When you hear 'Balaji Telefilms', the automatic association most make is with Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, the TV series that spanned 1,833 episodes in the last decade. However, the company is now in the process of launching a new platform it calls Alt, which is an online streaming platform that draws inspiration from Netflix in many ways. Gadgets 360 caught up with Alt COO Sunil Nair, to talk about the company's plans for technology and content.
Nair, who first launched his own video streaming platform called Nautanki.tv in 2006, has worked with Star India and Reliance Jio. He's bringing that experience together to make Alt a true digital content platform, which he says is a little like launching a new TV channel. To that end, Balaji has invested Rs. 150 crore into Alt, which will be spent on developing content and technology. The platform, which is supposed to launch sometime between June and August, will start with six to eight shows available for streaming, and will keep adding a new show every fortnight. The plan is add several new shows over the course of the year, Nair tells us.
"There will be no legacy content, none of the old soaps or anything," says Nair. Instead Alt will only be streaming original content, "which can't be seen anywhere else." And although the platform is funded by Balaji, it won't be creating the content for Alt. "Balaji telefilms has its own bucket," says Nair, "they have their own business and we won't cut into that. We will be doing our own content, and to do this we will commission shows just like any TV channel."
Not exactly like any TV channel though - there are a couple of things about Alt that make it different from a regular channel. For one thing, Nair assures us that all the shows will be released when they are completed, taking a page from Netflix. "It's all going to be binge watching," says Nair, "you can watch the whole run in one sitting." The other difference is that the shows will not have any ad breaks - Alt will be financed through subscriptions and that means that a half-hour show will actually run for 30 minutes, not 23 minutes with 7 minutes for ads. These two changes will have an impact on the way shows are made, Nair believes.
"Not having ads will impact how the story is told," says Nair. "People are right now making 200 episodes for a show - instead we're looking to tell entire stories in 20 episode runs, so a lot of effort is going to go into understanding what works, and discovering new talent." The budget for doing this will also be higher than you see on TV, Nair promises - "Our signature content will cost around double of what you'd spend on television for those 30 minutes," says Nair. The reason is that he believes signature content will drive the growth of the platform, as Alt develops its own flagship shows like House of Cards that will make it more appealing for people to subscribe.
So why commission shows and create their own platform, when Balaji could have just made such content itself, and sold it to platforms such as Netflix? "We didn't want to build a production house again. What is the fun in that? The idea was to build a new platform from scratch, and make it something that was a proper technology company, not just make two apps and done," he says. "We have a full technology focus, and we're going to be on iOS and Android, of course, but also Roku, and Chromecast support, and will be on all the OEMS. We're also working on some pretty cool things on billing."
"There is no point in just taking television to another screen - people won't pay for that," he adds. "The content is already available, if someone wants to see Bajarangi Bhaijaan, he won't pay Rs. 60 a month to stream, he will go to Gaiety-Galaxy and watch it for Rs. 60. So what you need is unique content that is not available otherwise, and for this we are making our own shows, and we might license some movies down the line, but again, only things you won't get to watch otherwise in India."
The content will have to be both "edgy" and "high quality", to appeal to urban viewers who are going to pay a monthly subscription, he believes. The initial shows are being made that use both Hindi and English, "so it will be urban and relatable," he says, although Alt will be adding content in other languages too. "There is the urban niche, and the mainstream mass. Amongst the urban also, the people are Indian by nature," he says. "These urban desis - we call them the Urbesi segment - love Narcos, but they also want to watch Gangs of Wasseypur, or Bombay Velvet, and want this kind of content."
Does this mean something like TVF Pitchers or AIB, we ask? After all, the reason that content like that is distributed online is because there isn't much of an audience for shows like that on general television.
"The problem is, that for a number of reasons, the kind of content that is there in say a Pitchers, doesn't really work on an Indian channel," says Nair. "They're doing something really interesting, but the channels don't carry that kind of content. They don't really cater to the urban audience. That is what we are going to do, but we're aiming to go way beyond this."
"Essentially, if House of Cards is a 10, and general TV is 0, we want our first show to be a 5," he says.