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Our Indian members are world champions in binge-watching says Jessica Lee, VP Communications, Netflix Asia

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 12 December 2017, 12:41 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

I was on my way back to Delhi from the Dharamshala Film Festival and friend joined me. As the bus started, he took out an iPad and played a video he had downloaded. Curious to know what he was watching, I tapped his shoulder and asked. It was Riverdale, the Netflix TV show. That's when it dawned on me.

Streaming videos are the new normal in India, thanks to Reliance Jio and the sharp downfall in data costs. People rarely have a conversation during their travels. Everyone is glued to their smartphones. Couple that with Netflix's option to download videos for that seamless on-the-go bingeing and you have the new pastime for the common Indian citizen.

Indians are among the fastest bingers in the world. Indian consumers finish a season of a Netflix TV show in just three days as opposed to the global average of four days. The average Indian commute to the office is more than an episode of television and it is no surprise that 65% of Indians binge-watch while on the go.

Nonetheless, Indian consumers are streaming on their TVs more than ever before. 34% of all the hours watched on Netflix in India are through connected TVs. Smart TVs lead the way, followed by media streaming devices.

With India's smartphone penetration at just 7%, an explosion is waiting to happen. More smartphones in peoples hands mean a lot more data consumed and a many more hours of videos devoured. With that in mind, companies like Hotstar, Amazon Prime and Netflix, are priming themselves to be at the forefront of that growth.

Netflix, a hit in the USA, made its entry in India in January of 2016. This came as part of its 180-countries expansion plan. Since then, the only reason it lags behind rival services is the lack of local original content. Netflix has over 110 million subscribers worldwide, and while it doesn't release specific subscriber numbers, it is estimated to be behind its main rivals of Hotstar and Amazon Prime.

Amazon has already had Edge premiere. Hotstar has live sports. Netflix, at the moment, has no unique edge. All of that is set to change in 2018. While Netflix announced its first original series, Sacred Games, back in 2016, it is set to premiere next year. That and four-five others from Selection Day to Again, are slated for release next year. Netflix has tied up with Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment for a series based on 'Bard of Blood' and with Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP, for Love Per Square Foot. Netflix is focusing on quality rather than quantity with respect to original shows for India.

Couple all of this with Netflix having its South Asian premiere of its upcoming film Bright - starring Will Smith - in Mumbai, and you see the company is doing all it can to grab as many subscribers as it can. Beefing up its local content plus commissioning original shows for India is the way forward for Netflix.

Netflix is the most expensive of the trio, but thankfully, has no plans to increase it. Price notwithstanding, Netflix is gearing up for a huge 2018 in India. Netflix is about to hit the '1,000 hours of original content globally' mark - equal to about 400 original TV series and films - and that number is set to explode next year.

“In the months and years to come, we look forward to bringing our Indian member's more compelling stories from all over the world, an ever-improving viewing experience and incredible joy,” Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings said in a recent statement.

It is a known fact that Indians love to watch international content on Netflix. Some of the most watched shows are Stranger Things, The Crown and Master of None. With original shows set to release next year, Netflix is beefing up its content as it fights Amazon Prime and Hotstar

In that light, Catch News caught up with Jessica Lee, vice-president, communications – Asia, Netflix, to talk about all this and more. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Netflix

SB: How has the journey for Netflix been in India since launching on 6 January 2016? How many subscribers does Netflix have in India currently?

JL: India is one of the largest internet markets in the world and we have seen strong growth since our launch. In India, consumers have a great passion for entertainment and a diverse and vibrant entertainment landscape. We are focused on primarily on content, partnerships and technology, to drive a great Netflix experience in the market.

Key to our strategy is becoming a leading producer and distributor of high-quality Indian content. This year we are doubling down on Indian investment, looking to curate a compelling content library encompassing original and licensed titles. On the originals front, we are focused on finding great Indian stories -- not just for Indians, but for the world. Sacred Games is our first announced Indian original series, and partnering with a top studio like Phantom Films speaks to the kind of quality we are looking at. Another area is top quality local stand-up originals like our exclusivity with Vir Das and Aditi Mittal. On locally licensed content, we already have partnerships with Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment and Viacom and their films will be coming to the service from the second quarter.

In addition, we have been working on local partnerships to make sure that Netflix is even more accessible in India. Earlier this year, we announced partnership deals with Airtel, Videocon and Vodafone. These partnerships will help Netflix reach the diverse Indian market more broadly. Together Airtel Digital TV, Videocon and Vodafone makeup millions of users and teaming up with them will make it much easier for Indian consumers to watch Netflix, whether on a set-top box or on mobile.

SB: Has the company run into any censorship issues since launch? If so, how have you dealt with it?

JL: We have not dealt with any such issue. At Netflix, we believe in creative freedom and that has been consistent throughout the process of our catalogue expansion.

SB: How has Netflix dealt with the issue of "slow internet speeds" in India?

JL: Netflix is constantly innovating to enhance our member experience. One such area is making technical advancements to ensure a seamless and better Netflix experience even in lower bandwidth environments. That includes the mobile downloads feature where users can now download their shows and watch it in such environments, We are encoding video in such a way that allows users to stream a good picture quality even in bandwidth conditions as low as 200kbps. Moreover, we also have a mobile data saver feature on the app that let users control how much data they want to use when streaming on cellular networks.

SB: In June of 2016, you announced your first Indian production, Sacred Games. It's been over a year. Any tentative release schedule?

JL: We cannot confirm any scheduled date, though you will hear from us soon.

SB: What are the other productions you've officially announced and how are they going?

JL: Other productions that we are working on include:

  • Selection Day: A series set in Mumbai, this show will be based on the book by acclaimed author Aravind Adiga
  • Again: A supernatural, female-led detective series set in New Delhi and written by Marisha Mukerjee.
  • Apart from Netflix original series, we already have exclusive standup specials on Netflix from India, with celebrated comedians such as Vir Das and Aditi Mittal.
  • We just announced our first kids original series from India, Mighty Little Bheem in partnership with Green Gold Animation. The animated original series is based on Chhota Bheem, one of India’s best-loved characters.

SB: Are Netflix users watching more content on TV or mobile/tablet devices? Netflix has recently been hot on "Netflix connected TVs". How much have the growth of connected TVs contributed to Netflix?

JL: Today, Netflix users across Asia Pacific are using between three and five different internet-connected devices for their entertainment needs, completing their binges on everything from smartphones to smart TVs. It is clear that no single device dominates the future of entertainment. Instead, it is about contextual entertainment, where consumers access their favourite shows on any device they want, in a way that fits seamlessly with where they are connecting from. With the pivot towards contextual entertainment, streaming on TV devices has grown to more than a third (34%) of Netflix viewing hours in India through connected TVs. Smart TVs lead the charge as the most popular connected TV device. This is followed by media streaming devices such as Apple TVs, Rokus or Chromecasts and game consoles like as Xboxes and PlayStations. Even the evolving set-top box has become a popular choice for Netflix members in the region.

Across the Asia Pacific region, Netflix finds that while the majority of membership signups are through mobile devices and laptops, consumers move on to discover the connected TV experience. Within six months of subscription, 42% of accounts’ primary viewing in India became connected TVs.

SB: Anything that sets Indian Netflix users apart from Netflix watchers from other countries across the world?

JL: Our Indian members are world champions in binge-watching. Our data has shown that members in India are more likely to devour a TV series over 3 days, at a faster pace than the rest of the world (global average was 4 days) including Narcos, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Bloodline. The most devoured genre in India is Sci-Fi.

SB: Any plans to raise prices of Netflix in India?

JL: We don’t have any such plans as of now.

SB: Netflix costs Rs 800/month for the premium plan. Amazon India costs just Rs 999/year. Hotstar is Rs 199/month. Is Netflix not scared of the competition in India? And no plans to ever compete on price-point?

JL: In today's world when there are so many options for entertainment, we compete with anything consumers might be doing rather than watching Netflix - so that can be reading, playing video games, or dining out. Ultimately, our goal is to deliver a service that makes people want to watch Netflix rather than another form of relaxation and entertainment. Delivering that service means we are constantly focused on making it better, for example, better personalization, a better streaming experience, and continuing to add new movies and TV shows people will love. The opportunity is for us to win the moments when people decide what they want to do with their time.

SB: Netflix considers India a "super priority market". Can you please elaborate on what this means?

JL: This year we have been doubling down on Indian investment looking to curate a compelling content library encompassing original and licensed titles. On the originals front, we are focused on finding great Indian stories -- not just for Indians, but for the world. Sacred Games is our first announced Indian original series, and partnering with a top studio like Phantom Films speaks to the kind of quality we are looking at. We recently announced two other Indian Originals, Selection Day and Again. Another area is top quality local stand-up originals like our exclusivity with Vir Das and Aditi Mittal. We just announced our first kids original series, Mighty Little Bheem.

SB: Anything else you'd like to say about the Indian consumer and the Indian market in general?

JL: India is a vibrant market with a huge appetite for entertainment, and we continue to see plenty of fan-enthusiasm and strong growth here. We are focused on three things: content, technology and partnerships.

On the content front, we have doubled our catalogue in India, creating a compelling and growing content library encompassing original and licensed titles. We are touching a pool of consumers with a great passion for diverse entertainment, offering global originals like Narcos, Stranger Things, The Crown to the mainstream, star-driven Indian films that have wide appeal (e.g. our Shahrukh Khan titles or recent acquisitions of top ones like Dangal and Baahubali. On the originals front, just like what we have done in Europe and LATAM, where we have become a leading producer and distributor of high-quality content, we want to do the same for India and we are excited about our upcoming Indian originals - Sacred Games, Selection Day and Again. Ultimately, we want to bring a quality curated catalogue that our members in India will love.

On the technology front, we are constantly innovating to enhance our member experience to be able to better serve members and provide more control over their watching experience. An outcome of that is how we enabled the offline viewing experience when we offered the download feature last year - so now users to enjoy their shows seamlessly on-the-go or when they do not have access or poor access to the internet. Overall, India is one of our heaviest users of this download feature.

We have also been enhancing viewing quality on mobile, particularly in places where connectivity is intermittent. The new mobile encodes which we are rolling out in the coming months enable users to stream good picture quality even on bandwidths of as low as 100-200kbps, and watch over 25 hours of Netflix on just a 2GB data plan. We also have a mobile data saver feature on the app that let users control how much data they want to use when streaming on cellular networks.

At an infrastructure level, we are investing aggressively in our own content-delivery network which lowers costs and boosting efficiency for us and our ISP partners. Our Open Connect program supports hundreds of large and small ISPs to directly interconnect with the Netflix network for free in regional locations, rather than going through third-party transit providers. In the past 7 months alone, we have increased these devices exponentially in India and we also have our own Network POP, which has significantly reduced buffering and improved the quality of the video being delivered.

In addition, we have been working on local partnerships to make sure that Netflix is even more accessible in India. Earlier this year, we already announced partnership deals with Airtel, Videocon and Vodafone. These partnerships will help Netflix reach the diverse Indian market more broadly. Together Airtel Digital TV, Videocon and Vodafone makeup millions of users and teaming up with them will make it much easier for Indian consumers to watch Netflix, whether on a set-top box or on mobile.

SB: Last but not least, possible to share information about most-watched TV shows in India?

JL: Some of the most popular Netflix Originals in India are the same shows that Netflix members around the world enjoy: Stranger Things, Narcos, House of Cards, Marvel’s Daredevil, Marvel’s Luke Cage, The Crown and Master of None.

First published: 12 December 2017, 9:19 IST
 
Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla

Sahil is a correspondent at Catch. A gadget freak, he loves offering free tech support to family and friends. He studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and worked previously for Scroll. He selectively boycotts fast food chains, worries about Arsenal, and travels whenever and wherever he can. Sahil is an unapologetic foodie and a film aficionado.

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