Akshat Agarwal, Legal Analyst, Koan Advisory
The localisation of global content represents a compelling trend for media and entertainment (M&E) markets in India – and one which will define the way in which stories are presented to consumers in this content-hungry geography. This is best represented by the cutting-edge global content that is curated for Indian consumers through online video services such as Netflix.
In his keynote address at FICCI Frames, Todd Yellin, Vice President, Product, at Netflix, spoke about how online services now allow stories from all corners of the world to reach local audiences. Citing Netflix’s ‘mission to liberate storytelling’, he charted the company’s growth from a physical video library to a service that reaches audiences across the world on over 1,700 different types of devices, ensuring that audiences are not deprived of quality content simply because such content may originate from a different part of the world.
Taking Indian Stories Global
Reminiscing about his days as a documentary filmmaker, Mr. Yellin recalled how the only Indian filmmaker he had heard of in his younger days, was the world-renowned Satyajit Ray. This level of awareness about Indian content plays in stark contrast to today, where two-thirds of the viewership of Netflix’s local production, Sacred Games, was outside India. This represents the promise of online video services – that transcend boundaries to the benefit of both viewers, who get to consume a much greater variety of content, and creators who now have access to a global audience. The increased reach of Indian content has led to global recognition and accolades, such as in the case of the documentary Period: End of Sentence – which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Film.
Combined with the portability offered by synced viewing and mobile streaming, technology has also allowed video content to become akin to books in the form of ‘video stories’– available to pick up and consume seamlessly, on the go. It is not surprising then that according to Mr. Yelling, the “double-helix” of technology and content represents Netflix’s core competency and focus.
Breaking Barriers through Technology
In addition to the ‘range of content’ provided by the platform, Mr. Yellin also spoke about how technological innovation has been leveraged by Netflix to enhance the viewing experience. Language is often cited as the biggest barrier to consuming content from different countries and cultures – a limitation which online video services are helping overcome. As an example, Mr. Yellin cited The Umbrella Academy, a recent Netflix original production that was released in 25 languages, with the company aiming to release upcoming content in up to 30 languages. Thus, the ‘lost art of dubbing’, mostly limited to kung-fu films in America, has been reinvigorated by Netflix. Another Netflix original, Ghoul, originally in Hindi, was consumed by 45 percent of viewers through dubs and 37 percent through subtitles, with 18 percent of users opting to use both.
In addition, technological innovations such as smart downloading, which enables dynamic deletes and downloads of episodes as they are viewed, and personalised presentation of content based on viewers’ tastes have also made it easier to discover and consume diverse content. Mr. Yellin also spoke about taking steps into new kinds of content facilitated by technology, such as Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a Netflix production where viewers could make choices that would impact outcomes within the story. In a subsequent conversation with Anuradha Sengupta, Consulting Editor at CNN News18, Mr. Yellin stressed that for Netflix, the technology will always be subservient to the content, with a focus on storytelling facilitated by technological innovations that allow greater numbers of viewers to share in the stories.
A Policy Perspective
A subsequent panel saw further discussion on the enhanced potential of a globally competitive Indian M&E ecosystem – the hypothesis being that India is now a ready hotspot for global content investments. In a conversation between Mr. Uday Shankar, President of 21st Century Fox Asia, Dr. Bibek Debroy, Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India and Mr. Amit Khare, Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, this proposition was deconstructed through multiples lens.
Speaking of the need for greater recognition of regional film industries, Mr. Khare pointed out that although regional filmmakers were producing great content in languages like Assamese and Bengali, these shows often failed to receive the attention enjoyed by mainstream Bollywood movies coming out of the Hindi film industry. Mr. Khare emphasised that such content should not be limited to the Indian market, but must also be promoted to exploit international demand. He also outlined the government’s expectations from the industry: the creation of value through revenue, creation of employment opportunities, and the export of the image of a ‘new India’ to the world.
Mr. Shankar pointed out here that in order to ensure the health of regional film industries, greater investment into infrastructure is required. The absence of filmmaking facilities in areas outside Mumbai and Chennai has made the production of regional content challenging. This is also further exacerbated by the low cinema screen density in India compared to other countries such as China, making it harder for smaller, regional filmmakers to exhibit their films. Mr. Khare acknowledged this problem and emphasising that such challenges must be addressed by state governments to ensure that the creation of more screens is not restricted by onerous local and municipal regulations and permit requirements.
Who Should Regulate?
Dr. Debroy stressed the importance of ensuring that any regulation of the M&E industry does not result in limitations of future technology choices, emphasising that regulation should not be prescriptive. Mr. Khare offered some valuable government perspective here – stating that the best way forward through a regulator’s lens is for the industry to self-regulate. Steps in this direction have already been taken through the Internet and Mobile Association of India’s (IAMAI) Self-Regulatory Code for Curated Content Providers. Dr. Debroy noted that in modern times, the state simply cannot ban content as technology makes it near impossible for any ban to be effective.
Mr. Khare struck an optimistic concluding note, observing the continued success of the Indian film despite global competition – a resilience that is not seen in many other developing countries that seem to be overwhelmed with such competition. He also noted that India’s competencies in VFX and animation, which has made cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore hubs for backend work for international productions, must be leveraged to create world class animated and kids’ content, an area that remains underserved. Appropriately summing up the theme of the discussion in his closing comments, Mr. Khare said that in a ‘New India’, media plays an essential role – that of sharing with the world, the image of a thriving and creative India, with many stories to tell.