Who Will Win Media’s Game of Thrones?

Last fortnight media was on fire as Zee and Invesco continued their major tussle, hot on the heels of Disney+Hotstar breaking records with the IPL and Facebook rebranding itself to Meta.

Chaos is a Media Ladder

James Augustus Hicky, an eccentric Irishman, boarded a ship to Calcutta. 

Hicky did this after quitting his career in law to attempt being a surgeon. Not long after, said Irishman found himself in debtor’s prison after defaulting on loans he had taken out to service his shipping business. 

A disgruntled Hicky acquired a printing press and began his printing business while in jail. He launched Asia’s first newspaper, the Bengal Gazette in 1780. 

The Gazette primarily served as a critique of Governor-General Warren Hastings’ administration. Its provocative journalism inspired many more voices that formed the qualia of colonial India, to come out in ways that proved instrumental in the struggle for independence.

The spirit of journalistic dissent was assimilating into our culture very quickly, with most politicians either running their own paper or contributing to one publication or the other. Nearly a third of the founding members of the INC were journalists. 

In the 50 years that followed Hicky’s first publication, each corner of the country was sprawling with vernacular newspapers. The 1920s saw the arrival of the first radios in the country, which largely remained the rich man’s toy. 

Indian news was, by design, a blind spot for the All India Radio, which was set up in 1923 by the British to broadcast whitewashed news to the Indian audience.

None of this went unnoticed, and as Indians began uniting over a shared cause, the struggle for independence gained tremendous momentum and culminated in the day we so proudly remember.

In the early years of self-rule, all media outlets continued to be operated by the state, which took over operations of all major corporations. AIR became Akashvani, Associated Press of India became the Press Trust of India, and so on.

Doordarshan, originally an experimental broadcasting service with just a small transmitter and a makeshift studio, was set up in 1959.

As private enterprises were prohibited from entering the media sector to set up TV stations or transmit television signals, the types of programmes that were broadcast during these years depended on collective social agenda, consumer demand and the needs of the advertisers.

The first signs of shakiness with media freedom appeared around the 1970s when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. After the right to freedom of speech was suspended, printing presses were raided and newspapers were pulled from circulation for the next two days.

The rising political tension coupled with huge fiscal deficits, high inflation levels and an acute fall in the foreign exchange reserves in the coming years led to a desperate (perhaps ingenious) call to introduce reforms and liberalize the Indian economy.

This monumental decision made in the 1990s changed yet another facet of the country for good.

Fire Enables the Media Dragon

As the country liberalized, so did the nascent media industry.

The historic judgment of the Indian Supreme Court on airwaves in 1995 declared them to be public property and not a government monopoly: “airwaves or frequencies are public property. 

Their use had to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interest of the public and to prevent invasion of their rights”. All India Radio and Doordarshan were brought under a law entitled the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990, giving them full autonomy.

However, the most significant outcome of globalization and liberalization was the entry of foreign companies and foreign direct investment into the media industry.

Cable News Network (CNN) began broadcasting international satellite television in India in 1991 through its coverage of the Gulf War. Star TV began broadcasting five channels from Hong Kong. Satellite television was now transnational.

TV adoption shot up across the country after prices fell as a result of technological innovation. Several political parties also distributed free TV sets as a way of gaining votes in upcoming elections.

In many ways, the government enabled the proliferation of media. 

With a quickly growing and extremely diverse audience base, many homegrown, as well as foreign media houses’ subsidiaries, saddled up for the race. This sudden change in composition was reflected in the broadcasting style and the content televised. 

News was now as essential as food, clothing, and shelter. It became the first large media format that scaled in India. 

The presence of Western forces, however, did not translate into an overnight paradigm shift in the cultural values that Indian families aspired to uphold. In 1996, a proposal to introduce Direct To Home services was not approved due to concerns over national security and negative cultural influence. 

By the end of the decade, the competition was intensifying. New Delhi Television collaborated with Rupert Murdoch’s Star Network in 1998 to set up India’s first 24/7 news channel. The bilingual channel was an instant hit, generating 55,000 daily views within a month of its launch.

Media continued to reflect the thoughts and preferences of the masses. Western players quickly learnt that to tap into the potential this market held, they had to Indianize themselves rather than trying to Westernize the audience. 

The new decade marked the eventual advent of DTH services in the country. The consumer was still king. Players had now to find quicker and more attractive channels to reach them. 

DTH eliminated the role of cable operators and enabled populations in remote locations to have access to high-quality television.

Dish TV set up India’s first DTH service in 2003, shortly after which broadcaster Prasar Bharti also launched DD dish, a free dish based TV service.

By 2005, Indian media was dominated by news, distributed by cable television, DTH and print. The country had entered a golden phase economically. 

A/V Grows Up with Text Soldiers

As India’s economy grew rapidly, so did consumer aspirations for content.

No longer were they satisfied with just news. Customers wanted to now consume more diversified content, such as sports and drama. Many of us remember those days when memes were just scenes from our daily soaps.

By 2006, 100 MM households had access to a TV. 40M newspapers were in circulation, competing for attention.

Companies like Dish TV initially focused on regions where the cable was not prevalent. They were able to reach close to 500,000 subscribers within two years of launch.

Dish TV’s success provided an impetus to two segments within the media industry – the movie exhibition business and radio.

At the time, the movie industry in India used to produce close to 1,200 films every year. There was a lack of infrastructure that was a bottleneck in the monetisation – there were not enough screens to handle the demand. 

Priya Exhibitors and Village Roadshow, aka PVR, took the plunge and moved from single-screen format to multiplexes. 

It changed the culture and dynamics of movies as entertainment. The number of shows increased per-screen from 4 to 5 or 6. Food and beverage consumption increased and used to contribute 25-35% of the total revenue for the movie chains.

The number of screens increased from a few thousand to now close to 15,000. For a large part of the country, the movie-going was now an experience instead of mere 3-hour entertainment.

Radio was not far behind.

Close to 150 MM households were consuming radio in the early 2000s for day to day entertainment, and it had become an important part of life. The only trouble was that a majority of the content was either in Hindi or English.

By 2008, the government allowed through its new guidelines to own and operate community radio stations by NGOs. To top it off, the community radio stations needed to produce at least 50 per cent of their programmes locally and in the local language/dialect.

These were tapping huge markets, which would become increasingly relevant as India grew.

We had close to 90 Cr people who spoke Hindi/Bengali/Urdu/Punjabi/Marathi/Telugu/Tamil/Gujarati/Kannada as their first language back in the early 2000s as per the census.

Radio provided the template for other media formats to explore regional content. 

However, there was one problem. Private radio stations were still not allowed to air any news. That authority was still with All India Radio.

Stations found their answer in music. The likes of Radio Mirchi, Radio City and a few more channels scaled. 

Their rise was coupled with growth in an unrelated industry – cars. Car sales crossed 1M per year for the first time.

By 2009, radio advertising revenue as a percentage of total ad spending crossed the 10% mark. It was also the first time India’s media industry market reached Rs. 10,000 Crore. 

Seeing the spending, media companies sensed an opportunity and started to explore a variety of options they could provide to marketers.

As we entered the new decade with a variety of media companies, what really was a media company?

Social Holds The Door

Human beings have 16 waking hours and a limited supply of attention.

All platforms that competed for attention were media companies. If an individual spent more time watching TV, then radio would take a hit. 

This definition of media would end up being consistent with whichever form individual attention was captured. 

At the end of 2010, TV was still the dominant player. TV advertising revenue was still the largest, standing at a whopping 60%.

Around the same time, CDs/DVDs were trending disrupting video cassettes. In the USA, a tiny company Netflix was gaining momentum because of the DVD rental business.

It seemed like the timing was perfect in India to do the same.

Anil Ambani led Reliance Entertainment, decided to enter into the movie content distribution business. BigFlix was born, and subsequently died.

Times Group Network, which was building a full stack media empire on top of print, launched Zoom TV. It started offering more urban landscape-based content, only to realise that the audience was not ready, and turn it into a music and Bollywood news channel.

Players acknowledged the raw potential that the audio/video format had. In the process, they overlooked the potential held by text/images.

By 2012, total printed copies in circulation stood at around 25cr daily. This segment had stagnated. Large media houses therefore overlooked this segment.

Little would they realize that the largest disruptive force of the decade would be born in text/images. It would just not be in print.

Just 3 years old in the Indian market, a platform that allowed people to share updates and post images was beginning to take off. Coupled with growing smartphone and internet penetration, Facebook reached 100M Indian accounts by 2013.

As you recall, media is defined as that which competes for your attention. 

In 2014, Facebook converted its News Feed product which included friends to a literal newsfeed that contained news. Media companies, both in India and the world were sleeping as they were quietly getting disrupted by this new media company, masquerading as a social media platform.

The way text/images were delivered would be turned on its head.

In 2015, two engineers would start a Facebook page called News InShorts. The idea was to provide readers with a summary of news and link it to the original piece.

Another startup, NewsHunt, started as a content aggregator. It curated content from over 100 newspapers and in 12 languages. 

NewsHunt merged with a classifieds company called Verse to become DailyHunt. Post the acquisition, NewsHunt grew by 8x. By 2015, NewsHunt was receiving more than 6 MM monthly users who browsed more than 600 MM pages. 

The meteoric rise was because vernacular literacy in India was much higher. As radio had proven earlier, vernacular content could be huge.

Text/images were back as a format, but a huge shock was about hit the ecosystem

Jio’s Winter is Coming

By 2016, India had close to 150M people using smartphones and mobile Internet, a 12% penetration.

The low penetration was due to the affordability of an internet connection. At the time, the price per GB of data in India was still around $2.5-3.

Then Reliance Jio entered.

It shook all industries that had digital footprints. It killed and created businesses, slashing the price per GB of data almost 50x to Rs. 3-5.

The two forms of content distribution that media houses used – audio/visual and text/images – now had massive distribution.

5 years ago, text/images used to have only print, but now that too was getting digitized. 

Facebook was the quiet beneficiary. Apps like InShorts and DailyHunt were gaining more traction. DailyHunt now had more than 25 MM DAUs, while the largest paper in circulation, Dainik Bhaskar, had 5 MM DAUs, and TOI had 3 MM DAUs.

The video format had only TV channels as a viable option a few years ago. However, the rise of YouTube and other social media platforms provided an alternative to companies. 

Media companies now had an option to go to omnichannel. A classic example was ThePrint.

Started on YouTube, it added content in a written format and Hindi and English languages. Using multiple platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, ThePrint scaled rapidly.

No longer was building a media company linear, it was now across formats. This also meant a revisiting of business models. While legacy players like HT had 60% of revenue from ads, ThePrint made money from subscriptions. ThePrint also substantially reduced its costs. 

The explosion of Jio also put the internet in the hands of people who had never had access to it before. By 2017, this became a new group to be targeted called “Bharat”. This group had never seen platforms like Facebook or Google, which apps like Sharechat began to fill.

Not only did the models change in text/images, audio/visual exploded. The access to cheaper data led to the proliferation of large amounts of A/V content. 

For the new millennial generation, the TV was not a TV, but the mobile phone. 

The newest and hottest TV channel was TikTok. Exploding from the moment it started, it took India by storm.

For the older “TV” what started with cable, then evolved into DTH was now finally becoming OTT. Netflix, the DVD rental company, had now become a “streaming company”. By 2018, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar had all launched as OTT players.

Players like Zee, Balaji Telefilms, which were production houses, started building their own distribution channels. 

Media was now cleanly cleaved into three large segments, news, entertainment and social. Each platform provided one or more of audio/video or text/images. There were a multitude of players fighting for attention. 

By 2019, distribution was getting concentrated in the hands of larger players. But something else was happening with creation. 

It was becoming unbundled to an individual.

Creators Enter the Great War

Creators were being enabled by the massive proliferation of audio/visual platforms.

By 2020, India registered ~803MM online video viewers. The demand for online entertainment content was driven by millenials that comprised 65% of the internet users.

The comfort and accessibility provided by smartphones, even in rural areas, were making a marked shift of consumers from traditional TVs to smartphones.

Similarly, the content they consumed was being driven by demographics. 

Only 10% of Indians speak English. Content platforms are growing their subscriber base by creating localised content in vernacular languages.

As COVID hunkered both consumers and creators at home, demand and supply shot up.

To cater to this, there was a rise of new types of content: hyper shorts/ short form videos. The likes of global players like Tiktok, Reels and more local players like Roposo, Moj and Trell

After the ban on Tiktok in June 2020, several local players emerged. Moj was launched by Sharechat and had videos with 15 second to 1 min duration. It was available in 16 Indian languages.

With the ban of Chinese apps, the whole Made in India story skyrocketed. Tiktok users flocked to these apps once Tiktok got banned.

With the rise of content creators and D2C brands, a new wave of social commerce has emerged in India in recent years.

The coming together of content, creators and commerce has paved the way for these video apps to become integral to transitioning consumers to shoppers.

Roposo which is also known as “TV by the people” announced their aim is to be the largest creator led shopping platform in India. 

Similarly, Flipkart announced its integration with the app Moj so that Moj users can look at product videos by content creators/ influencers and purchase directly within the app.

The Indian short form content market grew from 20M to 180M users in the period from 2016 to 2020. 

Over 45M content creators were creating content on a regular basis with 50M posts a day. Creators bring content, content brings consumers and consumers bring commerce. 

Indian players are providing a ground to grow for these creators by introducing accelerator programs like Josh’s World Famous, Moj’s Creators Program etc. 

Short form video content provides a refreshing change from the traditional content by introducing newer topics in lifestyle, fitness, cooking, art etc. 

Once a short for video becomes viral, a virality loop kicks in. Other users create similar videos using the audio from the original video or copying the entire video in their own unique style. 

As users primarily watched content on their mobiles, the short form content was more easily watchable while taking a quick break. 

As short form video took off, long form video began to go deeper, over the top. After all, Indians were brought up on TV.

TV always Pays its Debts

TV viewing in India started as a group activity. 

With a rich heritage of culturally significant movies and shows, TV emerged as a prominent entertainment mode. 

The shows catered to values that resonated with the viewers. They had an underlying positive message strengthening the tapestry of India’s rich culture. The stories were about everyday life struggles. 

By early 2021, there were around 210MM households that had at least one TV. At the same time, TV viewing has become more of a personal activity.

This brings the point of why the youth prefer watching videos on their mobile devices instead of TVs. It is also because of the content variety available over the internet compared to TV.

YouTube was introduced in India when Millenials and GenZ were coming of age. With growing smartphone popularity, they were still preferring watching videos despite the bandwidth/buffer concerns.

With the largest youth population and cheapest mobile data in the world, India was the fastest growing OTT market, and was expected to become the world’s largest OTT market by 2024.

Hotstar led the way by number of users, clearly showing that live sports was the biggest hook for Indians. Async eternal content providers like Netflix and Amazon followed, from a usage standpoint.

However, when it comes to revenue share for video OTT, Netflix & Amazon Prime Video dominate with 20% share each followed by Disney+Hotstar with 17%, Zee5 by 9%, and SonyLIV and ALTBalaji by 4% each. 

For instance, in 2018, SVoD revenues were one-third of India’s total box office revenues.By 2021, the revenues had become almost equal, with box offices hit by no theaters.

With an abundance of free time on hand and no social in-person meetups, consumers remained glued to their screens for both entertainment as well as upskilling.

While the video OTT primarily comprised content for the purpose of entertainment, podcasts helped consumers focus on fitness, mental wellbeing, and learning new things. 

Subscription Video-on-Demand (SVoD) subscriptions make up 93% of the OTT revenue. The remaining 7% OTT revenue comes from the audio segment including players like Gaana, JioSavan etc.

However, there are reasons to believe that this growth of OTTs will sustain if the quality of content is maintained. Consumers have found a liking to the plethora of shows and movies that are now available on fingertips within the comforts of their homes.

As OTTs scaled, text/images proliferated as formats, the next big opportunity lay in going local.

Local is Mine to Torment

India is a country that actually operates like a continent. 

Our vernacular demographics point to the presence of more than 1600 dialects, and even the best efforts to group these result in 22 different languages.

Rural India has more active internet users (264 MM) as compared to urban users (210 MM), with only 12% of urban users being English speaking.

To put things into perspective, Sun TV, which started off as a Tamil channel network in 1993, is now India’s second-largest television network. It delivers content in 6 languages – Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi and Bengali – to over 95 MM households in India, as well as 27 countries including USA, Canada, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Australia; all milestones reached without ever having an English channel in its array of offerings.

Besides television and radio stations, the Sun group also publishes three daily newspapers, among which is Dinakaran, one of the leading Tamil newspapers with daily sales of over 1.4 million copies.

The combined spending power of vernacular monetizable Internet users is three times that of monetizable English internet users, enough to ensure that growth on the web will be enormous in the years to come.

Keeping this in mind, founders across sectors have begun incorporating vernacular aspects into their digital products to connect with local communities and expand their customer base.

ShareChat, which supports fifteen languages spoken by more than 80% of India’s population, has found its niche through Moj. Its monthly active users grew from 60 Mn at the beginning of the pandemic to 160 Mn in the next 6 months, a massive spike of 166%. 

Similar apps like MX Player’s TakaTak recorded more than 200 MM downloads since the ban on TikTok. DailyHunt’s Josh, next in line, recorded close to 180 MM downloads.

On the long form side, the demand for topics not addressed by main-stream cinema is being picked up by OTT. Cost to create content in vernacular languages is at least 30-40% less compared to making content in Hindi. 

Leading Bengali OTT platform Hoichoi, started in Calcutta in 2017, is distributing 600+ titles to 13 million cumulative subscribers located not only in India, but also in Bangladesh, the UAE, and 100 other countries. In addition, the platform contains 1,000 music videos and several hours of non-fiction content.

With local markets growing along with the competition from local players, the OTT trinity also seems to have fallen into line with the demand.

Netflix has begun creating content locally within a particular geography to appeal to the local audience with its flagship Originals. Based on the response it distributes that content to other geographies. It is producing content in 17 different markets. This localisation strategy of “make locally, distribute globally” seems to be working wonders for Netflix, Squid Games’ recent success being a great example.

On the other hand, Amazon Prime Video wants to be the marketplace for video content in India. Prime Video recently launched Prime Video Channels with partners like Mubi, Lionsgate Play, Eros Now, discovery+etc, living up to its name, The Everything Store.

Disney+Hotstar’s game-changer was the introduction of IPL live streams, which added about 7.8MM subscribers during those two months of IPL; about 1/3rd of its subscriber base before this move.

The OTT trinity has also introduced mobile-only plans for Indian consumers, with Disney+Hotstar being the cheapest at Rs. 41.5/ month. 

The competition is fierce, there will be blood.

Win or Die

By 2021, in the media’s ever changing Game of Thrones, the largest players were no longer the same. 

No longer were Times, and HT the largest players. The new kids on the block were Disney and Google, signalling the power of platforms that had eaten legacy media players for breakfast.

But there is another disruption underway, which would do to Google and Facebook what they did to legacy players. 

Web3.0, could change the landscape of media.

Facebook/Google are centralized and keep both the power and profits in media. The future of media could be more decentralized and equitable, rendering the need of 

To understand Web3, let us first talk about Web1 and Web2.

Web1.0 was when there were very few content creators, the majority of users simply were at the receiving end as consumers. Web 2.0 introduced the concept of “Web as Platform” where software applications were being built on the web rather than desktop.

“Data is the new oil” is what summarises Web2.0’s business model. Vast amounts of user data is concentrated with the big tech companies like Facebook/Google. 

For example, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram together have about 90% of the trillions of pictures being hosted online.

The same user data is making the Big Tech companies richer by the day. 

Web3.0 could change that. It wants users to control their own data rightfully.With the decentralised blockchain protocol, individuals can be compensated for their own data and time properly as against the current model where only the companies benefit.

In the Web3.0 world, creators would have no permission needed to post anything, no one controlling them, no authority.

Web3.0 might enable discovery and access to information without any limits. This could mean that the media companies of today might not remain centralised either.

Since creators can create content of their own, share and earn revenues, media companies of today might evolve into DAOs – Decentralized Autonomous Organisations.

Consumers can directly pay the content creators through tokenized currency and add value to the network overall. We are all seeing that happen with the explosion of NFTs. 

With the looming disruption of Web3, the players in news, entertainment and social media still hold strong. We, after all, do live in a Web2 world. 

In the near, more immediate future, consolidation of the big/ small players has to happen. As we are seeing with the acquisition of Zee, the potential entry of Reliance in the mix to consolidate, and the acquisition of Star by Disney, technology is disrupting the media landscape. 

Key players in the mix come from all fronts – social (Facebook, Sharechat, Twitter, LinkedIn), news (DailyHunt, Google, Inshorts), and entertainment (Zee, Disney+, Reliance, Sony, Netflix)

The split of winners will be both global and local.

In news, global giant Google is competing with local upstarts Inshorts/Dailyhunt seem to be clear winners. In social, Facebook is the dominant global force, fought by Sharechat locally. Finally, in entertainment it is the pseudo-domestic Disney+Hotstar fighting Zee locally. 

Our best decades are still to come. As the largest global attention pool due to our population, increasing incomes will only make media more lucrative. 

While multiple players fight to win the Game of Thrones, there is only going to be one winner – us.

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