Viacom's India Chief Talks Strategy, Competing With Netflix, Amazon and Disney's Hotstar

Sudhanshu Vats -Viacom18 Group CEO - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Viacom18

Sudhanshu Vats says the company's OTT platform Voot is gearing up with a slew of shows, including a remake of ITV/Sundance TV thriller 'Liar,' to gain a foothold in India's rapidly expanding digital market.

Viacom's India joint venture, Viacom18 Media, launched its digital platform Voot three years ago as the market began to heat up with the arrival of Netflix, Amazon, Disney's Star India-network backed Hotstar and Sony Television India's SonyLiv, among others.

Viacom18, the decade-old joint venture between Viacom and leading Indian broadcasting group Network 18, runs a bouquet of channels including Hindi entertainment flagship channel Colors, MTV India, Vh1 India and Comedy Central, in addition to news channels and regional language outlets.

Like other broadcaster-backed digital platforms, Voot also tapped into its parent's content library, spanning over 60,000 hours across genres, while foraying into original productions.

Voot now has plans of beefing up its slate with 30 new shows which include a remake of ITV/Sundance TV's thriller Liar, titled Marzi and starring Aahana Kumra and Rajeev Khandelwal. The lineup also includes Hindi drama Asura, toplined by Bollywood actor Arshad Warsi. Also in the pipeline are Law and Honour, Naaz, Love All, The Raikar Case and teen drama Kaisi Yeh Yaariaan 4.

However, Voot is still to deliver a breakout series such as Netflix's Mumbai-set underworld drama Sacred Games, which starred top Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan, and Amazon's Made in Heaven, which revolved around a duo of Delhi-based wedding planners. Both shows won over critics and audiences while contributing to the cultural zeitgeist.

"We first started Voot by focusing on getting big user numbers as an ad-supported free service," Viacom18 group CEO and managing director Sudhanshu Vats tells The Hollywood Reporter. Voot claims about 50 million users, which Vats says makes it the second biggest player after Hotstar, which is estimated to have about 150 million users.

As for launching "big, marquee shows," Vats says that will happen when Voot launches its premium subscription service towards the middle of this year.

"The two players who have done these kinds of shows are behind paywalls," adds Vats, hinting at how Netflix and Amazon delivered their breakout shows which required more budgets. "When it comes to marquee shows and quality content, somewhere consumers should understand that this comes at a price. But we will also continue to do originals for our free service, the way we have been doing since we launched."

Taking a wider view, Vats says the Indian digital market is mirroring China in being a hybrid market largely driven by AVOD services compared with SVOD. Vats says that in 2012, China had about 400 million Internet video users and the market was largely dominated by free services. China currently has 800 million Internet video users says Vats "of which about 15 to 20 percent are behind paywalls." Similarly, India currently has about 400 million Internet video users with the market mostly dominated by free services but "if you cut to 2022, my sense is that India will also have about 700 to 800 million Internet video users of which about 15 percent will be behind paywalls."

Vats explains that in India, there will be a "mild paywall and by that I mean, that as it is, existing TV subscriptions have always been mild, which is about $3 to $4 per month, so digital services will also be around a dollar a month. So for a large country and diverse country like India, I think there is room for multiple players."

Netflix is currently the most expensive service in India, with its basic service starting at about $7 per month, while Amazon and Hotstar offer an annual subscription of about $14.

Hotstar gained mass appeal thanks to parent Star India's exclusive rights to sporting events, most notably India's obsession cricket and fixtures such as the Indian Premier League. Similarly, SonyLiv also streams sporting events.

While Voot doesn't have the advantage of such mass appeal content, the service is promoting live news feeds from its parent group's News18 channels. "With news, because of its topicality, it has stickiness so you have consistent daily users," explains Vats. "It's not seasonal like cricket."

Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar have also addressed the premium end of the market with their international and Hollywood offerings, an area which is still to be served by Voot. Vats says that international content will be offered when Voot launches its subscription service for which "we will curate a section for international content and for which we can tap into our parent group [such as sourcing movies from Paramount]."

As for cord-cutting in India, Vats says that he doesn't see that happening, at least over the next five years, as drastically as it has happened in more developed markets. "India has a total of about 300 million households of which about 200 million are TV homes so there is still a huge market," concludes Vats.