determine if a show is a “success” or “failure”. Every platform has its own “trending” section — and the yardstick varies from platform to platform. Success is a marketing strategy and a promotional exercise, with “success parties” often being announced the day of a release. How does one even begin to make sense of “150 million streaming minutes”? A source close to the industry noted, “The shows might have done well, but not as well as what they are talking about.” 

Talking about viewership numbers projected by OTT platforms, a source from the industry said, “I know for a fact that for platforms like JioCinema, it hasn’t worked…the numbers that they talk about now are contentious numbers to start with.”

“[Streaming platforms] should allow an audit, open the numbers to external audits so that we all know what the reality is in terms of watch time and viewership... Because right now you can put on a PR story saying my show is trending in a hundred countries and five billion people have seen it and there’s no way to verify this information. You can technically claim whatever you want,” added a source from the industry who requested anonymity. 

The Next Pivot 

After having created a new set of small-screen celebrities in the early years, Hindi streaming platforms have now gravitated towards existing stars. “We have a proprietary tool called Ormax Stream Track, which captures the Buzz, Reach and Appeal of OTT shows/films. This data shows, that series with the top talent in the film industry, are able to break through the clutter. Many of the non-starcast or low production budget shows struggle to build a strong Buzz pre-launch. Post launch, a strong word-of-mouth helps amplify the marketing buck for such shows. Testing shows helps platforms pre-determine the expected word-of-mouth, based on the Ormax Power Rating, and hence plan their marketing investments for the both pre and post-launch stages,” said Grewal.

At the same time, stars also take advantage of streaming to bury their failures. “Everything is a hit on OTT. I know of stars who prefer certain kinds of films to only come on OTT if they think the film is risky. Because if it … doesn’t work, it is a flop against their name. Here, the PR machinery would make it seem like it worked.” said Sharma.

SonyLiv’s Saugata Mukherjee said that by his assessment, the Hindi market for streaming will grow “incrementally” and he doesn’t anticipate this sector to achieve “a huge amount of growth”. Instead, Mukherjee has pivoted to look beyond streaming originals, much like most other streaming platforms. There has been a sudden boom in unscripted television — Temptation Island India and Big Boss on JioCinema, Masterchef India and Shark Tank on SonyLIV, Dance + Pro and Koffee With Karan on Disney+ Hotstar, Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives and The Great Indian Kapil Show on Netflix.

It is not just the cheap, tinsel sensationalism of these shows that makes them easier on the slippery attention spans, but they are also cheaper productions. The Ormax 2023 report noted, “Unlike linear television, where non-fiction shows can be at least four to five times more expensive than fiction shows on a per-episode cost comparison, the picture looks quite different on OTT. Some of the bigger fiction shows on OTT can cost upward of ₹2 crore per episode, making non-fiction shows a more cost-effective proposition.” 

Enter the Age of TV+

Additionally, these shows can go on for longer. A single season of Big Boss, for example, can have between 40-60 episodes. This means, on the one hand, more ways to keep an SVoD (subscription video on demand; to be paid for) subscriber glued, renewing their subscription. On the other, for AVoD  (advertising video on demand; watching for free) platforms, it means more content for higher ad inventory.  

With a surge of non-fiction content populating OTT platforms, is streaming becoming the new television? 

“It’s going to happen. It is bound to happen,” said Grewal before clarifying, “SVoD platforms are experimenting with long-format web-series. The objective is to keep a steady flow of content available, to reduce the incidence of subscriber churn, in a more sustainable investment format,” she added. The phrase “TV+” is being trotted out. 

The gulf between an AVoD and SVoD might become smaller. For example, SonyLIV has been experimenting with such shows, and it is these —  Raisinghani vs Raisinghani, Adrishyam —  that keep popping up in Ormax’s most-viewed list, unlike Maharani, which Mukherjee claims is one of their most successful shows, a success that did not reflect in the Ormax viewership data. 

One of the things Mukherjee was confident about was that in the coming years the distinction between streaming and television, AVoD and SVod will blur. Right now, streaming platforms are experimenting with the ideal structure of TV+ shows — 50 episodes? 100? Daily drops? Bi-weekly or weekly drops? 

“These shows are made at a TV+ cost,” — that is, lower than a streaming original, but more than the rag-tag budgets for television shot and edited on the go — “however the viewership is high,” said Mukherjee.  

There has also been a concerted effort to target tier-II and tier-III cities, and capture the television audience that is looking for stories that are more “simple” — a word we kept hearing from executives when reporting this piece. Grewal said, “Future subscription growth hinges on tier-II and tier-III markets.”
Players like SonyLIV and Zee5  are commissioning to expand their footprint in the South. The share of vernacular content is around 30% now, and will, according to the latest FICCI and EY media and entertainment industry report, increase to 55%. “This year, from the third quarter, the South Slate — Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam — will be the bigger focus, almost 50-50. In the latter half, it might be even more than half. Next year onwards, we are going to have Bengali. So, between the five languages, we are certain that this is where the growth is going to come from,” said Mukherjee. 

Disney+ Hotstar had already begun this leap, with Save The Tigers and Shaitan in Telugu, Kerala Crime Files in Malayalam, and Kana Kaanum Kaalangal and Label in Tamil. Zee5, too, has made the move with Abar Proloy in Bengali, Ayali and Sengalam in Tamil, and Puli Meka and Maya Bazaar For Sale in Telugu. Amazon Prime Video, which attempted this move South with Suzhal: The Vortex, Vadhandhi: The Fable of Velonie, and Sweet Kaaram Coffee it has not been as concerted and concentrated. Netflix has not yet thrown its money into this ring, having only experimented with anthologies. 

The problem, as Sharma pointed out, is that none of the strategies currently being employed by streaming platforms incentivise good or brave storytelling — arguably, the foundation upon which streaming built its reputation and identity. In addition to budgetary constraints, there seems to be a chokehold upon the imagination following the censure that Tandav faced following complaints from Right-wing, Hindu outfits. On one hand, streaming platforms now have legal teams comb through scripts, while on the other, artists are self-censoring. Sharma told Mehrotra, “I don’t think I have ever self-censored this much as I have been doing in the last two years. I kill it at the thought level because I know it is not going to make it and it is ridiculous because some of these are great ideas.” 

This leaves a gaping question, wherefrom will the next great idea come? If not here, then where? 

Additional reporting by Prathyush Parasuraman.

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