It's time to applaud: The Sameer Nair Interview

Sameer Nair, CEO - ‎Applause Entertainment, talks about the platform's content plans and shares his insights on the overall fast emerging OTT industry...

It’s time to applaud: The Sameer Nair Interview

The Sun hammered the Earth, yet the ever vibrant BKC corridors exuded aura of hope and possibility.

In the business maze, stands out the premises of Applause Entertainment, the new kid on the OTT block which promises to pack a ‘binge worthy’ punch.

Enter the office and the phrase hits your senses: “It’s not entertainment, if there’s no applause”. Indeed, the writing is on the wall. And it’s expected that appreciation and accolades will flow in abundance for industry doyen Sameer Nair is at the helm of affairs.

Applause aims to make “binge-worthy” entertainment content for telecom operators and digital platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar. The move will position Applause to take advantage of the cord-cutting trend — audiences shifting to video streaming on phones and other devices from broadcast television (source: Economic Times).

“How have you been”? asked Sameer in his honey dipped yet convincing tone.

“All good, how are you?” said I.

“Good good…let’s begin”, Sameer ushered me in to his swanky office.

Sameer, without overstating, is synonymous to success. His reputation travels far and wide. A demure demeanor which radiates dynamic intent, Sameer is said to be selectively elusive and someone who follows his ‘heart’. After an inspiringly successful stint in TV business (Star India, NDTV Imagine), and being part of the core launch group at ALTBalaji, Sameer now is eyeing home run with Applause.

Sameer speaks with utmost clarity of thought and is a rare match of creativity and business acumen. After exchanging pleasantries and sharing work knowledge, we sit for a rather enlightening chat with Sameer. Here are the excerpts:

To begin with, what is the core content philosophy at Applause…any differentiating factor?

(sips water) Let’s put it this way. We are a content studio which is focussed primarily on creating drama series, movies and other genres, like animation, kids; however, drama series remains the core focus area. We want to tell interesting stories for the web audience. Furthermore, think of us like a hybrid movie studio, we invest in content creation, commission good projects, produce and once complete, release them working with the whole clutch of exhibition platforms. My personal belief is that there are many platforms on web but very little content. In TV, content is bound by time slots, which is not the case in digital world. The bandwidth of content is infinite as the market is huge, the demand is high, hence opportunity galore. The web content space is growing and we are one more contributor.

Fair enough…Talking about the web entertainment space, the sudden mushrooming of OTT players, is it a temporary bubble or a long sustained medium?

See, invariably whenever a new medium gets built and picks momentum, there is always excitement around it and many players enter the space. Similar was the case with TV as well in the early 90’s. Like any industry, there are winners and losers, and things settle down. I don’t think there can be 30 OTT players, that is not a possibility. Market eventually settles for five or six major players via consolidations, mergers etc etc. This market will be no different. It’s great that the medium is vibrant and people believe that one can build a business model around it and that’s good for the ecosystem.

Like any industry, there are winners and losers, and things settle down. I don’t think there can be 30 OTT players, that is not a possibility. Market eventually settles for five or six major players via consolidations, mergers etc etc. This market will be no different

Point taken…now, web allows you to be quirky, diverse…but major OTT networks are still working with entities or individuals who have been there done that…are we playing too safe? Is there room for a fresher to make a huge show?

(thinks) Let’s see. When you talk about been there, done that, the drama series that we are producing have never been done before. In a manner of speaking, fiction content on Indian television has been stuck with saas bahu shows since decades now. Premium drama never got made in India. If you have to really define premium drama then you have to go back to the golden Doordarshan days and talk about Khandaan, Tamas and such shows. Post that, premium drama never got made as TV entered the whole daily soap business.

Continue..

At Applause, we are working with newcomers as well as senior experienced professionals like Hansal Mehta and Nagesh Kukunoor. They are seasoned but they too have not made premium drama series for the web in abundance. Thus, it’s a new creative challenge for them as well. Actually, in India, we use the term ‘web content’ but actually it is nothing else but premium drama series that we are talking about. It is all about creating quality content and whoever we are working with are taking up the challenge  and are excited about it. Remember, the content creators are also consumers, hence they have reference points. They have seen House of Cards, so can we tell similar stories in India? This is a pertinent question.

You have pioneered many TV initiatives…you were one of the guiding forces at ALTBalaji and now Applause…any content creation mantra difference between TV and web?

It’s not about the mantra, but more about the reality. In TV space when we did KBC in 2000 there were about 25 million satellite homes. 18 years later, there are close to 165 million cable TV homes, so the market has become completely massy. TV has tried to experiment,  I would say 24 was a real good show, but in a wrong medium. So, the content was good but the audience was different. 24 on an OTT platform would have hit the ball out of the park. In my opinion, the premium drama content in the new digital world is about telling highly compact stories in 10 to 12 episodes into multiple seasons. Web cannot have a daily soap model, that’s the key difference. TV and web can have the same story, but the treatment will be different, most definitely.

In my opinion, the premium drama content in the new digital world is about telling highly compact stories in 10 to 12 episodes into multiple seasons. Web cannot have a daily soap model, that’s the key difference. TV and web can have the same story, but the treatment will be different, most definitely

What about censorship in web given unnecessary usage of sex and cuss many a time?

Let me explain. In any medium there are early adopters and in this case, the perception was that internet is for youth, and since it’s youth there is a need for sex and cuss to cater to their interest. It’s an assumption. But times are changing. Mediums have become seamless. My 83 year old mother watched Amazon Prime show Breathe’s promo on Colors and asked me to subscribe to Prime. Imagine how mediums are converging, and I too would watch Breathe, my son too will see it, thus it’s all about a giant connectivity model which will work on quality content. You can’t cater to the diverse audience based on sex alone. Your audience spread is from 16 to 60. In the flip, OTT as a medium is a mass of niches. The beauty is that on web, unlike television where a movie channel cannot play a daily soap, you can host a Bengali political drama alongside a story of girl from Meerut. The content gamut is huge, indeed. Talking about regulation, we are self regulated and would not want sex and abuse to be our calling card. We want to be known for telling great stories, and that is what we aim at.

So what is your expert take…what will finally work…subscription or branded content model?

I am a big supporter of subscription model, but digital is still evolving. There is the standard ad supported model, which primarily depends on millions of views  and performance, ROI etc etc, because that is how an advertiser gets interested in the process. However, the subscription model requires a lesser number of loyal followers. It is more cultish. These are people who are willing to pay for an ad-less experience. Third model which has come out now is business supported model. So when you take an Amazon, it has content as well as e-commerce. Then there is also a data supported model, like Jio, Idea, Vodafone where content comes as a package as part of your data plan. As a consumer, one has more choices and I believe that with passing time more models will emerge. I think Apple and Facebook will come out with their own models.

Continuing on that, do you think Indians are ready to pay or subscribe?

Indians have always paid for entertainment. Have we not paid to our cable operators? But everyone wants value for money, and same is with us. People pay for good content.

Indians have always paid for entertainment. Have we not paid to our cable operators? But everyone wants value for money, and same is with us. People pay for good content

Agreed…so how do you intend to stay ahead in the competition?

We don’t see ourselves as a competitor. This space is yet to evolve and eventually settle down to see some degree of competition. We see ourselves as collaborators. This is an industry building phase. Like they say, all boats rise with the tide. For the next five years we are going to build it. And at Applause, we are looking to work with other platforms. My aim is to collaborate and build a bigger web audience.

With big OTT networks pushing hard to gain maximum market share, what holds the future for individual content creators like Youtubers or bodies like TVF?

For Youtubers, you got to do whatever you are doing, continue to be on Youtube and get a revenue share. So, Youtube as a platform can be very profitable but individual Youtubers will always struggle to make money till they reach a certain kind of traction. Then once you reach that traction you become a brand and then look for paid services. It’s a norm that when you achieve a certain degree of success, the market starts dictating the price. Having deep pockets is not always the solution, you cannot always throw money at a problem. Problems are solved with ideas, point of excellence. So it’s always going to be merging of ideas and the semblance of exuberance and experience.

Talking about regulation, we are self regulated and would not want sex and abuse to be our calling card. We want to be known for telling great stories, and that is what we aim at

So what about you…you consume content on the web more or prefer watching television?

Let me be frank, I have not watched drama on TV for the longest time. Content consumption today is more about behaviour than the choice of medium. It’s a pattern of convenience. Once I wake up in the morning I check my Twitter feed for news, then little later read newspaper and before heading out for work watch debate on a news channel. Having said that, I am watching IPL only on TV. You can also record show and movies on your set top box and watch it as per your convenience. Interestingly, majority content that we share and read is via a share on Whatsapp. So medium is irrelevant, patterns are developing and phone revolution is making things easier. It’s going to be more interesting in coming time (smiles)

Enlightening thoughts indeed… Any final word for our readers…

Well, stay hooked, look out for our shows and hope you like them. 

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