Hindi Film 101: Streaming Wars and How We Got Here Part 3, HBO to DVD to Netflix to TWoP

Yet another part in my very dull series!  But I can’t seem to stop myself, or even speed up.  So indulge me as I creep forward decade by decade through the history of sequential visual content in America and India.  Just be grateful I didn’t get into the details of movie serials to radio shows to American TV.

Usual Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge, this is just how it appears to me based on commonly available information and my own experiences.

 

 

In my last section, I got to the introduction of cable in America and the introduction of Satellite TV in India.  They had similar results, even if they came from completely different places.  Before cable, in America, the family would gather together to share content, and the whole nation would gather together as well, the major broadcast shows all shared by everyone because there was no other option.  After cable, the family was divided, different shows popular for different groups within it.

In India, when Doordarshan was the only channel, the family was united in not really wanting to watch TV ever.  So they would go to movies together, or they would go to watch cricket matches together, or just sit outside together.  Not just family, but society in general was united, not locked into their little homes kept isolated, as became common in America post the introduction of TV.  But with the rise of satellite, suddenly there was TV people actually wanted to watch.  Only, not all people.  It was aimed specifically at the housewife, the one with the most control over the disposable income, the one most valuable to the advertiser.  And so she, the housewife, became increasingly locked up at home while the rest of her family still went out for entertainment, to movie theaters or playing cricket or just sitting around talking.  Not that she had that much freedom before, but at least chopping vegetables might mean sitting outside the house, talking to friends, watching the world pass by.  Instead of being locked up inside, the TV the only window to the world.

Image result for indian woman chopping vegetables

(Jumping ahead a bit, they now have the laptop window to the world.  Also, based on stock photos and movies, Indian housewives spend 90% of their time chopping vegetables.  If true, I would be a terrible Indian housewife because I hate chopping vegetables)

All of this was predicated on the idea that the audience was not the consumer, but the product.  Advertisers were buying the audience, they wanted the most valuable audience for the cheapest price, they didn’t care what kind of content got them, so long as they were gotten.

 

HBO was the first company to really upset the apple cart in America.  “HBO” stands for “Home Box Office”.  The initial business plan was to buy the rights to new movies, or hard to find movies, and sell a special subscription directly to the viewer who would be desperate for these movies.  They were kind of a joke at first, their film library was pitifully small and they tend to rerun the same films over and over again.  They also were known for getting around government regulations on the airwaves, since it was a closed pay channel they could show more sex and drugs and violence and language then were legally allowed on broadcast TV.  But then in the late 90s they hit on a new idea, “It’s Not TV-It’s HBO”.  Original content that was the same quality as the movies they showed, complicated scripts with all the sex and swearing left in, and film quality actors and production values.  And part of the way they did this was by filming only a few episodes, instead of spreading the cost out over a full 22-24 episode season.  The point of the 22-24 episode season was to keep the audience coming back and keep the advertisers bidding higher and higher for the rights to them as the ratings increased over the season.  Or be able to cancel at any time and stop filming if the ratings drop.  If you aren’t looking for that incremental week by week increase in advertising pay out, it is more practical to simply give a short season order, see how the whole season plays out as a whole, and then decide whether or not to renew.  And besides, that is what the audience wants.  The audiences wants short high quality seasons that you know will be completed, will play at the same time on the same day for 10 weeks in a row and then stop.  And, finally, HBO was trying to serve the audience instead of the advertisers.

HBO started a revolution, purely viewer driven content with no concern for either advertisers or government regulation.  It was a revolution other channels wanted to jump on, but how to make a profit from the audience while maintaining their “free” broadcast status?  And thus, DVDs.

Image result for murder she wrote dvd

(Last DVD set I bought, just 6 months ago.  I have no regrets)

 

Before DVDs, you could purchase or rent VHS tapes of TV shows, but they were hard to find and impossible to store, dozens of tapes for just one season.  It was easier to simply wait for your favorite episode to be broadcast as a rerun.  The rerun money was where the profit was, and usually those rights were held by the original studio which made the content (part of the pre-1990s government regulations were that a certain percentage of broadcast content had to be created by outside companies and purchased by the major channels, not made in house.).  DVDs changed that, you could easily fit a whole season of a show in one compact box set.  And the original studio would reserve those rights, another source of profit.

But you had to make content that was DVD friendly, rewatchable and worth buying.  It was worth it to invest the money upfront now if it would mean an eventual profit in DVDs. It quickly became an expected part of the viewing experience to watch your favorite show live, and then wait a few weeks after the end of the season and purchase the box set so you could watch it over and over again over the break.  Especially the shorter run HBO shows, the gap between seasons was much longer, giving you plenty of time to fill with rewatching, and a very small and cheap DVD set to buy.  And, eventually, even the non-HBO produced shows began to make DVD profits.  Money they could get directly from the audience, a reason to start serving the audience instead of advertisers.

DVDs also filled the gap for those who couldn’t afford or weren’t interested in a subscription to a pay channel.  I was one of those people (because my Mom canceled cable and hid our TV when I went to college because she hated TV and was finally free of it.  And my state school was so poor, all of the dorm TVs just had sad wires hanging out and didn’t turn on), and I had endless curiosity for TV and no money.  Which meant I became very good at playing the library system to request what I wanted, and even better at finding the video stores that would rent the full season I was looking for.  I spent one Saturday in college riding buses all over the city in the middle of a snowstorm on a quest for the full 4th season of Alias.  Good times!

Image result for alias tv show

(Can you believe she went on to marry Ben Affleck?  And then divorce him?  And also, that Michael Vartan has somehow disappeared?)

For people like me, the launch of Netflix was a godsend.  It would send you DVDs right to your mailbox, no hunting around to stores.  And it had every DVD you could want.  And it was cheaper to get a monthly subscription than renting one at a time, so long as you would be renting more than 6 DVDs a month.  They even worked out a deal with the post office to speed up turn around time so you would have a new DVD in your hand only 48 hours after mailing the old one in.  It was wonderful for me, I could chug through a whole season of TV in no time at all, 6-12 episodes per disc, one disc a day, and the next one arriving as soon as I finished the current one.  And this is what lead to the huge growth of Netflix.  It wasn’t the obscure films you couldn’t get at your local store (those were already available by mail, Facets in Chicago had been mailing those out for years and still has the best rental film library in America), it was the convenience of the new hot TV shows showing up in your mailbox.

And at the same time, there was the introduction and rise of TiVo.  TiVo wasn’t supposed to be something totally new, it was supposed to be just a slight improvement on what already existed.  Not that it was promoted that way, it was promoted as life changing, but if you read between the lines they were only talking about what VCRs could already do, but better.  Scheduling TV shows to record if you were going to be out that night.  Recording them while you watched in case you missed something.  With the advantage of being able to watch while recording, and pause what you are watching while it kept recording, or rewind.  This is a good thing for broadcast TV, makes sure people will stay committed to watching their shows live because it is so much easier now that you don’t have to worry about bathroom breaks or missing a scene and not being able to see it again, or even have the ability to record an episode here and there without worrying about VCR timers.  It was only supposed to be a little change.

Image result for early tivo ad

(What about skip entire TV seasons and catch up over the summer?)

But what wasn’t predicted was that people would make this a massive change.  Would discover that they could simply set the TiVo to record every episode for a whole season and watch them all at once instead of one at a time week by week.  Or would let episodes build up until they were “in the mood” to watch them.  Or would watch and rewatch until shows lost their power and they tired of them and stopped watching at all.  And what the TV people really didn’t predict was that the official ratings companies wouldn’t be able to accurately track these changing viewing patterns and the bottom would fall out of the advertising market that funded broadcast TV.

This was a major “medium is the message” moment.  TV went from something you watched on your one TV set on one of the 3 channels at the same time as everyone else in America, to something you watched on one of your family’s 3 TV sets at the same time as a few other people in America, to something you watched whenever you wanted where ever you wanted.  This was the era of the rise of the laptop as well, which had no effect on streaming (not a major issue yet), but had a major effect on DVD watching habits.  You could now get a DVD of a TV show and play it on your computer, on your convenient computer made to be carried with you anywhere and everywhere.  TV was completely divorced from both space and time.

Image result for college dorm watching movie on laptop

It was divorced from time and space, but not from relationships.  Suddenly the creators were able to connect directly with the viewers.  HBO subscriptions and DVD sales allowed the audience to express what they liked, and creators could make the shows they wanted without worrying about advertiser dollars, just pleasing that audience.  And then the internet came in and, for the first time in ages, there was a way to communicate directly, viewer to creator.

The early internet sites were a place for people who really cared about TV, and there weren’t many places like that.  Even academia had just barely started studying it seriously, while every newspaper had a film reviewer few had a TV reviewer, and there weren’t really “TV clubs” to go along with the “film clubs” at most colleges and high schools.  So if you were obsessed with, for instance, My So-Called Life, you would turn to the internet to find a chat room somewhere to share this with.   And if you were a TV writer, you might end up stumbling into the same chatroom and interacting directly with your audience.

Image result for television without pity(Yes yes, this is the story of TWOP.  It really is the founding force of serious internet critical writing)

And so I was at college, with no television set, watching DVDs from rental stores and Netflix on my laptop alone in my dorm room, but not really alone after all.  I didn’t have anyone in the real world to watch these things with (tons of Indian movie watchers in my real world at that time, but that’s a different thing), but I had a virtual community that encouraged me to watch TV in a whole different way.  Focused, conscious, analytical, not just enjoying and forgetting.

And from the Marshall McLuhen side, what did this mean?  It meant that content was becoming increasingly personal and private.  You could put in a DVD and watch it on your personal computer, separate from the rest of the family, friends, everyone, hidden away in a bathroom stall if you wanted.  And then you could talk about it endlessly online under an assumed name.  Or simply enjoy reading the conversation without joining it at all, be an anonymous spy.  TV stopped being something that was part of the fabric of your life, and became something removed from your life, existing in a world of its own.

None of this is related to India of course, where the daily soap opera was Queen and you would never miss an episode, even if you had the ability to just record it and watch it later, you wouldn’t be able to wait.  And where DVDs were still something you got in the shop downstairs, not in the mail.  The closest the Indian market came to this idea was the option of having the shop deliver your DVD along with your groceries.  TV was locked into space and time and kept the audience trapped there as well, locked within the home every minute.  TV wasn’t discussed online, not this kind of soap opera TV, you had to watch the episode the second it aired if you wanted to enjoy the small amount of socializing you got, to talk with all the other women locked to their TVs except for brief moments.  Even the DVD delivery method encouraged that, you could get your DVDs to watch, but only if you were home to take delivery along with your groceries, only if you were familiar with your local grocer, only if you were staying home all day every day chopping vegetables.  But there were other market forces that were driving India towards America until they met in the middle, both audiences wanting the same thing from their content, increasing privacy and increasing personal ties.

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11 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Streaming Wars and How We Got Here Part 3, HBO to DVD to Netflix to TWoP

  1. You’re really really off the mark when you say the family was united in wanting to not watch the TV together when DD was the only option!! Really, whatever gave you that impression??

    So anecdote time: in the 80s, I was probably 1 or 3 or something and we had this small Sony CTV because my grandfather (Aka Hitler) seriously disapproved of the family doing anything but chores and studies. But dad got the small TV “for news and cricket”. So this one day, dadaji was out of the house and my mother, aunts and dadi wanted to watch TV. But it was the day and there was no cricket on to justify the TV being on. So they put it inside the fridge and kept the volume super low and pretended to do chores and studies in the living room while watching TV. They were so engrossed in it that they never realised when dadaji came and stood behind them all at the door and watched them watch TV. I don’t think he yelled but the terror of him knowing what they’d done was enough for them to keep the TV packed away till he returned to the village. That’s how crazy people were for TV back then even if it was just DD

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  2. Also, the reason why people didn’t get locked in their homes was because of load shedding and power cuts. You can’t watch TV if your part of the city doesn’t have power. Even after cable, you were in the mercy of the cable operator’s power cut routine. Seriously, this is the point on which satellite TV package were sold- that you won’t have to worry about cable operator’s power cut

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  3. Housewives, before full time TV, socialized in the afternoon, shopped or took a siesta. They went out with family in the evenings on outing days and they visited their relations for week or longer stays fairly regularly. Like for bhai dooj, you’re supposed to travel to your brothers house

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    • There’s a regular thing with new technology of being sold as filling a gap in your life. But more often if you look into it, it is creating that gap. Saying “get a TV, so your wife won’t be lonely and bored home alone all day”. But, she didn’t used to be home alone all day! It’s the TV ad campaign which is helping to create that image of the wife at home instead of doing out and doing things. Same with cars, “get a car so you can easily drive to do your shopping”, but there used to be stores in walking distance so you didn’t need a car, the cars created that need by killing the local stores. And on and on.

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  4. Ok so the indian VHS culture is a whole thing on its own. We had VHS tape rental places that also rented out TV sets and video players with it. Usually for the night. Beau’s father had a side VHS+ stuff business in the 90s and they had 6 TV sets and more players available for rent plus a small catalogue of tapes, not more than 200-300 at max.

    What people did was rent out 2-3 film tapes (plus TV and player if needed) for the night and the entire joint family watched together (plus neighbours or at least the neighbours’ kids depending on what kind of place your house was in. In our village way back when, we kept our TV and player in the front yard and ran it on a generator on days like New Year’s or whenever the family was there and usually it got crowds of over 300)

    You had to get through at least 2 films that night because VHS rental prices were high. Or at least high by the standards of the school/college age older brother/uncle/cousin who was crazy about films and saved up from his allowance to get the latest hits. This was a real thing because the dad or older uncle or mom or dadi or older family members usually chose the older hits because the latest films were “too vulgar” for them to pick out themselves. But they usually watched whatever the kids brought.

    This culture of VHS renting was replaced with DVD renting. And DVD rents were still high-ish for the kids that didn’t have the money or permissions or time to watch the latest films in the theatre and they couldn’t wait for it to arrive on TV and play with 15+ minute ad breaks. This coincided with Chinese made DVD players flooding Indian markets. Those DVD rental places are still going strong and they usually carry the DVD rips and pirated cam quality prints. This is the crowd that can’t afford PVR tickets every week.

    Before Jio launched dirt cheap 4G in 2016, illegally downloaded copies of shows mostly originated from college campuses where kids used the high speed college internet and those were circulated through thumb drives. That’s how I got the first few seasons of GoT (which didn’t make it to TV legally till like a few years later)

    Streaming is changing that culture of asking your college age cousins for shows for people of my generation. College kids, those that aren’t living at home usually have arrangements with roommates and friends like one person has a subscription to a service anderyone uses their login details on their laptops. This means there are always higher views than subscriptions. Plus there are still kids that rip the shows and they end up circulating in drives.

    Even when kids have their own smartphones, media files are shsred because you only get 1.5 GB of 4G data per day on the cheapest plan and you’ve got to use that for YouTube and Facebook and video calling your bf/gf and parents.

    Indian TV on the other hand is driven almost exclusively by middle class women. The prevelant broadcast pattern is- prime-time is between 7-11pm, daily soaps play every evening in half hour slots monday-friday and there may be a show like KBC or Bigg Boss or Indian Idol or something that gets an hour long play. The same lineup is repeat broadcasted on the channel the rest of the time. Sometimes there’s a film playing in the afternoon whose rights are owned by the company’s film channel.

    Almost all news channels carry a daily soaps special every afternoon Monday-friday to help you catch up with what happened in the shows last night. Soaps can last between 200-300 episodes at the least and the really popular shows get rebooted and play for a similar amount of time. There are specials for every big festival that’s full of showing rituals or drama around it. Crossovers between shows is also popular and they have mega episodes that last an hour every now and then.

    Pace of the story is usually very slow but it’s high on drama. There was this one serial my cousin watched at my house when she came over in college breaks. This once I watched it with her it had the lead pair kidnapped and being chased by goons. I didn’t watch it on my own. Eight weeks later my cousin came over again and i watched the latest episode with her and it was the same day in-show!!! I really facepalmed so hard!!

    The entire point of the current Indian TV lineup is that you can watch it while doing housework or having a career and kids and you really can’t miss much even if you don’t watch it every day. Plus, it’s what you’re gonna talk about with your neighbourhood friend or your work friend the next day which is basically a bitching session.

    Colors tried to make sane, quick paced shows with realistic storytelling but they couldn’t sustain it and Zee Zindagi which carried Pakistani and Turkish series and made a few non-soap style series of its own folded in the Indo-Pak tension post surgical strikes. BUT, most people who got hooked to Pakistani dramas now watch them on YouTube, whether on their phones, laptops or streamed on TV. The rest have gone back to regular TV. It’s the kids who went from cartoons to watching things on the internet that are heavy on the streaming and downloading scene. And that too because they had access to smartphones and laptops of their own or through their friends.

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    • What you said about the VHS/VCR rental period is the same as America, except it sounds like it lasted much longer. My family wasn’t the fastest on technology, but we had a VCR by the late 80s. You could still rent them until the mid-90s, but most people owned. The early VHS rentals were extremely expensive, and you had to leave a credit card on file as security and all sorts of things, but again that era was over by the late 80s,. In my memory (so starting in 1990), VHS was something you would rent without thinking about it that much, slightly cheaper than a cheap movie ticket. We got our first DVD player in 2000 I think, again being slightly late adapters. And DVD rentals and VHS rentals were super cheap by then, like $2 for one night. If you are talking about a kid saving money, allowance would usually be at least $5 a week, so you could rent two movies plus one from the cheap shelf just on one week’s money.

      But at this point, while every family had a DVD/VHS, they would usually only have one. So you couldn’t really rent a film you wanted to see since your family would be watching it with you. Films in theaters were more likely where you could go off and rebel to watch what you wanted. For me, it was when my parents were out of town, they would leave me $20 or something for movie rentals and I would get a whole stack and watch whatever I wanted all weekend without worrying if anyone else would like them.

      That’s where the DVD/laptop thing really made a change. The younger generation could watch what they wanted alone in their rooms, instead of supervised in the public areas where the TV was. The older generation too, when we were little my parents would put us to bed and then stay up late watching the movies they wanted to see, because it was the only time they had the TV/VCR to themselves. Today’s parents can have a laptop with them anywhere and watch stuff any time so long as the kids aren’t in the room.

      What you’re describing with the TV line up is what America had until the 90s. Daily soap operas that housewives would talk over together (or obsessed teenagers who rushed home from high school to catch them), and prime time shows that everyone talked about at work the next day. But as the live broadcast TV market share is dropping an dropping and dropping, that doesn’t really happen any more, the only times I remember talking to my friends, or even hearing conversations about TV shows, are when Netflix has dropped a new series and everyone is watching at the same time. Or in my quilting group with the very old ladies who love BBC serials on PBS. Otherwise, everyone is watching their own thing at their own pace and you wouldn’t assume that anyone you meet in daily life is watching the same thing in the same way.

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      • It also has so much to do with programming. The brief period we had Pakistani dramas on TV in India, it was the channel that we had on the entire day so we ended up watching these really well made series with next day repeats and weekend repeats. And since we knew each series would only last 20-25 episodes and we didn’t know if it would be aired again, it got really high viewings. To the extent that top dramas got expensive for the channel to purchase, according to sources, which caused them to expand to Korean shows and their own series which weren’t as popular and ultimately caused the channel to fold with the excuse that they’re opposed to all things Pakistani in principle.

        The problem globally, is the lack of real good broadcast programming in the evenings. There’s no wholesome lineup, not in the American market at least and anyone depending on the American market for English language programming. That said, look at TV elsewhere. Not only are those segments healthy but they’re actually growing. And American TV series have done exceptionally well too of late it’s just that TV isn’t making as much profit as it used to. The last globally watched regular broadcast show, apart from HBO shoes, was TWD and even though this season was bad, it was still watched.

        I agree with what you said in the other comment about the nature of technology. And yeah, the regular family routine since forever has been that you hang out at home after work. Before TV it was the radio, before the radio it was with books, before books it was telling stories to the kids or just talking. Anything that takes away from that routine of spending time with your family is going to feel isolating. Even people that live away from their parents or those that don’t have partners or kids or spouces or roomates get that sense of routine when they watch TV in the evenings, don’t they? Cause it feels like home and childhood.

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