Cheap data, more platforms and a surge of videos: Why 2018 could be a watershed year for online content in India.

The race for eyeballs in one of Asia’s biggest media markets is pitting content creators, platforms and newsrooms against each other like never before.

A version of this story first appeared in The Ken.

 

First, some data. According to two recent studies, Indians consume more video content than anywhere else in the Asia-Pacific—about 12.3 hours a week—and spend nearly 30% of their time on entertainment.

Over the last 12 to 18 months, India has become one of the world’s largest data guzzlers thanks to access to cheaper data and wider penetration of devices, according to Reliance Industries Limited chairman Mukesh Ambani. And telecoms firm Ericsson predicts that monthly data consumption per smartphone user will grow nearly fivefold by 2023.

There’s also a palpable surge in content creation. YouTube claims to have more than 100,000 content creators in India, including around 4,000 who have more than 100,000 subscribers. Facebook has, over the last few months, been quietly onboarding content creators for its soon-to-be-launched Watch—which the firm is hyping as an original video platform with a focus on premium longform content.

All of this is to say one thing: 2018 is shaping up as the year of content glut.

Ajay Nair, COO of new media enterprise Only Much Louder, says he expects “three to four times more” content will be created in India this year. “The big theme is that we’re moving towards binge shows, thanks to Netflix,” he says. “When we make shows, we ensure that the first episode is compelling enough, [that it] hooks people to watch it in one go.”

What is also likely to emerge is an increase in “hybrid” or multilingual content—stories told in multiple languages and primarily consumed by metro audiences—the best-known global example of which is the popular Netflix series Narcos. If the storytelling is good, people tend not care so much about which language the show is in.

This should be music to the ears of Google and Facebook (and platforms like Amazon Prime Video). Sameer Pitalwalla, co-founder and CEO of Culture Machine, one of India’s leading multi-channel networks, says that the tech giants are only expected to solidify their hold on the content supply chain, rendering all the other players as little more than a “media company working for Google and Facebook”.

“Just because there is an explosion in creation and consumption, it doesn’t mean media companies capture the value,” he says. “Platforms capture the value: everything is aggregated to Facebook and Google.”

The news question

So where does this leave India’s news media in 2018? Well, there is likely to be serious investment in content across the industry.

“What we will see,” says Indian Express executive director Anant Goenka, “is that there will be a minor departure from reach and frequency towards content. Content, as an integral aspect of brand identity.”

Which also partly explains why some traditional media houses like the Times of India and Network18 are slowly moving toward the subscription model. In February, the Economic Times is expected to launch its newsletter-based online subscription product ‘ET Prime’. It won’t end there. Sources say the publication is also working on an “all-access” online subscription product it expects to launch in 2018 “after ET Prime”. Similarly, Moneycontrol, Network18’s business news product is readying up its subscription product, which is expected to launch in the latter half of the year.

And news television could potentially begin moving to non-linear programming as a complementary product, in an early experiment with the over-the-top (OTT)/digital space. Network18 is already readying an OTT product that will attempt to rejig its television coverage to produce less noise and more engagement, sources say.

A clean slate

But even that might be a belated attempt at correction based on the realization that digital is the new force. “What we could see is a move to take viewers away from prime-time debates. There’s zero differentiation there. The OTT product could be a clean slate; yet an opportunity to create fresh, non-linear content,” says another Mumbai-based media executive who requested to not be named.

And will Indian media outlets “pivot to video” like some of their Western counterparts? The phrase has often been used negatively to describe companies with declining page views using video in an attempt to stay relevant and profitable. “One trend that I see is that there is a greater video-izing of the content,”says Paritosh Joshi, former CEO of India TV Network. “They [news outlets] realized people were not reading on the page. If they paste a video on that page, they’d get views.”

Signs that news organisations are pivoting to video are there, but it’s still early days. News organizations are still unable to keep up with changing news consumption patterns and are not producing enough videos, while the quality of news video remains too low. Not to mention the access problem: news platforms haven’t exactly evolved into video platforms, which means their apps still aren’t customized to video.

And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Joshi points out, “Getting into digital is the easiest thing to do. Being sensible about it is where the challenge is.”

Venkat is a staff writer at The Ken. He was previously Deputy Content Editor at Mint as part of the newspaper’s digital team. He also wrote in-depth features on the business of sport for the newspaper. His earlier assignments include Yahoo! (as a columnist) and the Hindustan Times, where he began his career. He lives in New Delhi. Follow Venkat Ananth on Twitter.

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