We’re not chasing star value: Interview with Ashish, Chief Content Officer at SonyLIV | Web series

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Amidst a bloated streaming space teeming with platforms, SonyLIV is in an interesting position. For one thing, it’s one of the oldest platforms around, relaunching in 2020 with a slew of promising original shows. Later that year, the platform had its first thundering success with Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, one of the strongest and most refreshing Indian series to date. It represented the best of storytelling on streaming – placing talent on familiar faces. It’s no wonder the platform is also responsible for many of the top shows (Tabbar, Gullak, Rocket Boys), second only to Amazon Prime Video. Read also : Gullak Season 3 review: This slice-of-life series pulls off a rare feat, keeps getting better every season



Big winners aside, even their not-fully-working originals show a sense of competence, promise, and originality (A Simple Murder, Uncommon Sense With Saloni Gaur, The Whistleblower, Chutzpah), suggesting there is capable and creative minds behind the wheel. This is probably why their subscriber base has grown to an impressive 18.2 million over two years, which puts them well ahead of Netflix India (almost 5 million, according to some reports) and in the same league. subscribers than Amazon Prime Video. (According to reports, Hotstar still leads the charge with almost 50 million subscribers).

Over Zoom, I spoke to SonyLIV’s Head of Content, Ashish Gowalkar, about the platform’s journey so far, what the future of the Indian streaming landscape looks like, and also about bugs with its app.



Edited excerpts:

First, what does SonyLIV do that most other platforms don’t? Why is the average SonyLIV original more promising than most other platforms?

SonyLIV is actually one of the oldest OTT platforms in the country. We were there long before any of those big ones came along, but we were playing more of the TV catch-up content game. The real original game started with SonyLIV 2.0, when we relaunched the platform in June 2020. When this new team took over, the vision was very simple: there were already big international OTT players in the Indian market, we so we had to create something that was different.

When we started we looked around and decided we wanted to tell stories about India. The whole geography of this country is so unique that every 100 km the culture, food and language changes. This makes for a very rich treasure trove of indigenous and local tales waiting to be told. And not only in Hindi but also in the South. From July you will see much more Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam content from us.



But the thing is, the entire OTT ecosystem is only five years old. Everyone is still learning. With every new show released on any platform, the whole fraternity learns whether it’s a hit or not.

When it comes to gaining subscribers, which is the name of the game, what do you think are the main drivers of that? Between major original shows, acquisitions of films and sports?

Subscribers are a tricky thing. The three things you mentioned are important and depend on your strategy, how you want to approach each one. For example, we decided early on that we wanted to avoid acquiring the latest big Bollywood films.

When we looked at our revenue and investment goals, we realized that if we invested more in the original content space, the return could be better, and so far, we’ve been right. But that doesn’t mean we won’t seek to do so in the future. Once we have enough money, we might consider getting into this game as well.



There is something interesting about your programming, especially in the area of ​​family drama and comedy, with shows like Nirmal Pathak Ki Ghar Wapsi, Potluck and Salt City. They’re all smooth, competent shows, but hardly the kind you see breaking the internet. What’s the point of supporting shows like that?

I will add a few more shows to this list. I think one of the most famous shows in this category is Gullak. It’s a wonderful show that takes you back to nostalgia, and nostalgia has always worked all over the world. Likewise, we have a show like Tabbar which is much darker. Again, with this show, we did it very authentically and kept it rooted in Punjabi rather than forcibly adapting it in Hindi.



A lot of people told us ‘it’s Punjabi, you won’t get the Hindi audience’, but we did. In fact, there are people in the South who watched and liked this show. The fact is that content is becoming more and more independent of language. People in the South watch Hindi content and people in UP watch Tamil and Malayalam cinema.

Speaking of Malayalam cinema, you had this recent string of Kerala State Film Awards winning Malayalam films with films like Madhuram, Freedom Fight, Bhoothakalam and Churuli. What is the secret of this curation?

The Sony brand lens helps a lot. The fact that people know that we are looking for cerebral and authentic stories. The second thing we do is to support the creative conviction of creators. We put the manufacturer above everyone else.



If you take Churuli for example, I’m a big fan of Lijo Jose Pellissery (Angamaly Diaries, Jallikattu). When the film came to us, a lot of the crew thought it was an indulgent film that didn’t justify that kind of investment. But then Lijo came to meet us and explained to us why he had made this film and I was convinced. We need to support voices like that, or we’ll tell the same kind of stories over and over again.

But many platforms say that for them, the creator’s vision is what matters most. What specifically do you do differently?

That’s what I’m saying, we have a very robust content selection process. It’s not just that if I like it, it can be bought. We have a rigorous three-tier process where a set of people look at it, then it comes to us and we see if it fits Sony’s branded purpose, and then we make a decision. On top of that, we’re not looking for the typical star value.



For example, there is a Malayalam movie we support called Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, where not even a single actor is a household name, even in Kerala. But we love it and it worked well purely because of the innocence of the concept. For filmmakers and storytellers, money is just one element among many. They also need lots of love and respect. They like people who understand them. So when we did a few of these films, naturally a lot of these types of films started coming to us because they knew this platform supported the kind of stories they wanted to tell.

I think that’s true enough across the board for you – the fact that they’re not always known faces and filmmakers. Be it Scam 1992 or Tabbar. Is it fair to say then that when it comes to Sony LIV, you’re not looking for the biggest projects, you’re looking for the best?



Absolutely. For us, the most critical part is the creator, the script and the belief. So far, we haven’t picked up a single show that’s a “proposal” where it’s just the great director or known actors. We don’t buy proposals, we support stories.

Whether backed by known faces or not. For example with Maharani, we didn’t take Huma Qureshi because it’s a household name but because the creator Subhash Kapoor had complete confidence in her and because she wanted to give her all in this role. It wasn’t just another project for her.

Aside from the great programming, the other conversation around SonyLIV is about the issues people keep having with the app. What are we doing on that front and does it frustrate you to see people liking the shows and complaining about the app in the same breath?

I think from where we were to where we are in terms of application, there’s been a massive improvement. Unfortunately, every time you are in this market, you are compared to the gold standard. I will be honest and admit that we are not the best in this category, but we strive to be. I think in the last 6 months alone our app ratings have improved and we are constantly investing in technology and things will get better. But beyond that, we’re the youngest in the game, only two years old, so we’re asking people to give us some leeway and put up with us a little longer. We are improving, but there is still a long way to go and we are working on it.

Where do you see the Indian streaming space going? There were only about 50 platforms 3 years ago and now there are over 150 and growing, and we can only subscribe to a certain number. Are we heading towards an era of consolidation? Where do you see all of this going?

I think the answer is in your question. As in all industries, within the OTT space we have the big international players, young startups and niche players. But the real big major platforms are only about 10 or less than that. So I think as we move forward, the OTT universe will continue to grow and habits will continue to change. For example, with streaming, it’s all about choice. No matter how much I bombard you with ads, you decide what you want to watch.

There are also different types of spectators. Currently, most major platforms all focus on a particular type of viewer. It’s extremely male biased – it’s about 80% male. Female content is missing. Likewise, the young adult space isn’t captured at all, so it’s a big space to focus on. Eventually, all platforms focusing on these niches will be acquired by a larger player.

Currently, we are in a space of growth and this will continue. There will be saturation starting at some point and then consolidation will start in the next 3-5 years. Until then, it’s a good time for content creators, for platform owners, and most importantly, for audiences.

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