In 2020, during COVID-19 lockdown, consumption of digital content spiked across the country and over-the-top (OTT) services saw an increased traffic of new users, even from tier-two cities. It was a situation rife with opportunities for Kannada-language content, which had been struggling to find a space for itself on streaming and distribution platforms.
By 2021, Karnataka was home to four major OTT platforms, all launched with the intention of offering content in regional languages of the State. Among them, NammaFlix and Katte promised its users exclusive Kannada content while Talkies App and Localwood prioritised content in Tulu, Konkani, Kannada and Beary languages, spoken in coastal Karnataka.
A year since, however, not many even within Karnataka have heard of these subscription-based streaming services. The many roadblocks they have hit include competition with established players, paucity of funding, a barebones catalogue, and patchy user interface that is preventing user acquisition and retention leading to a low subscriber base.
Focus on medium-budget content
For Kannada OTT start-ups, caught in a David versus Goliath tussle with multinational companies like Netflix and Amazon, that have been in the distribution game for over 20 years with enough resources to channel into market and audience research, the strategy is to take small but sure steps.
“With an investment of thousands of crores of rupees, top OTT players can acquire or undertake big-budget productions, headlined by major stars. Meanwhile, mid-budget films either lack the network to get there or are misguided by mediators. Regional players like NammaFlix can bridge this gap,” says Vijayaprakash, founder of NammaFlix which was the first Kannada OTT platform to be launched in 2020.
Suraj Bolar, the Programming Head of the multilingual Talkies App concurs. “Our target is the SEC (socio-economic class) B audience who make up the middle-class, family segment. But not many such households have smart TVs or uninterrupted internet connectivity yet, slowing down the growth of our subscriber base. However, as 5G internet connections increase, we hope to see a change,” he says.
User acquisition and retention
With more and more services mushrooming, making it is easier to lose track of content, local OTTs are trying several strategies to better position themselves and attract users. This includes experimenting with originals, direct-to-OTT releases or tying up with satellite TV channels to acquire popular soaps.
To address the lack of discoverability of Kannada content, NammaFlix was offered as an add-on subscription under Prime Video Channels. “Our tie-up with Amazon and TataPlay has brought us very good traction. We have seen a 30-35% boost in paid users and 45% in free users since 2021. Every month, we have about 75-80k new users, with a 30-40% conversion into paid subscribers,” he says.
Moreover, “to acquire a user and retain them, you need to spend at least ₹200 per user. Partnering as channels with big platforms reduces our User Acquisition (UA) cost,” he adds.
Namma Oorina Rasikaru, a Katte original web-series released in 2021, was able to draw in 12-12.5k paid users to the platform. Meanwhile, Talkies App, which started with Tulu content, branched out into Kannada in April 2022, adding close to 70k new subscribers in the last seven months, says Mr. Suraj.
However, despite budget-friendly monthly and annual subscription packages, the lack of a diverse catalogue as well as slick user interface experience is driving away new users while failing to retain existing subscribers.
“OTT is like an ocean and we need to pump in 300 to 500 hours of content into it every month. At a time when people are endlessly scrolling through niche content on YouTube and social media, it’s hard for smaller OTTs to satisfy users who constantly crave something new and exciting,” says Avinash Divakar, co-founder of Katte.
This is where other regional OTTs like Aha (Telugu) and HoiChoi (Bengali) have struck gold with not just relentlessly populating their platforms with fresh films, series and reality shows, both acquired and original, but also maintaining high quality.
At the end of the day, all good content costs money – for creation, hosting, streaming, publicity and marketing. “An OTT should have five new films every week, which requires about ₹5 crores each week for at least five years. And no new content can be justified unless it brings subscribers. This requires sustained, long-term investment, big names and a solid portfolio of content,” says filmmaker B. Suresha.
As things stand, Kannada OTT players are averse to aggressive marketing until they have the content and investment to back it up. In turn, the audience is cautious about subscribing without the promise of consistent quality content.
Director Pawan Kumar, whose U-Turn was the first Kannada movie to be available on a streaming service, calls this a “chicken and egg situation,” while pointing to a trust deficit among Kannada audience. “Owing to a series of bad experiences, people are cautious while spending on content that does not look worthy enough. Moreover, not many want to subscribe to 10 channels and will cherry pick those that offer seamless streaming along with hassle-free payments,” he says.
According to Pawan, numbers have shown that the Kannada audience is still driven by television content and not digital content. Even among those that consume OTT content, “What’s curious is that Kannada audience will choose good content in any language rather than any content in their own language. Whereas a Tamil or Malayalam audience will go looking for content in their language, hence creating a demand,” he says.
At a time when people want to watch even the biggest releases from the comfort of their homes, piracy has also played a huge role in killing OTT, something Pawan himself has had to grapple with, first with Home Talkies in 2012 and more recently with Filmmakers United Club (FUC).
Pawan’s FUC was a community-driven exercise of like-minded people. Yet, it hit multiple roadblocks, as people were unwilling to pay even a small amount for well-made, critically appreciated films.
A distant dream
Ultimately, the OTT business is a numbers game where all stakeholders are playing it safe to get a return on the investment.
Focused on building its brand in the meanwhile, Talkies App has invested in its own studio, crew and equipment in order to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that can survive the next couple of years. “We are in an experimental phase. How we are spending our funds and what are our strategies to recover those costs will be important for us the next few years,” Mr. Suraj says.
“Smaller regional OTT players will take a while to come into their own. If a big name like Hombale steps up to make an OTT, then the trust they have built will convert into subscribers. Their money power will also prompt other producers and distributors to sell them their films,” says Avinash Divakar, co-founder of Katte.
“It comes down to not just having enough money buy content and drive it technologically, but also to know your audience and create programming for them,” Pawan says. With KGF and Kantara going global, Pawan hopes people will commission more content straight to Kannada. However, a solely Kannada OTT, without a massive investment and two to three decadal vision, still feels like a distant dream.