OTT, democratizing content

OTT-players-in-IndiaThere’s hardly any industry that hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic; many irreversibly. While some adapted and found new strengths, others perished and evolved as more relevant businesses. During this period of disruption, one space that went from strength to strength is the over-the-top (OTT) media industry. The prolonged closure of theaters and other restrictions took people of all ages online looking for content. As a result, a nation with patchy Internet connectivity emerged as the fastest-growing OTT destination.

India is rapidly transforming as the sixth-largest OTT market. The OTT market may grow at a CAGR of over 28% to reach revenues of around $3 billion by 2024, as per the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF). What’s impressive is that this growth is taking place despite limited digital literacy and internet access across the nation. As India improves on both these frontiers, the potential too will gain strength. The promise of the space has led to a spike in the count of OTT platforms from India, with new original productions topping 400 in 2021.

Meanwhile, the diversity of the market has ensured that the output from the scores of foreign and local OTT platforms operating in India cater to different languages and other market-specific preferences. Content generation and marketing have become more decentralized beyond the urban economic centers. The shift has led to a steady improvement in the inclusivity factor of the content that we consume. This is where lies the real success of India’s OTT revolution, the liberalization of the once-monopolized media and entertainment industry.

Majoritarian hold over content

India has long remained one of the leading entertainment content markets in terms of volume. The nation produces around 2,000 original full-length movies every year in more than ten languages amid a wide range of video, audio, and digital content. However, despite the variety, representation in the content has remained heavily focused on the privileged groups. Plot and character development have relied exclusively on majoritarian sets of the population; the Hindu, upper-caste, urban, heterosexual people.

The lack of diversity and inclusion in storytelling has done a considerable disservice to the idea of a pluralitarian society. The practice has been long prevalent in Bollywood, India’s Hindi media and entertainment industry. It’s equally widespread in industries catering to other leading languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, etc. The biased representation in media content has contributed to an imperfect understanding of the nation – a problem shared globally. The practice, in turn, has contributed to societal conflicts.

In India, storytelling for media content in the 1950s and 60s was influenced by contemporary issues and upheavals in societies as a new nation took its shape. Cut to the 70s and 80s and the narrative was gradually hijacked by the folks who made it, or were ahead in the race. The convention continued until very recently. Corrupt and lazy storytelling meant that the same formula was repeatedly fed to the audience – enviable lives of bigger characters with momentary conflicts and happy endings. Additionally, the attention shifted from story and character development to sets and costumes.

In their pursuit of profits, storytellers and content producers in India disregarded the audience’s intelligence and almost entirely neglected the vast diversities of the nation. As a result, we have nearly no content with characters and stories from India’s Northeast and the Tribal regions in the mainstream. The religious and caste minorities and economically weak sections have also been served as a token and laced with stereotypes. Vast swathes of land, their people, and stories have been systematically ignored, when not misrepresented, to entertain majoritarian groups.

There’s no going back from OTT

Here, OTT changed everything. The rapid uptake of digital content across all markets and demographics meant that the content had to come near to the audience and not the other way around. Not to mention, the rising popularity of and access to foreign content raised the bar for commercial success. Repackaging old formulas would not cut anymore. The change in the landscape would not have been possible without the pandemic, before which the mainstream industry fought the OTT platforms in their efforts to continue with the old order.

And now, everyone wants a piece of the OTT pie. Some of the most traditional studios in India have launched their digital wings and are actively producing and marketing content for the digital sphere. OTT has also opened the doors for non-mainstream talent, who otherwise wouldn’t get an opportunity in the old system that thrives on nepotism and favoritism. This talent is bringing in new ideas and storytelling techniques, and the audience is getting hooked on it. Thanks to OTT, today, we have content representing bigger parts of India. Active collaborations between regions and diverse talents have achieved this.

OTT platforms have also provided storytellers the independence to explore topics otherwise censored on the traditional platforms. These include sexuality, geopolitics, faith, etc. Today, the old order finds itself challenging practiced ideas, pushing the boundaries to compete with the new talent. This is bringing inclusive storytelling, enhanced representation, and improved honesty to the core of the Indian entertainment space. When it comes to entertainment content, there is no going back. OTT has changed the game forever. The sooner the traditionalists accept it, the better.

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