The long term impact of ‘new entertainment’ in India

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Cinema and traditional TV are the popular entertainment options for a majority of Indians. Of late, streaming services are gaining popularity. According to the Boston Consulting Group, the the Indian over-the-top (OTT) industry has the potential to reach a market size of $5 billion by 2023. The report outlines a few key parameters driving this change: access to affordable data, mobile phone penetration in the rural areas, increasing affluence and adoption across demographics like women and older generations.

Streaming services have the advantage though of being accessible on the mobile phone – an almost ubiquitous device in India now. There are an estimated 478mn smartphone users in India now – a number which the OTT industry will be delighted with.

1(1)Source: BCG

India: storytelling is in our DNA

It might be a cliche to say it, but India’s diversity in virtually every sphere of life is mind boggling. From languages, traditions to cuisine…every region is different. Our religions, mythologies and culture have been great sources of story-telling in myriad art forms – song, dance and drama. All of this presents a vast opportunity for content creation – be it for education or entertainment. This is evident in the sheer diversity of music, movies folklore and literature across the various regions. Even among streaming music apps, regional content is gaining popularity.

In this context, content streaming through mobile phones, web or smart TVs becomes an attractive proposition as it increases the chances of reaching out to a niche audience with minimised wastage. YouTube provided a platform for such ‘made for web’ content which catered to regional tastes. Videos made my Put Chutney, short films or skits made for Telugu-speaking audience and so much more have had huge view counts and a fan following.

On streaming services, Netflix popularised the concept of ‘original content’ globally and it has found its way to India too. So we now have shows and movies made exclusively for streaming services with lavish budgets. Such India-specifc content has the potential to be popular globally, appealing both to the NRI community and others. On Netflix, TV series made in French, Belgian and Hebrew have gained worldwide popularity so there is no reason why a well-made Telugu, Hindi or Tamil film or TV series should not find an audience outside India.

Impact of cinema

Among the various entertainment options in India, cinema is perhaps the one medium which has the most profound impact. It shapes not just fads like fashion trends but societal trends too which have a lasting impact. While film makers claim that they merely mirror our society, the question whether ‘art imitates life’ or the other way around is debatable. In cinema-crazy states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh film fans go to extreme lengths (like immolating themselves) to show their ‘love’ for cinema and film stars. One can see the impact of Hindi cinema even in wedding rituals down South. In coastal Karnataka, the custom was to have a prayer with the two families present the day before the wedding and hold a reception after the marriage. The practice of conducting a sangeet ceremony (called a get together) the evening before the wedding is relatively new and can be attributed to the movies.

Fashion trends too are shaped by what film stars wear on and off the screen. Unfortunately, cinema has played a role in a negative way too: portrayal of women – largely objectifying them, creation of degrading ‘item numbers’, age-inappropriate content (be it violence, skin-show or obscenity) have continued for decades. Such content has only become more audacious (regretfully) over the years. The regular exposure to such content has a deep impact on impressionable minds. Teens & youth may grow up thinking it is normal to objectify women, speak or dress in a certain manner. It shapes their attitude towards others especially the opposite sex. It is this ‘normalisation’ of virtually everything which is most dangerous. If portrayal of women in a certain way was taboo in cinema or television a few years ago, constantly pursuing with it normalises that in no time. We then become immune to such. Cuss words were not common in Hollywood movies or in journalism a few years ago. Now it is simply accepted – even in mainstream journalism. So popular entertainment has the potential to be both a positive and negative source in our society.

The new platforms: what’s different?

On the plus side, streaming services have several benefits:

  • Availability of a wide variety of content at a relatively nominal price is top among them. Individual purchase of movies or other content in the repertoire would be prohibitively expensive. Hence a flat fee to view unlimited content (related to data consumption of course) is economical for viewers
  • Original content not available elsewhere: brands like Netflix and Prime have allocated big budgets for original content which match the best of Hollywood in terms of production values. When such content become part of popular culture and create buzz they provide a strong reason for subscription
  • Convenience of anytime, anyplace viewing: appointment viewing is passé and the viewer can access their preferred content anytime. It has also resulted in binge viewing (which has its own pitfalls)
  • Personalisation (albeit limited now) of the streaming experience through app aided by algorithms and UI/UX

However, there are certain aspects of OTT content which could have detrimental effects in the long run. Here are a few:

Unregulated content: I am not suggesting that a government agency should ‘police’ creativity but there’s no denying that a lot of content on such streaming services has violence or obscenity. In fact, even ‘made for YouTube’ web films too have risqué language and content. Even music brands whose music-video filled channels are popular on YouTube, have salacious content. But it feels streaming service brands think OTT means Over The Top gore and obscenity. A section of Indian audience is being exposed (no pun intended) to unseen levels of violence and crudity on such brands. One might argue that it is for the viewer to accept or reject such content. But impressionable minds (we know that for the Indian youth, already 25% of media consumption is digital) may not have the maturity to handle such content. The answer could lie in self-regulation but the entertainment industry is not known for it.

Safety valves: A related aspect of the above is to at least ensure that measures are taken to ensure that age-appropriate content reaches the audience. Not all streaming services have the option of a separate profile for children. Content meant for general viewing (some of which is not appropriate for children) is also displayed in the same context as ‘children & family’ content.  One might argue that it is parental duty to keep children away from such content. But in a world where mobile phones are ubiquitous it is impossible to monitor children’s activity. The mobile phone has replaced the TV as the nanny – so it is not uncommon to see parents give the mobile phone to children to keep them occupied (and out of the parents’ hair) in social gatherings. There is no telling if inappropriate content is accessed. I wonder if brands are doing enough in terms of ‘gating’ content either through separate profiles or password protection.

Not a ‘community’ experience: The most important distinction is that streaming services are accessed in a very personal device – the mobile phone, often with headphones on. It means that the viewer is cut off from the world and the family could even be blissfully unaware of the content watched. Movies watched in theatres or in the living room at home have their own dynamics. In the context of family viewing, there was an outside chance that someone would flip channels when family unfriendly content was telecast. In the context of ‘personal viewing’ age-inappropriate content sucks the viewer deeper into the vortex, even forming a habit. A lot of Indian consumers are accessing the internet for the first time through the mobile. They are not ‘trained’ to use the right filters.

Some influential voices in the entertainment industry have voiced concerns. Thankfully, “self-regulation is the best way” says a leading brand. Unregulated consumption of content online and on OTT is a challenge, says an industry leader. However there are genuine concerns if regulations will be effective.

In the current ecosystem, it seems to be a win-lose situation in favour of the OTT players. Whether we lose as a society due to the potential detrimental effects remains to be seen. Whenever I have raised such issues I have been offered these responses: ‘if you don’t like it don’t watch it’ or ‘you are too old, old-fashioned or prude’ – neither of which address the real issues.

Do share your views.

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