You sit in your bed, scrolling through the internet, looking for the next series to binge-watch. You switch tabs from Netflix to Amazon Prime Video to Disney+ then to Hotstar. You’re probably still confused about what you want to watch. The entire time, however, your choices feel seemingly limitless. You acknowledge tacitly that this was not the case a couple of years back.
Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have expanded over the past 8 years. From only two platforms in 2012, India now has over 30 streaming service providers. Increasingly, television broadcast service providers have started giving customers the option to watch live TV online. A 2018 report by The Boston Consulting Group based its analysis off a consumer survey and predicted the Indian OTT market to reach $5 billion by 2023.
The reach of such platforms has been exacerbated by the pandemic as movies that would have otherwise released in theatres have now debuted on online platforms. An instance of the same is the somewhat controversial film Laxmii which is set to release on Hotstar later this month. While this doesn’t mean that theatres will shut for good, with different states opening up film theatres as early as November 2020, this does speak of the trend that the biggest platforms are racing to create libraries of content. This is indicative of an imagination where the OTT isn’t an adversary to film, rather a much-needed ally.
In this vast plethora of content, some questions remain. Do you choose what you are going to watch? Can someone influence your content choices? Netflix confirmed that it was testing a ‘shuffle play’ option for its users where the platform can suggest a title for you to watch based on your viewing preferences. One can, in light of this, think of online content as a basket of goods. While your screen time and interests may determine the exact good you choose from the basket, the entire basket differs from country to country. You’re provided with the content that will sell in your specific context as companies curate the content that you are likely to watch.
Although companies are curating content for you, these are in themselves diverse. The bottom line is this– the singular power has gone out of the hands of big film studios’ now. At the box office, timings and screens are dependent on financial capacity. This problem shrinks in the online space. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, in an interview with the Hindu, spoke of his experience of not being strapped for money and concerns of audience reaction to the work he was doing. At the same time, the online space, like everything, isn’t free of problems.
Even though the power to determine content isn’t concentrated in a few hands, the potency of the question stands, perhaps more as a ‘what’ question– what determines the content you consume? The answer is binge-worthiness which in part, determines the type of content that is created by production houses. That is why crime and horror are popular genres. Entire seasons are released in a single go contributing to the binge-watching trend. The goal for these platforms seems to be achieving the ‘endless scroll’, a constant updating of content. Coupled with the endless scroll, it is also important to acknowledge that the goal of binge-worthiness can go hand in hand with increased freedom to the creator.
This is true not just for the multinational names like Netflix, Amazon’s and Disney. Indian platforms like ALTBalaji, Voot and ZEE5 operate according to the same logic where the quest is to find content that appeals to the largest possible audience. These are also more pocket-friendly for different demographics. For instance, the Basic subscription for Netflix for a month is Rs. 499 as compared to ALTBalaji which costs Rs. 300 for a year.
Whatever be the cost, OTTs are often seen as competitors or add ons to film and television. There is a distinction in the entertainment content they provide. This difference or rather diversity of perspectives is perhaps seen most vividly in the comparison between one subsidiary of a TV company and the network itself– Balaji Telefilms. The ALT or alternative seems to have become a recourse from the regurgitated material we see on TV. A prime (pun intended) example of this is Balaji and ALTBalaji. While the former, meant for TV reproduces stereotypes; the latter, a mobile app and website sets out to challenge them. It pushes boundaries in showing queer romance, and central woman characters among others. While it does have its limitations, this content is far from Indian TV soaps, as mentioned by the Chief Marketing Officer himself.
A factor contributing to the success of ALTBalaji is its employment of erotic content. OTTs are free from the Central Board of Film Certification and hence several censorship rules. However, the formation of an adjudicatory body, the Digital Content Complaint Council (DCCC) was announced in February this year. This is coupled with a push for self-regulation. This is a salient distinction as it comes hand in hand with the individuation of the viewer experience. Some scholars see censorship as the adoption of a patronising attitude by the state. Online viewing is highly individualised with its focus on the smartphone and hence the assumption is of maturity on the part of the viewer, provided that details around appropriateness are provided. So the effect doesn’t start and end at erotic content but in general more freedom to the creator, as mentioned earlier. According to Kashyap, the topics “that matter to me: sexuality, religion and politics. These are the three big nos for the cinema experience. But Netflix doesn’t shy away from that.”
It would seem that the OTT platform provides more space for experimentation–both to the content creator and the receiver. That being said, it might not be the time to junk the TV completely, or at least junk it with the understanding that consumption of online content comes, at least in the Indian subcontinent, with a class dimension. While the idea of ‘selling content’ may work for entertainment channels, it is somewhat tricky territory when considering another category of content such as news which in itself is a public good. The question to ask then is who has the resources to invest in what essential are additional sources of entertainment? While data is a cheap commodity, with companies like Jio entering the market with highly affordable plans, viewing online content comes with the ability to pay for a subscription as well as pay for an uninterrupted internet experience.
Sanya Chandra is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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