Number Crunching: Is the OTT Audience Stagnating?

Rummaging through Ormax Media numbers for the past two and a half years, the answer is yes.
Number Crunching: Is the OTT Audience Stagnating?
Number Crunching: Is the OTT Audience Stagnating?

In early 2018, during a business summit in Delhi, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings hyperbolically stated that the next 100 million subscribers would be coming from India, because of the increased spurt in access to cheap internet. It has been more than four years since this claim, and the hyperbole has soured into confusion — where is this coveted “100 million”? 

A recent report by analysts Ernst and Young, and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) projected only a marginal increase — 99 million to 101 million — in the number of paid subscriptions in India, for 2023. That charmed 100 million is split across, and shared among over the top (OTT) platforms. 

While there was a spike in paid subscribers in India during the height of the pandemic, pulling a fresher audience has been a consistent challenge for OTTs. The average revenue per user remains low and having reached a saturation point in metros, streaming platforms are struggling to break into other demographics. Besides, while cheaper internet has produced a population whose eyes are lassoed to the phones, we must also shift our attention to what it is they are watching. According to Business Today, a Media Partners Asia report found that while India spent 6.1 trillion minutes watching online content between January 2022 and March 2023, 88% of that time was spent on free content on YouTube. 

It hasn’t helped that there has been a lurking suspicion that streaming — the thing that seems to have solved as many problems as it created — has been stagnating both creatively and statistically. The numbers collected by Ormax Media over the past two and a half years tell a similar story. 

Bobby Deol in Aashram on MX Player
Bobby Deol in Aashram on MX Player

High Point

The third season of Aashram, starring Bobby Deol as the rapacious, exploitative godman in the fictional city of Kashipur, released on 3rd June 2022. By the weekend’s fade out (5th June), Ashram had garnered over 15 million views, according to Ormax Media. This rupture of a statistic can be read in two ways. One is the pull of the scandalous story itself, an audience thronging to the platform, for a third, hungry time. Then, there is the app on which it released, MX Player, which streams shows for free. 

Fifteen million views over a weekend is a number no show has breached before or since. It is a number that stands unique to Aashram, to its platform, and to the time it came out — mid-2022, when the pandemic was jaggedly edging out. 

A year later, the streaming landscape looks significantly altered. For one, platforms like ALT Balaji and MX Player have withered out. 

Also Read: Could Aashram On MX Player Be One Of 2020’s Most Successful Web Shows?

‘Free’ is Not the Magic Word

Launched in 2011, MX Player was at one point the most popular video and music player in the Android app market. In 2018, it was acquired by Times Internet for $145 million, and in 2019, the video player was relaunched as an OTT platform. At the height of Aashram’s success, when I spoke to Gautam Talwar, the Chief Content Officer of MX Player, he seemed to have a radical clarity of what comprises his audience: “Largely 18-30 years of age, Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns, smaller towns like Barabanki (Uttar Pradesh) and Hoshiarpur (Punjab). Those are the places where MX distribution is large. It’s mostly male because that is reflective of internet usage, which is also skewed 70-30 male-female.” MX Player even forayed into K-dramas, dubbing them in Hindi (something that Netflix has just started to do, but with better production quality), pushing them out in batches. However, MX Player’s strategy failed. Their numbers have fallen significantly.

In the interim, JioCinema made its slow-motion, fast-money entry, providing its Indian content — OTT shows, reality television (Bigg Boss on OTT), and cricket (IPL) — for free, slurping up Voot’s library in a deal, “disrupting” the market. Yet, not a single show or film from their prolific slate, which has been belting out shows and movies every week since June, has been able to breach the double-digit millions of Aashram

Shahid Kapoor in Bloody Daddy on JioCinema
Shahid Kapoor in Bloody Daddy on JioCinema

You would think Bloody Daddy, their marquee action film, starring Shahid Kapoor, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar — the director who sculpted Salman Khan’s persona in films like Sultan (2016), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), and Bharat (2019) — would rake in the eyeballs. The film came after Kapoor’s turn in Farzi, the most watched Indian streaming show. And yet, the film only opened to a measly 5.8 million views over the weekend of its release. 

Sifting Through the Millions 

‘Measly’ is a comparative adjective and one that we’ve arrived at after looking at films headlined by star actors on other platforms — Akshay Kumar in Atrangi Re (2021; 8.8 million), Vicky Kaushal in Govinda Mera Naam (2022; 9.2 million), Kartik Aaryan in Freddy (2022; 6.1 million), all on Disney+ Hotstar; or even Deepika Padukone in Gehraiyaan (2022; 6.5 million). These numbers express the pull of the star and story inflected by the pull of the platform.

Viewership numbers from the first two weeks
Viewership numbers from the first two weeks

Even with films like Toofaan (2021), on Amazon Prime Video, which began slowly, there was a doubling in the numbers that happened over the following week. 

For the purposes of the article, we are only looking at the numbers from the first two weeks of the film or show’s release, within India. This is because of structural constraints — these are the numbers furnished by Ormax Media, which focuses its surveys on Hindi and Indian English content on OTTs — but also, a bulk of the viewership of these shows comes from its initial run, before it is dumped into the archives of the platform. 

Usually, there is an increase in the viewership from the first weekend to the second week, since the latter takes into consideration more days. This is apparent statistics. But the scale of the increase — that is the validation of artistry. 

Shahid Kapoor in Farzi on Amazon Prime Video
Shahid Kapoor in Farzi on Amazon Prime Video

Quantifying Quality

This sharp, vertiginous climb happens with shows who shimmer in their content; not their packaging, nor the platform. It is the kind of spike that is entirely attributable to the storytelling and its robust word of mouth. Farzi, for example, opened with a modest but respectable 6.3 million before shooting up to 13.9 million views the following week. The second season of Family Man too doubled its views from 5.3 million to 11.7 million. 

There is a flip side, too. A film like Radhe on Zee Plex, which coiled in 8.9 million eyeballs on the opening weekend due to Salman Khan’s lodestone star power, had only 1.4 million the following week, tipping off into the oblivion that is Khan’s filmography. If ever a statistic could serve as evidence of the failure of storytelling, let it be this. 

Bloody Daddy, which received mostly positive reviews, saw only a small spurt in viewership but no sharp uptick before disappearing from the radar. No aftertaste, no afterlife, nothing. 

A New Trend?

It feels like the appetite for streaming has been stagnating. (I certainly feel it as a critic, mowing through eight to nine hours of glitzed, formulaic storytelling on a weekly basis.) Rummaging through the Ormax Media numbers for the past two and a half years, we are not seeing a significant, sustained increase in the views of the most watched shows. 

Streaming has not been able to break open into newer demographics. With Netflix dropping prices, Amazon accumulating other platforms (like Discovery+, Lionsgate Play, DocuBay, Eros Now, MUBI, hoichoi, manoramaMAX, and ShortsTV, as “add-on subscriptions” within its ambit) and Jio offering its services for free, there is a palpable unease about widening the audience.

When shows like the second season of Made In Heaven (MIH), an expensive tentpole production for Amazon Prime Video, do not perform well, a shockwave descends. An explanation given by an insider was that it was an “English-language show”, which restricts its viewership among the “mass audience”. 

While Ormax Media does not have numbers for the first season, the second season lagged behind another “English-language show”, the third season of Four More Shots, Please!, which streamed on the same platform. Should we attribute the dismal numbers of MIH 2 to the dismal storytelling? Or have platforms reached their saturation point? 

Made in Heaven season 2 on Amazon Prime Video
Made in Heaven season 2 on Amazon Prime Video

The New Idiot Box

In the desperate pursuit for numbers, OTTs are hoping, posturing to be the new TV, having steadily acquired what was traditionally television programming. While MX Player’s efforts in this direction only led to it fading out of the conversation, the latest Ormax post reads, “Forget Delhi, Ahmedabad or Indore, even Kanpur or Gwalior do not represent mass Hindi urban TV audience anymore. The lowest common denominator drives the idea of ‘inclusion’, and a hit show must address this idea, by definition.” In their bleak diagnosis, Shows like Asur — deadened by a dense plot, unmoved by logic or artistry — seem to be the way forward. 

Driven by audience consumption and not artistic intuition, the future we are looking at is not of an artform, but of a commodity. Just look at the vocabulary among OTT executives — “property” “consumer” “content” “product”. Speaking to them, you wouldn’t know if they were serving us salt or stories. 

Viewership for shows on Amazon Prime Video
Viewership for shows on Amazon Prime Video

When it made landfall in India, OTT promised not just a new kind of storytelling, but also held out the hope of finding a new audience by refashioning ourselves, our preferences, with fresh, cutting-edge narrative. Platforms courted directors and writers to make the transition to long-form. What has happened to that promise? If before, platforms were scouring for stories to build their platform, it seems now they are foraging for content to furnish it.

JioCinema has made it abundantly clear that its competition is television, and not other streaming platforms. An independent Bhojpuri and Hindi film producer told  the newsletter The Impression, “JioCinema will acquire anything right now; everyone knows. They have a massive slate to fill. They need something to release every Friday. That is a lot of content.” 

Looking for Eyeballs

Despite this glut of content, platforms seem to be languishing and are unable to grow their active subscriber base. Both the graphs furnished above are organised from left to right by the date of release, from 2021 to 2023. That the trend is not steadily upward speaks for itself.

Shows like Farzi and The Night Manager rip out of their respective slates as exceptions, but these are too few and too far between. Family Man and Rudra: The Edge Of Darkness have scaled similar heights in the past. Even Netflix is not able to break out beyond the 4.6 million ceiling set by the first weekend of Kota Factory (2021). (With movies, however, they are having a more successful run, pulling in 6.7 million views over one weekend with Darlings last year.)

Aditya Roy Kapur in The Night Manager on Disney+Hotstar
Aditya Roy Kapur in The Night Manager on Disney+Hotstar

While there is regular peacocking among platforms about subscriber number and PR splashes of success parties without really discerning what “success” means, Ormax’s numbers show that on average, the viewership of the shows, over the past two and a half years, seems to not have moved too much.  

As a result, streaming has had to reconsider its purpose and packaging. One of the ways seems to be staggered the release of the show, taking a page from the American platform HBO Max, which dropped weekly episodes for hit shows like Succession and the first season of The Bear

Break Up to Make Up

Disney+ Hotstar experimented with the staggered release with its Pankaj Tripathi-led Criminal Justice: Adhura Sach. The idea bore fruit as the show kept popping up among the most viewed shows for almost two months (the entire duration of its drop). This was in sharp contrast to how most shows, when dropped as a batch, scratch their presence on the list of most viewed shows in the first two-three weeks, and then disappear. The platform is attempting a similar strategy with the Tamannah Bhatia-starrer Aakhri Sach, which is releasing episodes weekly; and The Freelancer, which is divided into two parts. The second part is expected to release by the end of September. 

The first to try the two-part structure was The Night Manager, released on Disney+ Hotstar, with its halves separated by four months. The director of the show, Sandeep Modi said, “I went through a plethora of emotions dealing with the crown of being the first Indian OTT show to be split into two parts of the seasons.” While the success of the show validated the choice, Modi hopes such decisions in the future foster “creative joy … for all filmmakers and audiences”, not just “commercial joy… to all OTT platform honchos.”

The viewership numbers show that the second chunk of the show lagged behind the first. This is testament to the fact that releasing a show in two parts doesn’t seem to be bringing in new subscribers, as much as sating and energising a fraction of the existing ones. 

Viewership of The Night Manager on Disney+Hotstar
Viewership of The Night Manager on Disney+Hotstar

Jubilee, on Amazon Prime Video, also took the two-part route, separating its two halves by only a week, which is an odd decision that seems to have done little to push the show. The second week numbers saw some padding but the first week’s viewership wasn’t substantial. The relatively low numbers might be because of its release in the middle of IPL season, though multiple sources within the industry have refuted this theory. The onus of Jubilee’s numbers seems to fall entirely on the ambitious show set in the early days of Hindi film industry.  

While we have been dropping everything as a binge, we are also looking at how to distribute the content differently, like network TV in the US, just to see how the consumer behaves. It is not like there is a great algorithm behind this. We are taking a punt with one of our biggest shows.

Saugata Mukherjee, head of content for SonyLIV

New Horizons

The size of the gap between the two parts does not seem like a studied strategy as much as an intuitive fling at the wall of ideas. When SonyLIV decided to divide  Scam 2003 in two, and separating the halves by months, it appeared to be a move to sustain subscribers, rather than increase viewership — to hold onto the people who signed up for the platform, rather than getting more people to sign up. Saugata Mukherjee, the head of content for SonyLIV, said, “While we have been dropping everything as a binge, we are also looking at how to distribute the content differently, like network TV in the US, just to see how the consumer behaves. It is not like there is a great algorithm behind this. We are taking a punt with one of our biggest shows.” 

Mukherjee cited the release strategy of one of Netflix’s biggest shows Stranger Things as an ideal. For now, the focus of these strategies seem to be “how best to retain the consumer, because retention is a problem with streaming.”

Besides, there is an art in separating a story, the best example being what Netflix did with Lupin, in which the break was written into the storytelling. Even if it was a marketing decision, the creative aspect seemed to have been part of the process rather than a victim of it. “There is a change in POV possible, simply by changing the way one presents it to the audiences,” said Modi. “But then this requires the power to be vested with the storytellers to make this choice, which seldom or never happens. Cinema requires a fine balance between art and commerce.” When will our platforms see sputtering, exciting storytelling as the ultimate marketing strategy?

The hope is that streaming takes this stagnation as a challenge, and chases new horizons. The worry, however, is what these new horizons would look like. 

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