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Ali Huseein, COO, Eros Digital
“I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made.”
— From the song ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Simon and Garfunkel
People are at it again, the numbers though boggle the mind. Every night, US-based 30-year-olds Shreesha Reddy and husband Sandesh Reddy have a date with the big guns of the video streaming world—Netflix and Amazon Prime video. Media professional John Fernandez devotes around four-five hours each day to Netflix and Amazon Prime. Vishnu Prasad, who is hooked to Hotstar and SonyLIV, loves the fact that he can multitask when watching. Darshan, only two-and-a-half-year-old, gets his daily dose of entertainment, though rationed by parents, courtesy ChuChu TV app.
There’s a whole legion of cord cutters out there, who after having been weaned all this while on television, have shifted to online streaming platforms, thus giving birth to a new social phenomenon called binge-watching. Bingeing is happening big time and one can safely dismiss the food and drink imagery associated with it. Pushpa (name changed), an office-goer and mother of two who lives abroad, says: “All of us are guilty of binge-watching and to be honest it is very addictive. It does affect your routine and things don’t get done. You really need will power for something you just have to do—go to school, work etc.”
Collins Dictionary even declared “binge-watch” the word of the year for 2015. A Netflix survey ranks Indians as the second-highest public bingers in the world (88 percent), just behind Mexico (89 percent).
Already, there was a surfeit of entertainment for the Indian viewer, courtesy Hotstar, SonyLIV, Voot, Eros Now, TVF, etc. Things changed dramatically in 2016 with the arrival of Netflix in India, on the heels of which followed Amazon Prime.
Their way of reeling in the audience was perfect. Remember how YouTube star Tanmay Bhatt transforms into Tanmay Escobhatt in the Narcos-inspired Netflix advertisement? Or for that matter the repartee on Twitter between Netflix and the Bengaluru Police regarding Narcos. Whether it was Narcos, House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, viewers lapped it up hankering for more.
Shreesha had no clue about Netflix, it was her husband who introduced it to her. “He was in the US and I was in India. He wanted me to catch up on some of his all-time favourites. What excited me about Netflix were the choice of movies/shows and the fact that there were no ads,” recalls Sreesha who is glued to Walking Dead on Netflix and is waiting for the next season. John, another Netflix/Amazon loyalist, has been following Blacklist on Netflix and The Grand Tour on Amazon. “What I like about them is that new content is steadily added,” he says.
But six-year-old Mishi belongs to the cord-cutter generation. Ever since she was introduced to tablets, her interest in TV waned dramatically. Her favourite is Madeline on YouTube for kids. Says her mother Varsha Panjabi, “She once asked me what shows I watched as a child and when I introduced her to Madeline, she was instantly hooked on to it. Recently she has been introduced to Voot for kids app.”
Shreesha, now settled in the US, has a workable solution: she just sleeps less. “I would even watch when I stepped on the treadmill,” she grins. She remembers bingeing on the show Lost aired on Netflix.
For Pune-based Babu Kalyanpur, Netflix was a habit he just could not break. “Back in 2015 in Bahrain, I was a member. When I returned for good to India in 2016, I continued it. I usually watch on Saturday when my weekend starts. I start watching late at night and wind up in the wee hours,” says Babu. Bengaluru resident Gopal Unnikrishnan, a father of two, is also addicted to Netflix with the time spent on it, his ‘me time’. “Generally Saturdays are when the binge sessions start lasting for an average six hours. Right now, my favourite show is Mad Men. I feel like reducing the time spent on it, but the allure is too much,” claims Unni.
Much before binge-watching became the norm, Vishnu binge-watched the show Friends while in college. He had DVDs of all the 10 seasons. A few years ago, he installed the Hotstar app and got hooked to Game of Thrones. “I had started watching around season 4 and had to catch up before season 5 began,” he says, adding, “It does come in the way of everything which is why I avoid watching series and stick to movies.” A sports lover as well, Vishnu believes apps are best for re-watching stuff. “If my favourite team had a 5-0 win over the weekend, I often go to Hotstar to re-watch it,” he shares.
So, is bingeing the new malaise is a question that begs to be answered.
“Binge-watching,” clarifies Dr U Gauthamadas, specialist in Neuro Behavioural Medicine, “can have multiple adverse health outcomes. Thirty percent of binge-watchers experience poor sleep quality, insomnia, and fatigue. Being visually exposed to gripping storylines, action and imagery, stimulates brain activity and alertness, creating pre-sleep arousal.” The resulting insomnia has been linked to other health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression. Chennai psychologist Dr Mini Rao says binge-watching leads to binge-eating. She cites the case of 13-year-old Ashwin whose parents are separated and who finds relief in watching TV all the time. “He watches for a minimum of seven-eight hours each day.”
Entertainment is for relaxation and binge-watchers might see it as a welcome refuge. Three quarters of respondents in a study by Netflix reported having positive feelings during binge-watching. “It actually does the opposite. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain and is associated with pleasure. When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable, the brain’s reward circuits are stimulated with a production of dopamine, giving out the message that one should keep doing it,” explains Dr Gauthamadas.
If the adults are binge-watching, can the children be far away? A dangerous pattern is evolving of giving children tablets and TV time for parental convenience, warns Varsha. “As parents, we must always ‘keep a tab on the tab’,” she says.
Gadgets and tablets have become an extension of the child’s arm. “Actually, parents and grandparents think of them as free babysitting devices. Children as little as nine months are strapped to a chair with device in hand. Naturally, when they are three or four years old, their social interaction is impaired. It’s okay for children to be bored. It’s when they are bored that their creativity takes wings,” says Magdalene Jeyarathnam, expressive arts therapist and board certified psychodramatist.
Teens who spend five or more hours a day of screen time (TV, computer, smartphone) are 71 percent more likely to be at risk for mental health disorders. “Screens light up the same dopamine rewards pathways of the brain as opioids and cannabis,” says Dr Gauthamadas.There’s no doubt that the international streaming powerhouses and their Indian rivals have turned the common man’s world upside down. But they have ushered in opportunity as well.
“Netflix,” says Jessica Lee, vice-president, Communications–Asia, “works with talented storytellers. Love Per Square Foot, which was released on February 14, was our first mainstream film from India, exclusively available on Netflix. Our new web series Sacred Games directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane has big names such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan and Radhika Apte.”
Bollywood director Sudhir Mishra, known for movies such as Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin and Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi loves the new medium. “I have been the creative mentor for a series for Amazon Prime, a political satire titled The Ministry, starring Irrfan Khan. The All India Bakchod (AIB) boys are writing it. I am also doing Hostages, a remake of the hit Israeli crime thriller for Applause Entertainment,” he shares. Actor Nimrat Kaur who stars in the Hindi web series The Test Case, which airs on the ALTBalaji app, says, “It’s a new medium and it is a matter of time before people realise that it is a part of our daily lives.”
Actor Madhavan, whose last film outing was the Tamil Vikram Vedha, was seen this year in the Amazon Prime original series Breathe. “The work style is within the parameters of a film. I had a no make-up look. I had to connect with a lot of things in reality to make the role convincing. I was nervous as I had never done it before,” says Madhavan, who maintains that film stars will always be kings.
Director Anand L Rai with such hit movies as Tanu Weds Manu: Returns and Raanjhanaa believes that digital is a different format and it is a great time to learn.
"We are simply making the organisation future-ready. Last month, we launched our first original feature Meri Nimmo," says Ali Hussein, COO, Eros Digital.
“Web series is a positive happening as it is pushing directors to the edge to give new content for cinema lovers and it is giving us new viewers too,” says Rai, who directed the film Meri Nimmo that was released online recently on Eros Now.
Stand-up comic Sorabh Pant with whom Amazon Prime has tied up for a special says, “It is a massive boost because it allows me to focus on making jokes without breaking my head on financials. The production levels have gone up as well. Plus, you’re assured an X amount of reach. So, it’s all good.”
According to Akash Banerji, marketing head, Viacom18 Digital Ventures (Voot), who has created some exclusive content—what he calls ‘Content Around Content’—with regard to popular shows such as Nagin, Bigg Boss, Roadies, Splitsvilla and which were aired on the VOOT app; there is a new ecosystem of production houses, filmmakers, writers and artistes who appreciate the sensibilities of this medium. Karan Chaudhry, COO and president, The Viral Fever, known for its shows such as Pitchers, Permanent Roommates, and Tripling which were/are in IMDb’s Global 250 list, says it is the best thing to happen. “Content-making needs to be democratised as great content creators can come from unconventional backgrounds. Our core creative team is mostly from IITs.”
Though both Netflix and Amazon Prime have clearly become game changers, industry figures point to Amazon Prime enjoying better success. During its India launch, Amazon Prime had announced 18 originals. Says Vijay Subramaniam, director, Content, Amazon Prime Video India, “In India, we had the highest number of Prime members in a debut year than any other country before, and India is growing faster than all other 16 countries Prime is in, with a viewership from over 350 cities across India.” Last July, they announced the launch of their first original Inside Edge that received a “tremendously positive response”. In January this year, they launched their second original Breathe, post which they launched their first unscripted original The Remix.
Learning from its initial setback, Netflix, which rose from its humble origins of a DVD rental service to becoming the leader, quickly regrouped. “In the past year we have more than doubled our catalogue in India, creating a compelling content library. Sacred Games, set for release on July 6, is our first original series which we are partnering with Phantom Films. Then there is Selection Day, which we will be producing in partnership with Seven Stories and actor Anil Kapoor’s production house,” says Lee. This year will commence season 2 of Luke Cage, Narcos and 13 Reasons Why, besides Black Mirror, Titans and Innocents.
Perhaps, nobody could anticipate what the Netflix/Amazon blitzkrieg would do to the way entertainment was being consumed. Of course, early entrants such as TVF, Hotstar, SonyLIV, etc might have been partially responsible. TV viewing, till then, had always been done in half-hourly and hourly slots. But with all the episodes of say a single season being added on in one go, viewers had the option of consuming the entire fare in a single sitting. Also, allowing users to stream and download their favourite show and movies has helped accelerate the trend. Says Banerji, “The more you give the viewers, the more they will consume.”
Both Netflix and Amazon Prime are responsible for raising the stakes for century-old Hollywood studios. Disney Studios is set to launch its own streaming service in 2019. Closer home, Eros International is well on its way to become a digital company. Even others like Voot are toying with the idea of making movies exclusively for the digital audience.
Online platforms have also given a leg-up to Bollywood’s old production houses which have to deal with declining sales. RK Films, Venus Worldwide Entertainment, Tips Industries Ltd and Mukta Arts are expected to reap benefits from the growth in online streaming.As far as the audiences are concerned, they can’t seem to get enough. To quote from Eagles’ most iconic song: “Relax,” said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave!”
Fear of Firewall
There is a fly in the ointment and that is the recent decision of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which has set up a committee bearing representatives from various ministries, to regulate online content. A few years ago, the then telecom minister Kapil Sibal had rooted for censorship of the internet. Now, Smriti Irani, I&B Minister till last week, has clarified that it will cover all kinds of online content. The scourge of fake news is one possible reason among many others for this particular initiative by the government. But if it does happen, it could well lead to a China-like situation where the offline media is heavily regulated and where currently there are plans to push the Great Firewall even higher.
(with inputs from Shama Bhagat)