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Hotstar Specials is a whole new strategy with superlative content: Nikhil Madhok

Star India has announcement the rollout of Hotstar Specials, the OTT platform’s ambitious content foray featuring shows from India’s most acclaimed storytellers. Hotstar Specials will feature an extensive variety of Indian stories, mounted on a big scale, unconstrained by format. 

For its first set of Hotstar Specials, Star India has partnered with Shekhar Kapur, Neeraj Pandey, Kabir Khan, Nikkhil Advani, Ram Madhvani, Venkat Prabhu, Sudhir Mishra, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Nagesh Kukunoor, Mahesh Manjrekar, Vishal Furia, Rohan Sippy, Debbie Rao, Sharad Devarajan and Salman Khan. 

Speaking to Adgully, Sanjay Gupta, MD, Star India, said, “When we announced the launch of Hotstar in January 2015, we were told that it would be ahead of its time. Over the last few years, we were able to build Hotstar into a very meaningful destination for consumers and today, as we speak, roughly around 150 crore people come and watch Hotstar every month. We think the time is right to take the next leap and reach out to a billion screens in the next 3-4 years.” 

Adgully spoke to Gaurav Banerjee, President and Head - Hindi GEC, Star India, and Nikhil Madhok, Head of Hotstar Original Content, to know more about the strategy behind the launch of Hotstar Specials, the growth of Star India’s presence in the OTT space, TRAI’s tariff regime for the TV industry and more. Excerpts: 

What is the strategy behind launching Hotstar Specials?
Gaurav Banerjee: I have been in various Star brands before and Hotstar has been truly extraordinary. For Hotstar Specials, we are partnering with the best storytellers and trying to create something which has never been created before. There is a lot of drama consumption in India and this has been defined by the rules that we have set. In 2000-2001, we created the big fiction brand time dailies, such as the very successful ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’, which aired at 10.30 pm every Monday to Thursday. Now with digital, we have an opportunity to change all those rules and really make it according to what consumers want. They can watch all the episodes at one go or can come back later and watch. 

The second massive departure for us is the scale at which stories can be attempted. If there are 4-5 episodes that come in every week, it means that there is an amount of time that is fixed that needs to get spent to make it and we can’t change that much. But I think we will substantially change that and it will no longer be determined by anything else except for what is right for the story itself. Hence, it opens up a lot of possibilities for the creative people. 

The third point is that our company has been in the TV drama business for over 20 years and in the film making business with Fox Star. While movies are of a duration of 2-3 hours, drama shows usually are of 30 minute or 1 hour duration. What matters is that it should be the right duration for telling the story. The only thing that we are seeing is what is right for the story and what exists when it comes to the potential captured by us and the storytellers with whom we are partnering. These are some of the biggest names in Indian entertainment and all of them are deeply passionate about their projects, which have been in the works for the last 6 to 8 months. 

Nikhil Madhok: One of the interesting questions that have been asked for a few years is when will Hotstar produce original content. For us, the definition of ‘original content’ is different. Star has been creating original content everyday and putting them on Hotstar, Tata Sky, etc. So, we’ve always seen our content as original. With the number of screens in this country exploding – from around 20 crore screens about 2-3 years ago between television, cinema, mobile screens to about 60 crore screens today in the country – the question was how do we up our game as far as content is concerned and be ready for this new world. The result was creating Hotstar Specials and we are confident that with this initiative we have been able to create a whole special rung of filmmakers to join us as well. 

You earlier had Hotstar Originals, what happened to that?
Nikhil Madhok: As far as Star is concerned, we have done a lot of original programming. When Hotstar was launched, we started with a huge number of original shows and a pretty large viewership. As Sanjay mentioned, around 150 crore people watch Hotstar every month and roughly 75 per cent of their consumption is on entertainment. A large number of our viewers watch a lot of original content on Hotstar. 

There will always be original content, and we are adding to that with Hotstar Specials – a sort of superlative talent, but the idea is to keep adding at a high frequency going from here. This is not a one-off initiative. It is a whole new strategy and we will supply it with the right amount of content going forward. 

Will this content also be aired on television?
No, we are creating this content especially for Hotstar and, therefore, we want to leverage everything that is unique about Hotstar – that it’s a scale platform and digital allows a lot of things that TV does not. 

Is it behind a paywall?
Yes, everything will be behind the paywall, but there will be some episodes for sample viewing. 

Will you charge a premium for Hotstar Specials?
We are figuring that out and will reveal the pricing in the next few weeks. The idea is do something on a large scale, to wow the viewers into believing that in this digital age, Indian stories are also coming of age. There’s a lot of writing that has happened on ‘The Sopranos’ recently, hopefully when we think about where Indian TV dramas go, we will start creating in this country which will be phenomenal. 

What about censorship of content?
Being a responsible company, we believe in being careful and thoughtful in our content. We think of ourselves as a big mass platform, and that doesn’t change with this foray. Therefore, every piece of content that we create and curate, we want a large audience like the entire family. 

As far as formats are concerned, we are starting with what we called the ‘Drama Series’, but both the range of the drama series and the formats that we will evaluate under this initiative are going to be very broad. 

Though currently movies are not a part of this announcement, but it’s something that we are looking at. There should be a large amount of variety in terms of the themes and the kind of formats that we are looking at. 

If you are going to put this content behind the paywall, why do you need advertisers, shouldn’t it be ad-free? Secondly, the problem with Hotstar is the way you buffer; in this, Netflix is a lot better.
When Hotstar was launched about 4 years ago, it had launched with a few external partners. Since September 2018, the entire staff and the platform have become in-house. So, today Hotstar is coded and created by our own team. 

The engineers are bigger than the writers. There are a huge number of people working on this and the rate of innovation that Hotstar will adopt will only get better. We are trying to do something special. We are the only ones in the world that has a big presence in broadcast and media. 

But you also have a big sister in the US, why aren’t you bringing in that technology here? Hulu after this deal with Disney will have the majority stake.
All of us are very proud that it is in India – and not in the US or Europe or Latin America or the more developed parts of Asia – that there has been a foray in both digital and TV. The point that we are making is that we will look at ways to keep improving. Some of the numbers are mind boggling, for instance, the finale of IPL 2018 was watched by about 10 million people. 

But comScore numbers on IPL dropped month on month?
It happens when there is a live event. The number of people watching the tournament was a phenomenal global record. We are constantly looking to upgrade our technology to be able to deliver live sports events seamlessly. 

When you look at our consumption from our own market on a monthly basis, 20 per cent of the consumption is on sports, while entertainment consumption constitutes 80 per cent. Thus, the amount of consumption that we get on a regular basis – and which is growing – is in the back of entertainment. A sporting event adds to these numbers. We have 150 million monthly active users, which is by far the biggest. 

When people come to Hotstar on a daily basis, they roughly end up spending about 45 minutes. It is a significant amount of time per day, which is more than TV. 

How much is the lack of a digital measurement metrics impacting revenues? With the TRAI mandated tariff regime coming into force for the TV industry, do you see an opportunity here for OTT players to assert themselves?
We see every opportunity as a way to try and grow consumption on Hotstar. Having said that, Star being a screen agnostic company, it doesn’t matter where somebody watches our content as long as they watch it and we always endeavour to make it more convenient for consumers to access our content. Everything is an opportunity to grow. 

I think the new tariff regime will bring about a big change in the distribution side. What we are trying to do as a company in terms of our pricing is also public knowledge. We are widely publicising our Star Value Pack, where our efforts is to really make it very affordable; for the first time both sports and entertainment content are being made available to consumers at a competitive pricing. 

To take the story back to what we’re trying to do, is the creation and curation of content. We do not want the scope of stories on digital to be too narrow. We want to try and create an environment where the biggest storytellers feel comfortable creating the stories that they want to. We have spent a lot of time and resources trying to create such an environment that is broadly the spectrum in which we see this play out.

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