Ekta Kapoor on Five Years of Indian Streamer ALTBalaji: ‘Understanding Mass India’s Mindset’ (EXCLUSIVE)

ALTBalaji, the streaming service started by Ekta R. Kapoor, the undisputed queen of Indian television, turned five a few days ago. The streamer is part of Balaji Telefilms, which was started by her and her parents Jeetendra Kapoor and Shoba Kapoor in 1994 and is the single largest television content producer in South Asia.

Recently, the hitherto SVOD-only ALTBalaji added an AVOD offering, which caters to 10 million monthly active users. Overall, the platform has 35 million subscribers with 2.9 subscriptions sold in the first quarter of 2022 alone. From launch, the streamer’s goal was to tap into the smaller towns and cities, beyond the metropolitan urban agglomerations. It has been so successful that its larger rivals are emulating it.

There are 91 originals streaming, with several more in the pipeline. The SVOD plans are eminently affordable, costing $4 for 12 months, $2.60 for six months or $1.30 for two months.

Ekta Kapoor reflects on ALTBalaji’s five-year journey in a candid chat with Variety.

In the five years of ALTBalaji, what have been your biggest opportunities? And what have been the biggest challenges?
Our biggest opportunity was to capture midtown India which nobody was wanting to cater to. Because everyone wanted the urban, early adopter Indian, who was probably used to watching shows on the net. And the biggest challenge was we didn’t have deep pockets, nor the expertise in technology to make the app and to get strong data. So it took us a little more time to do research and development.

What made you decide to also start an AVOD model?
Freemium will be the way forward. Really interesting sticky content people want to pay for. But there’s a whole lot of shows that are after some time can enter the advertising model. And to actually capitalize and exploit your content in both both fields is something that we realize would be a way forward. Having one original form of value unlocking vis-a-vis multiple forms of value unlock, as in first subscription, then advertising and then probably, e-commerce, will be the way forward for all apps.

What are your further expansion plans within India to increase your subscriber base? Are you planning to go deeper than the second and third tier towns and cities? And can you tell us about your programming plans beyond the Hindi language?
Definitely in the next few years getting out of the early adopters and into the mass India, who’re now adopting this medium, will be the way forward. Individual viewing is out there, which means that even the smallest town person who sees content with their families on TV will want to watch different content alone on their mobiles. This is the audience we tapped into. Now we will just build our base.

With the budgets we have Hindi would be our main sphere with a lot of dubs happening on the app. But in the next three years, the roadmap definitely is to go into different languages or adapt the same content in many languages. Because as the South Indian movies have shown us, it does not matter if the film or the show is shot in a different language, even a good dub and a universal story connects.

Will the programming mix change to cater to the audience in the smaller centers?
We always will keep catering to the masses. We never ever wanted to only cater to the [elite] classes, we kept our app cheap. And now definitely from men, we are shifting to the women also, who are shifting from television to watch shows which they want to watch alone. Since we are a paid app a lot of men, since they intrinsically in India have the payment accessibility, or should I say they are the ones who pay in a house, became the first audience to cater to. But now more and more youth and women are becoming an interesting audience, so our landscape has not changed. But, yes, we are adding more types of viewers to our mix.

While producing racy programming, ALTBalaji also tackles a variety of bold subjects with societal impact like sexual orientation and gender, amongst others. Is this likely to continue?
We believe a lot in representation. And we did two shows on the LGBT community. One was “His Storyy” and the other was “The Married Woman.” Unfortunately, the LGBT community is still a minority. We have tried to create a certain amount of representation that is not caricature. “Gandi Baat” was very, very progressive as a thought, even though it was made with a certain amount of edginess. Unfortunately for us, in India, people have a lot of problems with sexual content. I personally think there should be no problem with sexual content, but we should have a bigger problem with sexual crime. And we’ve not been able to distinguish between the two. So, keeping the current censorship laws, we have curtailed bold subjects on the app but definitely, we believe in tackling social issues on various shows, and doing it in such an entertaining way that it doesn’t look preachy. The second season of “Mentalhood” will capture parenting in a very different way. We will make more LGBTQ shows, and so on and so forth.

Among your competitors, Amazon has stated plans to go deep into India. And there are many localized, cheap streamers. What is your strategy to counter competition?
There is no monopoly on digital and luckily, you don’t need to as there is a huge 1.3 billion Indian population in India. To just cater to them you need at least 20 to 30 apps. Because this is not television this will be individual programming with a very individualistic taste and while some shows which will be high-end that will cater to all, more shows will cater to a certain section only and be uniquely placed like that. To create content for such a big base would be highly impossible for one app, which means there’s enough play for all.

Balaji remains the undisputed market leader in Indian broadcast television. In your opinion, how has the grammar of TV content changed under the influence of streaming and social media?
Streaming is a very, very different audience – in some ways even the same TV audience watches shows on the internet with a different mindset. Television is very, very vanilla. It’s a one size fits all. It’s very far from individual programming and is mostly for the older immobile family viewer. We all want to see non threatening content on television, while digital content will more and more be edgy, will be far more individualistic, slightly darker, and definitely more thought provoking, since they will cater to different sensibilities even in the same person, forget different audiences. I don’t see them eating into each other’s markets. And I don’t see TV changing much with the advent of OTT.

What are your international expansion plans?
We are available in many countries. We will be now adding shows to see that we finally capture that audience more systematically. But before that, we need to finish with building our base in India itself because that’s our core competency – understanding mass India’s mindset.

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