ALT Balaji CEO On Tapping Into The Hindi Heartland, And The COVID-19 Lull

Nachiket Pantvaidya hopes that by October ALTBalaji will be launching 3-4 shows per month
ALT Balaji CEO On Tapping Into The Hindi Heartland, And The COVID-19 Lull

ALTBalaji is a curious creature. With 62 originals currently streaming on their platform, founder Ekta Kapoor, has often described it as a space between Netflix and Naagin. On one hand it has competitive pricing of 300 Rupees a year with habit forming shows. On the other hand the quality of many of these shows, in terms of aesthetics, is lacking.

While movies produced by Ekta Kapoor like Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare are going to Netflix, ALTBalaji is more focused on originals, slowly tapping into a wide market that has in the past decade gotten access to cheap smartphones and cheaper, more reliable 4G- the tier 3 cities and the rural heartland, specifically the Hindi rural heartland. (Penetration south of the Vindhyas isn't a priority now). 

Following is an e-mail interview with Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO, ALTBalaji and Group COO, Balaji Telefilms. 

Edited excerpts. 

You mentioned that there has been a surge in your subscriber base during the pandemic. Is there something specific about the demography that has signed on?

We have also witnessed tremendous growth in urban markets as well as the tier 1, 2, and 3 cities. One of the paradigm shifts that [before] we've seen almost 60% of our consumers would come from the top tier 1 cities and 40% would come from Tier 2 and 3 cities in the months preceding the lockdown. Today, it is the exact opposite and we are extremely heartened about the OTT massification.

Does this have any impact on the creative decisions that will be made? What is the ultimate urban: rural ratio you want for the platform?

Massification of content has been ALTBalaji's goal right from the very beginning. With the next Billion internet users hailing from the Hindi heartlands across the Tier 2, 3, and 4 cities, we are focusing on this emerging market. As per our Q4 FY20 results, we see 56% of our consumers coming from non-metros and tier 2 / tier 3 towns and cities. Our next step is to dig deeper into the hinterlands by curating shows with immense local flavour and place these towns on the digital map.  As far as the urban-rural ratio is concerned, there is no specific number/figure that we aim for. 

You mentioned in an interview, "50% of your shows are male-targeted, 30% female, and 20% universal". What is a male-target audience show? How is it different from a female or a universal show?

Male shows will be more thriller, mystery and action led, while female shows will have a larger softer aspect to it. Romantic dramas like Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain, Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat, It Happened in Calcutta, Baarish, Dil Hi To Hai etc. enjoy a growing fandom amongst women in the 25-45 years. While on the other hand, thrillers like Apharan, Fixxer, Boss, Ragini MMS, Code M, are consumed by men in the 22- 45 age bracket. 

Now, adding subscribers is one part of the equation. There are also those who decide to stop subscribing. ALTBalaji creates mostly habit-forming shows so people are less inclined to leave. Is there anything you can tell us about the retention or attrition rates, their demography?

There are multiple ways in which we address consumer life cycle. There is a huge churn issue in OTT industry and what works optimally for us is to focus on consumer segmentation, mapping audience behaviour, focused customer retention, optimising customer life cycle, and progressive strategies for onboarding new consumer segments; who are new to the internet or women in smaller markets, etc.

Your shows are often produced at 30-40% of the cost of a Netflix or a Hotstar show with the average episode cost is about 30-40 lakhs. Is this a short-term plan or is there a plan to make bigger budget shows, with expensive production design, the norm as you hopefully break even by the end of the year?

Ever since our launch in 2017, we have ensured that our content cost is restricted to around 110 crores or so overall. This allows us a mixed bag of smaller shows and big shows.

Do you think the production costs have or will increase dramatically now given all the requirements and precautions one has to take on sets?

The new shooting guidelines will not affect our television business as 90% of our shows are shot on the sets, with there being very few shoots conducted outdoors. For other mediums like movies and digital, we shot outdoors and in foreign locations pre-COVID. Now we have to complete our shoots with minimum staff, in restricted places which will, in a way, get balanced with the earlier costs. 

Can you give us a sense of what we can expect in terms of shows from ALT Balaji in the next two months? You had said in April that you were looking to premier at least two shows a month, but of course, things have changed since. 

The second season of our show Virgin Bhasskar is in the pipeline and will be launched by this month-end, whereas Bebaakee is also one of the most awaited-shows which we will be launching soon. From October you will see a pipeline of shows being launched and that will be almost 3-4 per month.

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