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Why Netflix won’t work in India

(From left) Eric Wareheim, Aziz Ansari and Noel Wells appear in a scene from the popular Netflix original series Master of None .– File photo: AP

(From left) Eric Wareheim, Aziz Ansari and Noel Wells appear in a scene from the popular Netflix original series Master of None .– File photo: AP

On Wednesday evening, I got a communiqué from Netflix saying it is available in India. Those who’ve been exposed to it, know how people in countries like the United States are addicted to the service.

The release itself was possibly one of the worst that one had received from an organisation of international repute. Although there was a mention that the service would be available in India, there was no statement by the big bosses on India. Agreed, we are not — yet — a huge market for Internet-based services, but surely, some rah-rah about the country wouldn’t have been out of place. After all, if Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella could do it, then why not a Reed Hastings, Netflix co-founder and CEO?

I refuse to believe it’s his doing alone. It’s just some brash communication professional who thinks India is in the boondocks. And it’s unfortunate that its PR agents couldn’t get them to come out of the closet and announce the India entry in a better way.

After all, Netflix is big. It’s not that similar efforts haven’t been made in the past, but the entry of Netflix, like, say, a Coca-Cola or a McDonald’s or an MTV, indicates the entry of the large, American transnationals who dominate their businesses.

There has been a flurry of activity around every broadcaster a day after the Neflix announcement. The entry was imminent, in fact, it was possibly a year late. But now that 4G has happened with various telcos and Reliance Jio being tested (with a commercial launch by March-April), the timing is right.

I have subscribed to the lowest pack of Rs 500 that gives me standard definition. And I watched a bit of TheTruman Show and the first episode of Master of None .

The selection of movies is fair, but I wasn’t too happy with the Indian fare. Also, I couldn’t spot any of the rich content in various Indian languages.

But I am sure this is something that the so-far-veiled bosses of the on-demand video service will bring in.

How does it impact the existing players, especially the entertainment channels? Nothing as of now, but if they don’t watch out, they could be in for some sleepless nights.

For one, Netflix transformed consumption of entertainment, by encouraging binge-watching of an entire season of the House of Cards drama series.

Now, this is being done by the likes of Colors Infinity on weeknights and even Zee Café on weekends, but what Neflix offers is an option for doing it anytime, anywhere.

Your train from Mughalsarai to New Delhi could be running ten hours late, and you could be watching back-to-back movies, oblivious of the world around you.

But therein lies the catch. The fuel that the service runs on is broadband. Speeds are good these days, but Netflix is a guzzler of bandwidth. So the five hundred bucks you spend on watching unlimited films is only part of the payout, for the juice that it requires is enormous. It’s like running your car: the petrol is the wallet-cleaner.

If broadband usage for a two-hour movie costs Rs 40 on average, watching a dozen films, some of them being the long Bollywood ones, could set you back by around Rs 600.

That makes your actual cost of the subscription upwards of Rs 1,000. Now that’s loose change if you look at what you spend at the multiplex, but the cablewallah is far more economical.

Until it inks some arrangements with broadband suppliers on cheaper and faster access, Netflix is going to be a drain on monies. I also expect some action on censorship issues. Right now, it asks for a voluntary disclosure of one’s age (and there is no checking if you have faked it).

I haven’t seen any explicit content on Hotstar yet, and I haven’t used the other over the top (OTT) platforms very much. But the AIB shows on Hotstar definitely use a lot of expletives, which can’t be aired on national television.

While I am sure it will be fought tooth and nail, given that the obscene stuff is freely accessible on the Internet, ask the noble souls in any government and spokespersons will wax eloquent on how porn or the various ‘Bhabhiji’ videos can adversely impact the social fabric of the country.

My final view: Netflix will surely find its entry into micro-brewery chatter. But will the number of subscribers even be a single-digit percentage of the billion-plus population? No way, for now. Not even a quarter that.

What will happen though is that all the entertainment networks will need to look at how Netflix has rewritten the rules of the game elsewhere. Original content, something that all OTT folks are now championing, will play a key role. For consumers, it’s a win-win. The payouts may increase a bit, but given the competition between various players, there will be enough players and enough choice. And hopefully, good content.

(The writer is a commentator and editor working across media. Tweets @pmahesh)

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 5:55:40 pm |