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‘A pan-India market for entertainment content is emerging’: Disney+ Hotstar’s Gaurav Banerjee

The content manager of the OTT platform tells us about the three-year journey of Hotstar Specials.

About three years ago, Disney+ Hotstar stopped relying solely on catch-up TV and launched Hotstar Specials, an ambitious content foray featuring shows from India’s most acclaimed storytellers.

Starting with the first show, Roar of the Lion, a 2019 web drama documentary about the career of MS Dhoni. The platform has since expanded its offering to include many more shows — across genres, like period action drama, family crime drama, medical drama, and murder mystery. Popular titles include Criminal Justice, Hostages and Grahan.

Last year, the team announced the launch of 16 new series, including The Empire, Aarya 2 and Special Ops 1.5. Spearheading this effort is Gaurav Banerjee, Content Manager, Disney+ Hotstar and HSM Entertainment Network at Disney Star. He has been part of the Star TV network for 14 years now.

In an exclusive interview with Sreekant Khandekar, co-founder and CEO of afaqs!, as part of VDONXT Asia 2022, Banerjee answers questions about OTT platform content strategy and more.

Khandekar: Hotstar was one of the first OTT platforms. He is now seven years old. Were there distinct phases in his life?

Banerjee: The first phase was largely AVOD (advertising-based video on demand). We wanted to get people into the habit of watching long-form content via the Internet, primarily on their mobile. We were using the conventional wisdom of the time that only shorthand content worked.

Second, we believed from the start that a combination of sport and entertainment could be powerful. Part three was our foray into exclusive content via Hotstar Specials. The fourth part will be making and delivering movies directly to streaming – and not just small movies, but also some of the biggest with the biggest stars.

The fifth phase, which kicked off last week, is where we’ve taken some of the major entertainment stalwarts that have dominated the world of television and made exclusive versions of them available. A Tamil show, Bigg Boss Ultimate, is the first of its kind. It’s a new season with the same presenter, Kamal Hassan, and some of the biggest celebrities. It will only be available on Disney+ Hotstar.

Khandekar: Now that the theaters are open, isn’t the phase of releasing films directly on the platform over?

Banerjee: No. We are delighted that the cinemas have opened. Consumers should have the choice to decide where they want to watch movies. Many of them will go to the theater and many more will prefer the comfort of their home or the convenience of watching it on their cell phones. Movies will continue to be created across the spectrum.

We will be delighted to have films that are released in theaters first and then come to us. But equally, we will remain committed to making films exclusively. We are entering a phase where films will first be released theatrically and then move on to streaming. There will be other films that will go directly to streaming. The two will coexist.

Khandekar: Why did it take Disney+ Hotstar so long to release original content?

Banerjee: At first, we felt we already had a lot of high quality Indian content. We were hosting Star shows which were immensely popular. From a growth point, we had to build our brand and people’s habit of watching large-scale drama series on their cellphones. It’s very different from how this market has developed in other major markets.

We had to figure out how to create large-scale originals, and do it really well. It took time and effort.

Yes, we arrived late. But we usually arrive late, but we do a good job.

For example, on TV, we weren’t the first Hindi programmers. But once we get there, we’re still doing great work even 20 years later. Again, regional markets outside of Hindi were set up by other players and we entered later. But today we are doing very well in most of those markets.

Khandekar: Is catch-up TV still important on your platform?

Banerjee: Yes it is. For some of our best shows, Anupamaa for example, a huge chunk of viewing happens on Disney+ Hotstar. We leave it up to consumers to decide where they want to watch it.

Khandekar: When you moved from TV to OTT, what struck you most about the similarities and differences between the two?

Banerjee: We released our first series of shows on Disney+ Hotstar in 2019. I found it interesting that we could play around with the length of the episodes as well as the series. We could have a much more creative vision of things. It was really a big change.

Also, many of the big TV shows in our country are long lasting. It is therefore a bit difficult to attract talent. They don’t want to commit long-term to any particular story. Since shows on OTT are short and can be finished in a few months, this opens up the field for many writers, directors, and actors.

The third thing is that we work in several languages. Today, it is possible to watch a Tamil show and a Malayalam movie all over the country. People watch a lot of content via dubbing or via subtitles. Thus, a pan-Indian market for entertainment content is being created and consumers are switching seamlessly from one content to another.

Khandekar: You’ve been managing the entire creative process remotely for two years. Do you miss being in a room, thinking, discussing, creating?

Banerjee: Of course, we miss it! We all want the fun and excitement of human interaction. And it’s very difficult to reproduce on any screen. But somehow that didn’t prove to be detrimental to creating great stories, because with challenges, there are also rewards.

Someone like me, for example, spends a lot of time talking to writers and creatives. Now, if these meetings had taken place in my office in Lower Parel (in Mumbai), it would have meant that many of these creative partners, who have their offices in (distant) Andheri, would have wasted four hours traveling back and forth. These hours can be used instead to improve the creation.

I find that working this way frees up my time too. I can spend that time watching content or reading scripts, both of which are more productive use of management time than meetings often are.

Khandekar: Do you see a major shift in consumer trends over the coming year?

Banerjee: First, we’re starting to see some optimism coming in – and God knows we need it!

Second, the pandemic has accelerated many changes that were happening in society, and one of those very big changes is how women in our country have become assertive about their aspirations. A lot of content that we see on TV, on digital and in movies underscores this very strongly. This has become much clearer than it has at any time before.

The third thing, which is a bit lacking, and which might be great to see, are good high quality comedy and comedy shows. The demand for this is incredible. Our ability to put on quality shows is a challenge that we must meet, and we will meet it in the coming years.

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