Beyond a point people don’t want too much boldness in OTT content: Uday Sodhi

On the completion of six years, SonyLIV has asserted its dominance in the OTT space by claiming to have witnessed a 7X rise in total time spent on the platform, even as advertisers on the platform recorded a 3X hike in the last one year. Launched in 2013, SonyLIV has been a pioneer in India’s digital ecosystem introducing the audience to online content and emerging as a preferred entertainment destination. 

Upbeat about the growth of the OTT space, Uday Sodhi, Business Head - Digital, Sony Pictures Networks India, remarked, “OTT is now increasingly playing an important role going forward as compared to broadcast. Viewers who prefer English content are slowly moving to digital platforms. That opens up a lot of English content coming to India and monetisation on that will become better and better. When you go to an OTT platform, you expect shows to come all the time, and if that comes true and you are getting new shows every month, then you are ready to pay for the subscription.” 

In conversation with Adgully, Uday Sodhi speaks about the growth of SonyLIV as well as the entire OTT industry in India, self-regulation in the OTT space, content strategy, focus on regional markets and more. Excerpts: 

How has SonyLIV been creating differentiation with the growing competition in the OTT space?
The real first differentiator is the name Sony itself. We offer a wide variety of content. Second differentiator is our sports content. We are one of the largest in the world in terms of live sport events on a platform. This has created a huge franchise for us in digital. Our spends and investment on digital is huge. Our technology is of a certain caliber. There is no buffering. All this is a combination of good experience, good brand name, and good markets – and it makes it a lethal combination. 

How do you want SonyLIV’s content to be?
I don’t want SonyLIV to be known for only homely or bold content. I think beyond a point that does not work; you can do it once and get away with it, but it can’t be a strategy, at least not for SonyLIV. Our focus will be on which languages to offer our content, what are the sensibilities of those languages, what’s the TG, what’s the large TG that we want to reach. We are a media company, therefore, a lot of advertisers will love to work with us on that content. So, we will challenge the boundaries of content and storytelling, but not with the objective of only being edgy and sensational. 

How has your sports content, especially the FIFA World Cup 2018, contributed to SonyLIV’s growth?
Sports cannot be only about FIFA, which was a 2-month event. While I don’t think sports creates too many monthly active users (MAUs), it does create a lot of sampling and brings in a lot of users till the sports event lasts. But you have to maintain your monthly active users and make sure they are with you day in and day out. In 2018, December was bigger than November, because there was a fair amount of increase in our MAUs. In fact, January 2019 will be even bigger. 

You had talked about female viewership going up; when it comes to sports, what is your male versus female ratio?
Sports is more skewed towards male viewers 85:15, but it also depends on the sports event. For example, for tennis the ratio of male versus female viewership would be around 70:30, while for cricket the ratio would be around 80:20. When it comes to football, which is a year-long activity, the ratio becomes even more skewed towards males. We have to present a mix of sports content to keep things interesting. 

What are the partnerships that you are looking at to grow your English content?
We already have a partnership with the BBC; the Lionsgate partnership happened in 2018, which will provide us the shows that they have on a regular basis. Now, the objective is to look beyond Lionsgate, hence we will continue our efforts to look for more studio partnerships and get a continuous flow of content from them. 

If you look at some of the shows that we currently have on our platform, for example, ‘The Good Doctor’, which is a fantastic show but it is not sensational and edgy. ‘Victoria’ is a beautiful story. A lot depends on the storytelling, the visual appeal, the experience, the quality, and the kind of cinematography that you are trying to bring in. I don’t think people beyond a point want too much boldness, I think that is a currency you can use only once. 

How OTT players are self-regulating their content as compared to the rest of the world?
It is actually in line with what’s happening in the rest of the world. The important thing for us is that the OTT industry has become a fairly large one. It is now a mainstream industry, and we all need to be mature enough to start planning for operating in a large environment. OTT platforms today are reaching 250 million viewers and in 2-3 years it is expected to reach 500 million users. So, we need to have some sort of a mechanism in place for people to come back and say that this is how content is rated and this is how it is shown a way for them to say that this is offensive or inappropriate. So, we need some sort of regulation in place, and the best way to regulate is self-regulation. 

There are 2-3 other big industries that self-regulate – television and advertising. The good part is that the OTT industry is now realising that it has a large consumer base, much like advertising and television. Therefore, there should be a regulatory mechanism which just sets the standards. There is no question of looking at anything illegal. When you publish content, you need to put down what age group is it intended for. The guidelines for TV are very different. You cannot put it as content meant for 18+ audience because television is beamed into homes and bedrooms, whether you want it or not. But when you are asking for content, then you should have enough information so that you can make an informed decision. If the audience is watching, they need to be informed about what they are watching. 

Has OTT shifted from 8-10 minute duration stories to longer formats? Does this also translate into binge watching?
I would imagine that to be the space in which most of us would operate. When we made our first original, ‘Lovebites’, around 2-and-a-half or 3 years back, we made 10-minute long episodes. When we looked at the analytics, we found that the 10-minute duration was just enough. Anything more than 10 minutes would create a feeling of ‘koi dekhega nahi’, etc. That was the time when 4G had just started. 

Now, episodes of 40-minute duration are being made. The series is wrapped up in 8-10 episodes. If you look at it, 40 minutes is like clubbing two half-an-hour episodes of TV serials. A lot of us are watching this content while travelling, where the average travel time in a Metro is up to an hour. Will the 40 minutes extend to 60-minute long episodes? It’s a wait and watch. 

Binge watching is the way to go. We are finding more and more people wanting to spend time, so the breaks that we’re seeing are not at the end of the segment, they’re in between them. So, it is a challenge in creating 40-minute content. If you are creating a 10-minute content, I would say people can wait for around 2 minutes for it to end. But when you know it’s a 40-minute content, then you can pause. So, you see people coming back and watching whenever they want to watch and for long enough. With multiple devices, people could pause on their phones and continue watching on their laptops or tablets and picking it up from there. Thus, there is the point of connectivity. 

How do you view digital measurement?
I am always open to measurements. We are a part of BARC. Fundamentally, my understanding of this is that everybody has to participate in BARC. It can’t be only Sony or Star or ZEE. In a self-regulation environment, five of us can get together and start a regulation. But if someone has 80 per cent of the consumption but is still not participating, then there is no use for measurement. Measurement has to happen and it has to be mandated. So, either everybody participates or nobody participates. It can’t only be 4 people who are under scrutiny, while everyone else is walking free. 

Does this affect the advertising revenues?
Not at all. Google and Apple have their measurements. They are also getting views for their ads. Everything is happening. 

How is SonyLIV strategising to grow its subscriber base? For instance, you have presence in Bengaluru and Hyderabad, but not in the rest of South India?
We are strengthening our content more and more. This year, we have three big investments, one of them being expanding our English portfolio, Second, we are moving our investment into gaming. With ‘KBC’ we have realised that more and more people want to get involved in this space. Third, because we are essentially a Hindi player due to television, we want to expand into a non-Hindi environment. We are putting more effort in Marathi and Gujarati content to grow the larger base. For us, the expansion will come from original content and there’s absolutely a blue sky with Tamil and Telugu content. This is also because both these states are cosmopolitan. Hyderabad has the largest Hindi speaking audience, so I want to make an impact beyond that. Tamil Nadu is a market where we have to get going fast because they are huge consumers of entertainment. 

Do you see a pricing cap put on OTT platforms to bring about price parity?
No, nothing will change. For the time being we will continue at this price point. Netflix is at a different price point and their content is also at a different price point. But they are a niche player, while we are a large volume player. We hope to reach out to a large audience language content and we are dealing with a much larger franchise compared to most other players in the market. So, our pricing has to reflect that. We hope that the numbers will be much more than other players in volume. 

With the new tariff regime coming in for TV channels, do you see people shifting to OTT platforms?
No. I think 15 days is all that people will take, once they will settle down, the audience will buy those channels. They may resist for a week after which they will settle down. My guess is that it is a short term thing. They may say that since it’s not long let’s watch it on OTT, but if the whole family likes watching it, then they may just watch it on TV. Television dominates the 7 pm to 10 pm time slot in all of India and no one can change that. That’s the time when everyone sits down and watches the shows while having dinner and discusses about the show. We are still a one TV household and we have a strong family culture. All the family members watch TV together and it is a routine in the house that won’t change. The new tariff regime is just changing the way we will pay for content.


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