Last section! Bringing us through to the present day (finally) and the situation now as movie theaters close their doors and the internet struggles to replace them.
Usual Disclaimer: This is all my original thoughts based on publicly available information.
When you introduce a new product, the biggest challenge is convincing people they actually need it. After all, they have gotten along without it up until now, why should they change?
The visible part of this process is the ad campaigns. And for many products, that is all there is to it, psychological tricks to convince us we cannot live without something that we lived without up until now. Deodorant, for instance, a product that did not exist 100 years ago and today we all assume we cannot live without it.
There are also the products that we do sincerely need. Antibiotics, when they were first discovered, there was a bit of a climb to convince the public but it wasn’t that hard. Because they filled an actual gap, before them people died, and after they didn’t. Even the telephone could be added to this category, before it there was no way to quickly call for help in an emergency, or have an important conversation across great distances.
But then there are the vast majority of products that we use every day only because the producers created the need for them. Not an imagined need on our part, an actual one, but one that only exists because the product that used to fulfill was killed in order to make space for this new one. An obvious example is the car and the streetcar. General Motors bought up streetcar and other transit companies all over America, and then closed them down. People HAD to buy cars, because the only other easy transit option had ceased to exist.
(Streetcars piled up and left to rot)
The story of a new product is usually a combination of these 3 elements, the imagined need created by advertising, the actual need that lead to the original development of the product, and the actual need resulting from the murder of the previous product that fulfilled it. And if you look back at all we have talked about in this series, you can see how, depending on the era, this is also the story of media development.
Let’s go back to radio for a moment. When Radio was first launched, most of the world was rural. Houses separated from each other, families with minimal interaction with the outside world. Radio filled a need, you could bring it home and then there were no wires, no need to be closer than a few dozen miles to the radio tower, and you had a connection to the world, an entertainment center, something to stop you from going just a little bit crazy (mental illness was an actual danger and concern on some of those more remote farms, especially for the women trapped inside).
But the need for profit is vast and radio manufacturers couldn’t be satisfied with just those users who truly had no other option. And so ad campaigns started, telling you that you HAD to have a radio, even if you didn’t think you did. And more than that, slowly, radio edged out what had existed before. Going back to those farms, during the winter or on the more remote farms, radio was a necessity. But in the summer, or the places closer to town, women would go visiting, there would be massive gatherings on a regular basis, families would go into town, often would have a second house in town for the winter, or even just to have the women and children live there year round, let them enjoy human contact. Radio was a poor substitute for this, for actual interaction with others. And yet once radio arrived, those other options became less and less. Even more with the introduction of TV. Suddenly the idea of a winter house in town, or of driving an hour down the road to spend the day at the closest house, became less and less acceptable. You had your artificial imaginary friends now, why would you need your real ones?
(Have you read this book? The most “adult” of the Little House Books? There are SO MANY crazy farm women in it!!!!! Women who just couldn’t take the isolation and slowly went a little bit insane)
This is the same change that came with the arrival of satellite TV in India. Women who previously would sit outside during the day, go on family outings in the evenings, all sorts of things that were known to be just necessities to keep them sane, are now left inside with the substitute of the television for human companionship. Again, a necessity, something that makes the day go by much faster when you must be inside. But also creating its own necessity, the previous ways to pass the day are now unavailable as TV has been forced to replace all of them.
And now we have the internet. I’m going to ignore the way it killed newspapers, physical letters, phone calls, and real world socializing. Let’s just look at entertainment, specifically movies and TV.
Netflix and Amazon Prime have slowed their market growth in America, and so they have turned their eyes on India, the largest and fastest growing internet market in the world. This battle between them has been waging for years now, and film is a large part of it. Most movies now come out with a front piece stating “exclusive Amazon” or “exclusive Netflix” right there while it is in theaters. Shahrukh signed an exclusive deal with Netflix for every product from his studio or owned by his studio.
It’s not just Netflix and Amazon Prime. There is also Hotstar, which began as the streaming portal for the Star India (subsidiary of Fox) TV shows, but also makes available the massive film library acquired by Star for their channels. And Hotstar has quality managed a true exclusivity for almost everything they offer. If it is on Hotstar, it is not ANYWHERE else. DVD, one time streaming purchase, nowhere but Hotstar. I suspect because they acquired rights through satellite sales, not through streaming, which gives them a much higher degree of exclusivity.
Similar to Hotstar is “Voop” TV, the streaming branch of Viacom18, the Indian version of Viacom (the worlds’ largest entertainment conglomerate, they own essentially everything). Again, it is taking the massive library already owned by the TV channels and providing them through a new format. And SonyLIV, structured to do the same for the Sony TV channels and content.’
And there is YuppTV, which has no parent TV company but instead combines multiple channels into one platform, allowing the streaming of live TV along with a video library. Based in Hyderabad and Atlanta, it has always been more focused on the overseas market, and the south Indian market (it recently acquired HeroTalkies, one of the main streaming sources for Tamil/Telugu films).
Not even big enough to make the graph is the newest entrant, AltBalaji, launched just one year ago and a subsidiary of Balaji telefilms. A straight production house that has never been involved in distribution before. And their focus is production, they create new top level TV shows that are only available on this platform. It’s not a massive streaming library, instead it is focused purely on the very best original content in the serialized format available anywhere.
Amazon hit the Indian market before Netflix, in the old-fashioned form as a website offering online ordering. And they were obviously able to leverage that, along with the interest in international streaming options and purchasing the ErosNow library, into taking over the Indian market. And they then went on to offer their own Indian original content through limited series. And now Netflix is trying to compete by providing high quality original content. Only it has to be bigger and better content. While Amazon Prime offered Breathe featuring Madhavan, a major movie star, and Amit Sadh, a barely known movie star, and a variety of talented character actors, Netflix offers Sacred Games with two movie star leads, surrounded by other well known actors, and two superstar directors, and a massive budget for sets. It is lush and visual and expensive. And it worked, based on my blog stats, the audience is turning out and tuning in for this big showy adventure.
If I am looking at that closed graph of the streaming market and thinking about how those colors might change, I see ALTBalaji as the biggest threat to Netflix. Because it offers content of a similar quality (stars like Rajkummar Raro in their series, maticulous recreation of historical periods), but it is all Indian content, and all original exclusive content. And it is a familiar trusted brand name. I also don’t see Hotstar losing it’s death grip on the market any time soon, thanks to the massive exclusive library of Indian content that cannot be rivaled by any other company. All Indian content too, Hotstar has films and shows in every language of the country, while Netflix and Amazon are still more limited to just Hindi.
But here’s the problem. The world isn’t reflected in that graph. In India, 64% of the population has no internet access at all. And half of those who do, do not access the internet on a daily basis, indicating they have either uneven service or must use a public access point. And yes, this DOES include cell phone coverage, not just wired.
Reliance Jio is the only cell phone company that comes close to covering the whole country. And they have massive gaps in their coverage, especially in the central rural areas of the country.
Here’s another image showing the breakdown of internet access across demographics in India. College students and men, young and old, are the majority.
And of course the majority of college students are also male. Lower level degree programs have had an increasing number of female students for years, it is almost 50-50. But the higher degrees, graduate and Masters and PhD, continue to tilt male. And India lags behind the world in working women as well, at least educated working women. If we look at this graph with that in mind and picture an urban area, what we are seeing is young men and women in high school and undergraduate programs with easy internet access. That access continuing for young men as they graduate and for the majority of women who graduate into lives as housewives in middle class urban households. But for working women (most likely domestic labor rather than office), there is no access. Even the women with the luxury of not working have less access than they had in school. The internet is available, certainly, if you are a student, a man, or working in an office job. But not for others, not even in urban areas. 78% of urban dwellers have internet access, and those left behind, the remaining 22%, are most likely female, or poor.
That’s in urban areas. 70% of the Indian population is rural. And only 23% of them have internet access. ANY internet access, these studies did not measure for speed. Or for level of access. There is a government push to provide public computers in community centers in rural areas, and there is already a popular habit of internet cafes. That will work to do research for school papers, or check for email or Skype with relatives. But it will not provide the ability to access streaming content, to settle in and watch all 7 hours of Sacred Games on Netflix.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing. The internet market is growing steadily in India, the infrastructure is being built, things are shifting naturally. Star TV to Hotstar, Viacom to Voot, a reasonable change, the same content that is popular on the now well-established TV market being offered through a different platform. ALTBalaji, good, a new way to offer what is called “parallel” content, not quite artsy but a little more intellectual and high quality than what is popular with the mainstream. Let the streaming services battle for the market of internet users, let cell phone manufacturers and service providers battle it out for the market of new internet users, let everything keep happening as it does.
The problem is, going back aaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllllllllllllll the way to the start of this post, the new internet companies aren’t just trying to manipulate the market, they are creating the market. Maybe not even intentionally.
If Netflix wants to make Sacred Games, and other content of a similar quality, that means it is competing with the movie industry for both resources and audience. If Saif and Nawazuddin are spending the next 4 years filming Sacred Games, it means they aren’t making as many movies as they could be. And neither are the directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikram Motwande.
At the very top level, all Indian film industries (Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, everything) have exceedingly limited resources. There are only a few top stars, directors, and music directors. If one of them is taken away from the mix, it is a loss that is immediately felt. And now the film industry is suddenly competing with streaming companies for those scarce resources. They aren’t just buying products which already were in theaters, already helped support the film industry through ticket sales and traditional markets, they are rivaling the industry by making their own products using the same limited resources.
And it is competing for audience. The high paying audience, the leading audience, the “taste makers” who publish the reviews and participate in internet message boards, they are leaving film for streaming services as well. And encouraging the rest of the country to follow them, stop watching the boring old fashioned movies and switch to streaming instead.
Except, they aren’t actually encouraging the “rest of the country” to follow them. They are encouraging 36% of the country. The remaining 64% doesn’t know they exist, doesn’t know about internet message boards and streaming sites and all the rest of this, because they aren’t online.
And this is the problem with streaming in India. It only sees a 3rd of the country as even existing. And yet, it is taking away the content from the whole country. In 2013, there were twice as many theater admissions sold than the entire population of the country. Meaning everyone in India went to the movies at least twice, most of them 3 times. EVERYONE. Not just 1/3rd.
India is still underscreened, far fewer movie theaters than there is population. But if you add in the uncounted traveling theaters, allow for the low ticket prices, and consider who it is that is still lagging behind in the internet stakes, you can see that the gap left by internet coverage overlaps with where film can fill in. The urban working class woman and her family can afford the cheap ticket prices at the urban single screen theater. The rural farmer can take his family to the tent theater a few times a year. You don’t have to pay a subscription price, you don’t have to have an infrastructure to build it, you just need enough electricity to run a projector for 3 hours (or a generator) and a few rupees for the ticket. Or at least, they could. Now those theaters are closing down and disappearing, and being replaced by satellite television, DVD parlors, and the internet. Or, for a large number of their audience, nothing at all.
This is the problem with the big international companies. Hotstar and Voop, they are providing content to match their TV offerings, not trying to claim new territory. ALTBalaji is neatly and carefully filling the small gap left, high quality programming and nothing else. But Netflix and Amazon are ultimately creating a gap they cannot possibly fill, not yet. If they succeed in driving highpaying viewers from film to streaming, and driving artists, then the film industry will become a ghost town. And nothing will be left for that 64% of the country who have no internet access at all.
But then, do the international corporations even know about that part of the country? Do most people, that is, most people in the internet-having class? The internet is so all encompassing now that if you are not on it, you are literally invisible to those who are. That 36% of the country probably thinks of itself as the entire country, entertainment only discussed as they discuss it. We see this constantly in the radical difference between the accepted wisdom of a film’s popularity and the reality. According to the internet, “everyone” hates Dilwale despite it doing an excellent business at the box office? And “everyone” loves Gangs of Wasseypur despite it barely getting a theatrical release? At least with film, there is the raw box office data available to counteract the accepted narrative and prove that this 64% DOES exist. But streaming doesn’t allow for that, the data is already limited to only the 36%, any discussion excludes the 64%, makes it as though their needs don’t exist, their desires don’t exist, their tastes don’t exist, they don’t exist.
Mass media began with the hope of bring these geographically and demographically massive countries, America and India, into one community. And they have succeeded in breaking down geographic boundaries, only to create new ones of class, of age, of gender. And in India at least, there is now a boundary so massive as to trick the eye into believing there is nothing on the other side of it, into believing that you and the people like you are the only ones, that “everyone” has internet now. You hear this all the time, don’t you? “Everyone I know is online”. And that’s true, and that’s the problem. Everyone you know is online.