Media veteran Sameer Nair, CEO, Applause Entertainment tells us why he is bullish about the content space and the big opportunity for binge-worthy content.
BY SIMRAN SABHERWAL
It’s Not Entertainment If There Is No Applause” – this is the first thing that catches your eye, when you walk into the Mumbai office of Applause Entertainment, part of the Aditya Birla Group. The idea of setting up a company which would invest in the creation of binge-worthy content was what led media veteran Sameer Nair to approach Aditya Birla Group Chairman, Kumar Mangalam Birla for a possible partnership. With Birla on board, who will invest up to Rs 300 crore in his personal capacity, Nair was also given the green signal to use the name ‘Applause’ – which incidentally also happens to be the name of Birla’s erstwhile media venture - which had produced the movie, ‘Black’ - but later shut shop in 2009 as it struggled to post profits. Talking about Applause, Nair, who heads the company as its CEO says, “We have set up Applause as a content and IP creation studio. I am really bullish about the content space and where it is headed.” He continues, “We are focused on firstly creating a digital series and later we will also look at movies, live events and music. Therefore, our plan is to invest in the creation of content, own the IP and then distribute the content to consumers through the digital networks that exist.”
The Big Opportunity
For Nair, the proliferation of platforms, increased connectivity in the last three to four years, better broadband speeds, low 4G tariffs and higher penetration of cheaper smartphone devices and screens, provides a big opportunity to create content. In addition, many viewers who were the first adopters when it came to adopting cable or buying a smartphone, have moved away from television. The plan is to target this urban viewer who is already consuming video on the Digital platform. Nair labels his segment as “the first 100 million” and with falling tariff plans and cheap data, he believes that this 100 million will soon become 500 million, as more data presents an ideal opportunity for customers to consume more video content. This also gives content makers a chance to leverage the convergence of telecom, media and entertainment to create premium content. “In India, we missed an evolutionary step. Fiction content on television has remained static with the daily soaps, mythologies and historical shows. Indian TV has missed its HBO and Showtime moment,” states Nair. He adds, “We have not done any premium Television and in a way, that ship has now sailed. Now, if one has to catch-up, how will one do it? Ideally using the OTT (Over-thetop) platform is the way to go.”
In creating content that is binge-worthy, the focus is on identifying the need gap based on consumer insights. For the person who pioneered and started the saas-bahu trend on television, including the acclaimed, ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ TV serial, Nair claims that “outside of saas-bahu”, nothing of a high quality nature has been made on television. Currently, the objective is to focus on what has not been televised so far, and this is a long list that includes everything from thrillers to crime to politics to even horror and the supernatural. “Rather than genres, our focus is on telling human stories. There are so many stories to tell and India has not even started telling these stories yet. If you look around you, you will notice so many cues and if you pick up on those, then there is always a story to tell,” says Nair.
Tuning In to Applause: What Can We Expect to See
Applause Entertainment has announced a partnership with BBC Worldwide India to develop and produce Indian versions of iconic BBC formats. For starters, the two organizations will work together to develop Indian versions of the acclaimed BBC series’, Criminal Justice and The Office for online audiences. Criminal Justice, an award winning British television drama series, follows an individual’s journey through the criminal justice system. The original UK version of The Office is set in a nondescript paper office company in a nondescript industrial town and features narcissistic, childish and egotistical, middle manager, David Brent and the psychological car wreck that is his life. This series has spawned eight international versions in Europe and was also adapted in the US.
Applause will also bring to life the true account of India’s Surgical Strikes on terror launch pads across the LOC in September 2016. The company has purchased the rights of the first chapter of Shiv Aroor & Rahul Singh’s bestselling book – “India’s Most Fearless”, published by Penguin Random House India. The 10-part drama series has director Samar Khan leading the project. The series is being planned for a 2018 launch. Futhermore, Applause Entertainment has roped in director Nagesh Kukunoor for the urbanpolitical thriller entitled, ‘City of Dreams’, a series that is pitched as a gritty, violent story of power, corruption and deceit. The series is expected to release in the latter half of 2018.
‘TV should become more uncool’
While many believe that content on Indian TV has become regressive while going mass, Nair believes this is the right path. He elaborates, “TV fiction should become more mainstream rather than less. This whole thing about ‘let’s change TV and let’s make TV cool’, I don’t think you should do that. TV should become more uncool and go deeper and deeper and continue to build on that strength. Every time you try and do a premium TV show and put it on-air, it never gets the desired ratings. Then there is much blame, sorrow and grief, but the truth is that maybe we have been going about it the wrong way. The change will come from OTT.”
Investing in the future
The key factor which differentiates the company from other content creators is that Applause will invest in all its content creation thereby retaining the IP for the same. Applause is not looking at the prevailing model of commissioned content and neither are there any plans at the moment to launch a private OTT platform. Nair explains, “We are taking the risk and are investing in the creation of the content without asking for the platforms’ to fund it. Once that process is complete, we will then get into distribution arrangements with telecom companies, existing OTT platforms or even tech players.
We don’t need a million distributors, we just need two or three distribution contracts.” Applause is currently in early discussions with various platform aggregators, with the agenda being to fulfill the content requirement of existing players.
Capitalizing on the binge-watching trend
While binge watching is commonplace now, Nair sees this system evolving in the future. He says that that if one were to look at the entire Indian ecosystem, till date there has only about 25-30 web series made. “My sense is that the market can absorb 1,000 shows. That’s the beauty of the whole non-linear, anytime, anywhere medium. When you look at that market and how many shows this market requires, the answer is closer to 10 shows a month, not 30 shows in entirety. It’s an open market for everyone,” he says.
However, while consumption on Digital platforms has grown exponentially, revenues and monetization haven’t kept pace. On his part, Nair says, “The way the market is evolving and where it’s headed, this discussion of monetization is gradually gaining steam. In any new medium or industry, you first build habit and then you monetize. That’s what the industry is doing. In the next three to four years, we forsee a growing consumer trend towards binge watching of videos and other content online. Once that happens then the money follows.”
The way forward
In the first year of its operations, the company is looking to make 15-20 shows, and creating content which can be extended to multiple seasons. It has in place a 3-5 year outlook of creating content, building a library, getting into distribution deals and working with telecom partners. In addition to Hindi, Applause is also looking at producing original content in Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Malayalam and Gujarati. On the Television front, the company is developing content in the non-fiction space.
It would be an understatement to say that Nair has had a prolific career in the media industry. Way back in 2000, he was instrumental in the launch of the popular quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) with actor Amitabh Bachchan as the host, besides being behind the ever-successful and long-running Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi soap. These two shows literally changed the viewing habits of the nation with daily shows soon becoming a norm at prime time across channels, thereby turning the fortunes of Star Plus to take the pole position in the uber-competitive GEC space. Nair also presided over the launch of the GEC and NDTV Imagine, before donning his entrepreneurial hat to take over as CEO of Balaji Telefilms and launch the production company’s OTT platform, ALT Balaji. Nair says that he has always worked in the start-up space and it is this excitement of building up that gets him going. It will be interesting to wait and watch how this plays out and if the content from Applause really does get the APPLAUSE it hopes for.