India’s Zee5 banks on local content to tune out Netflix and Disney
The top domestic streaming platform is adding local-language shows and lower-price options
Mumbai — As global streaming giants Netflix and Walt Disney spend millions of dollars to grab viewers in India, a country that could become their biggest overseas market, a home-grown rival is preparing to defend its turf.
Zee5, the top domestic streaming platform set up by India’s biggest television broadcaster, is betting on local content to fend off big-spending rivals, CEO Tarun Katial said in an interview. The over-the-top, or OTT, service is playing to its advantage by adding more local-language shows and lower-price options to gain market share, he said.
“International OTTs have neither legacy nor library with depth,” Katial said at his office in Mumbai, adding that Zee5 has produced more than 100 original shows in local languages, at least 10 times more than any rival. “We can win this content battle.”
Zee5, which started in 2018, is among dozens of streaming platforms including Amazon.com locked in a race for Indian users, a market Boston Consulting Group estimates will reach about $5bn in 2023. With China closed to foreign streaming services, India has become a battleground for global streaming brands, with an emphasis on delivering films and TV shows to smartphone users expected to number 850-million in two years.
After amassing 61-million active monthly users in its first 15 months in India, Katial says Zee5 has little choice but to keep producing new shows at even faster rates. The platform aims to add between 70 and 80 original shows over the coming year, while making 15 direct-to-digital movies for release in 2021.
Representatives for Netflix and Disney’s Hotstar platform in India declined to comment.
There are 22 official languages in India, creating a broad battlefield for niche audiences. “It’s a strategy to move away from fighting in the fiercely competitive segment of Hindi or English,” Bhupendra Tiwary, an analyst at ICICI Direct said of Zee5’s local-content push. “Zee is creating its own space in this war zone where it sees more opportunity.”
Zee Entertainment Enterprises, part of the Subhash Chandra-led Essel Group, is increasing its investment in streaming, even though the broadcaster has seen its market value plunge on concern the group’s debt had grown too large. Chandra, who opened India’s first amusement park and brought satellite television to the country, has had to sell his stake in Zee, while staying on as a board member.
“We are completely insulated from the financial concern which our parent group went through last year,” Katial said. He declined to say how much the company was planning to spend on growth. Zee5, the streaming platform, is planning its local-language expansion just as some of its global rivals are pushing further into India.
Disney PushDisney said earlier in February it will introduce its Disney+ streaming service in India through its Hotstar platform on March 29, at the beginning of the Indian Premier League cricket season. Hotstar, which says it has 300-million active monthly users, has relied on India’s most popular sport to draw users after spending big to secure the rights.
Disney is also rebranding the Hotstar VIP and Premium subscription tiers to Disney+ Hotstar to underline its global brand.
Netflix, the world’s largest streaming platform by paid subscribers, has said it intends to sign on 100-million subscribers in India, almost 25 times the customer base it had in the country as of this year. CEO Reed Hastings said during a visit to the country in December that Netflix intends to spend 30-billion rupees over 2019 and 2020 to produce more local content.
Netflix’s Sacred Games series, a local original, has drawn Indian viewers globally, the company has said. Lust Stories, a Hindi-language anthology of short films released in June 2018, also drew attention.
Zee5 has said its original Rangbaaz Phirse and The Final Call series are hits, along with Auto Shankar, a Tamil-language show.
At the same time, competitors are aring fees to draw subscribers in a country used to free services including Google’s YouTube, while paying little for bandwidth via mobile phone plans.
In 2019, Netflix slashed prices by as much as half in India for subscribers that commit to at least three months. Most of the country’s streaming services, including Apple TV+, Amazon Prime and Disney’s Hotstar, have also offered discount deals in 2020 and subscriptions at prices well below those in other markets.
Zee5 has begun offering some region-specific packages at 49 rupees a month or 499 rupees a year to attract more viewers, said Katial. That compares with the standard packages at 99 rupees a month or 999 rupees a year.
At the same time, Zee5 is planning to add 90-second videos to its platform to meet demand and compete with the likes of Beijing-based ByteDance’s TikTok, a platform that is growing fast globally among younger users. That effort will start “soon”, Katial said.