We grew by 200% during lockdown: Tarun Katial, CEO, Zee5

Katial talks about Zee5's viewership growth during COVID, launching new shows in the lockdown, challenges that the platform faced due to the restrictions, and more

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Published: Sep 14, 2020 8:34 AM  | 11 min read

As coronavirus continues to keep us restricted to our houses, viewership of OTT platforms is soaring like never before. We speak to Tarun Katial, CEO, Zee5, a leading OTT platform that has seen a surge of over 200 per cent in its viewership numbers during the pandemic. As of today, the platform has close to 50 million monthly active users and 4 million daily active users

Edited excerpts from the conversation

Zee5 could consistently launch latest original content, like Abhay2, Pareeksha etc, during the COVID break. How did you plan and manage that? How much did it help in the growth?

We were one of the first guys to move towards Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD), around 18 months ago when we launched Rangbaaz in December 2018. From thereon, we knew that there is a large population in this country- whether paying direct or going through bundles through telecom players- wanting to watch premium content and not just catch-up TV which most OTT players were giving out. Once we walked out on that path, we built a very good pipeline. We had put a lot of stories and shows under development. So we had enough shows that were going to release over a period of time. The good part was that when the pandemic was announced, we had many of these stories almost ready to go up.

Another thing we decided to do was to tell "uplifting" stories. We understood that the sentiment had taken a lot of beating during the pandemic. So while there were many genres, we decided to go ahead with content that gave hope, upliftment and positivity. We acquired a string of movies that were ready but were not finding a theatrical release or a platform. We were lucky to chance upon them. So we did Chintu ka Birthday, Pareeksha, Mee Raksam, Atkan Chatkan and many others like them which were made by gems like Prakash Jha, Shabana Azmi, Baba Azmi etc. All this kept the pipeline going and the audiences involved.

In this brief period, we had to redo our milestones many times over. We reported a growth of 200 per cent during the pandemic period.

You also got very lucky with launches during this period. You launched Zee5 Kids, a short-format app for youth HiPi, an education and game app. How did that go and what has been the response?

We realised that families wanted something for everybody. As content dried up on linear television, OTTs came to the rescue for the families. We knew that kids was a large section that was underserved. We did two things- one, we started work on a lot of content in animation space. Second, we came out with a lot of skill-building content like India’s Best Dramebaaz, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Dance India Dance and some of the shows we had on Zee earlier. That actually changed the dynamics for us. The animated content was available on many spaces but the skill-building content, when kids do not have much to do at home, worked well for us. Skill building activities like acting, dancing and craft etc did a lot for kids. Besides, we also launched a linear channel which was just specific to our OTT platform because we knew that parents won't put kids in an area which was not safe for them.

Tell us more about HiPi

Youth is really connected to the under-90-second video format. So we began work on HiPi 18 months ago when even TikTok was not launched and it was still We had seen that the trend was emerging. We saw that we had a large base for all the actors and characters of all Zee TV original shows that we had across our platforms. So we wanted them to engage with their favourite actors or stars easily on our platform. We also realised that self-glory and the ability to put your talent out there is a great thing that the youth want. So we built in a tool that allows them to do a lot with the kind of videos they create. This is not just a platform that allows people to purpose their content but it is more about creating their own content. It is built on three pillars- fandom, fun and factual.

Despite a lot working for OTT platforms during COVID, the pandemic must have come with its own business challenges. What were the major challenges you faced during the lockdown?

The first challenge that we as a team faced was that we had to re-arrange our entire content ladder. Initially, we were worried about the pressure this will put on the bandwidth. And if it will be able to support both work-from-home as well as the video entertainment part. We had to change our entire backend in a week’s period and equip ourselves to ensure that people get to watch content but do not consume too much of the bandwidth.

The other challenge was to lose human connection. We are a start-up company that needed the energy of the floor. Thankfully, we all were very good at video collaboration as we have been using these tools for almost two years, ever since the time we were launched because our development partners are across the globe like Israel, Poland and Valley. So we anyways had to connect with them via videos. But we had never thought that it will be used for all of us. It’s been six months that we have not met. However, it was very heart-warming to see how people came together. We now meet every morning for two hours and we have an open Zoom. We have split ourselves into squads that solve bigger consumer issues. We have put consumers at the centre of it. We knew that with consumption going up, there will be a lot of consumer needs, challenges and demands. We needed to change the entire operating mechanism. We launched a new android and IOS platform. All of that came with lot of demands and I give my team 200 on 100 for pulling it off.
Another thing was that this was the year when we needed to scale up our product, our engineering and supply side teams. And we had about a 100 new people join us. We have never met these people, and yet we had to induct them into the system and make them part of the family. Everything was done on video collaboration. So it's been a rollercoaster ride, but one filled with care, compassion and connections.

What about the delay in the shows that were scheduled to be shot during the lockdown period?

To cover that gap, we have done some meaningful acquisitions. Like I said before, we are acquiring purposeful content that meets our value system. Second, I must thank all our teams who have very quickly returned to work. It’s been two months now that we have been working. Our teams are shooting in various parts of the country like Goa, Kolkata. We have just finished a film that we shot in London without anybody from India going there. The lead actress was in Middle East and flew from there, and we found the lead actor in London. Some people came from the UK. The movie is titled London Confidential and is releasing this month. The shoot started after the pandemic and you can see the impact of the pandemic on the streets of London in the movie.

We have IPL starting in a few days and it is coinciding with the festive season. How are you going to hold back to your viewership during this period?

We are welcoming IPL. The show must go on. I am happy that it is coming back. About us gearing, our catch-up TV is very much immune to IPL. Women who follow their TV soaps will continue to do. If they don’t watch on linear screen, they will surely watch on OTT.

Second, we have made sure that HiPi is the home for cricket. So we are going to create a lot of stuff around cricket on HiPi in terms of building excitement. We thought there is a great opportunity to capture on all the euphoria that the IPL will create. We have invited influencers as well as we are holding a lot of contests and engagement around IPL.

Does that mean you will be promoting an event owned by your competing group?

IPL doesn’t belong to anyone, it belongs to the entire country. We don’t segregate it like that in our head. And if there is a euphoria, we are a topical platform and we must partake in the euphoria. We aren’t taking sides like that. However, there is no formal collaboration. It is just the buzz in the air and any youth-targeting platform will catch on it.

But considering that this is festive season and IPL is coinciding with it, do you think it will take away your share of subscription/ revenue?
That is true, but stories will still need to be told, and characters and actors have their own affinity.

You were recently appointed the Chairman of digital committee IAMAI wherein you played a key role in passing the Universal Self Regulation Code for Online Curated Content Providers. It would not have been easy to bring 15 players together, please take us through the journey.

We are now 16 of us. Sony has also joined us now. When I took over the role I knew there have been disagreements on the direction we all need to go in. One thing, however, was very clear that self-regulation was the way to go. So the effort was to have a third party advisor into this. So while most of it will be dealt by the platforms itself, we needed to have some sort of oversight from an advisor to bring in certain amount of objectivity. Several models were discussed but eventually we developed an ombudsman model where in a third party can come in when required to put a sense of objectivity.

All complaints from the users will go through two layers. One, an internal layer. If the user is not satisfied with it, he can go to the second level, which will have an internal team but will also have a third party ombudsman. We also agreed upon universal rating policy. We, however, want to granulise it further in this one year and come with more defined ratings like 13+, 15+ or 18+.

You have an edge over others when it comes to vernacular content. But would you agree that others score on international content? Are you expected to go in that direction in future?

Actually we do plan to continue to capitalize on our strength, and our strength is being a very local brand. We talk to the mass, affluent, vernacular Indians with real and relevant stories that resonate with our users. We take from the masses and give it back to them. And I believe we are able to do that as we give it to them in the language they speak, whether its Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil or Kannada. We will continue to do that. Our game is in India and Indian languages.

The merger of Ozee with Ditto to make Zee5 was an attempt to bring popular international shows to Indian audiences in their language. You don’t want to continue with that?

We do have some international content, like from Korea, Turkey, which is dubbed. We also have content from Pakistan, which is more or less in the same language. We will continue to acquire international content but dub it in our language.

We already have over 40 OTT platforms in India now. The market is highly competitive. Going forward, what will make Zee5 standout in this crowded market space?

We want to become an entertainment super app in this country. We want to deliver to diverse audience clusters with diverse technology products. For instance, we have HiPi on one side which is a short- form product. Then we are building on our news portfolio and we now have 60 live channels on the platform. By the end of this year, we will have a much personalised news product. We then have the long-form video product, and then there is this subscription video-on-demand product. We are also adding Play5, which is a gaming product.

So, in all, we want to make sure that we retain our audiences and keep them engaged. We want to be the one-stop shop for video entertainment.

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