Home Analysis Interview: Viacom18 CEO Sudhanshu Vats discusses digital growth

Interview: Viacom18 CEO Sudhanshu Vats discusses digital growth

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The CEO and Managing Director of India’s Viacom18, Sudhanshu Vats, sat down with Videonet to discuss digital strategy and international plans for its over-the-top service Voot.

When Sudhanshu Vats took the helm at Viacom18 in August 2012 the Indian TV company had six channels and one line of business. Under his leadership, the Mumbai-based group has emerged as a fast-growing, full-play media organisation has grown to more than 44 channels with its latest, Colors Gujarati Cinema, set to go live on June 1.

A joint venture between Viacom and TV18, Viacom18 today has a foot in both the TV and digital markets in India. Its on-demand service, Voot, went live locally in 2016 and in March this year launched internationally for the first time via a partnership with UK operator Virgin Media.

Vats says the deal marked the first of many planned launches for Voot as the company looks to grow digitally. Domestically, Viacom18 is also looking to develop the service further by launching a freemium model and a standalone subscription Voot Kids offering.

“The UK being one of our most important markets and a large diaspora market, it was logical that we started here. But this is something which we will do elsewhere as we expand our digital footprint,” explains Vats, discussing the company’s international plans.

He claims the Viacom18 has identified 21 top markets that it plans to target with Voot and will do so using a combination of approaches.

Partnering is an option for large markets like the UK, where Virgin has bundled Voot with Indian VOD rival, Eros Now, to offer its customers an app package called the Desi App Pack; in a few countries the company might look to distribute via a traditional TV platform with a TV Everywhere-type offering; while the third approach is to go direct to customer by launching direct via iOS and Android app stores.

Sudhanshu Vats

“In the short to immediate term, we would be focused on the Indian diaspora. Having said that, I think as we progress, the good news about digital is that we may be able to offer that content to an audience well outside the diaspora,” says Vats.

In India, Voot competes in a crowded field against local rivals like Hotstar, Sony LIV, Zee5, Eros Now and ALTBalaji. However, Vats says he is happy with the niche that Voot is carving out for itself in the market. “When you are in India, you’ve got to become comfortable with crowds,” he jokes

While Indian SVOD leader Hotstar has Indian Premier League cricket rights to attract viewers, Voot is big on genres like non-fiction and reality and draws on a vast catalogue of content from Viacom18’s line-up of channels, which air big international formats like Big Brother, Fear Factor, Got Talent, alongside local formats like Indian MTV series Roadies and Splitsvilla.

Vats says that the company does close to 15,000 hours of original content every year on TV across seven regional languages plus English. On top of this, Voot offers some 1,500 hours of ‘shoulder content’ around its big entertainment formats and is also looking to do around 150 hours of digital original programming.

Last August the company launched its first set of originals with 18 web series across a range of genres. “As we speak, we are looking at over 30 originals,” says Vats. “We are continuously dialing that up.”

“If you look at viewership on our platform, as of now roughly 60% is catch-up TV; about 20% is content around content; around 10 – 12% is originals; and close to about 8% is kids.”

At the time of writing the standalone Voot Kids service is in beta with a full launch in the offing. This will be offered on a subscription basis and will include children’s programming, as well as e-books, audio books and educational content targeted particularly at two-to-five year-olds.

The subscription model is a new one for Voot, which started life as an AVOD service. However, in 2018 it signalled plans to move towards a freemium model – a response, Vats says, to how the wider market has moved.

“I personally feel India is a hybrid market. Where a vast majority of India would be on free, there is a section of India who is now willing to pay, and therefore in order to address that section of India we are looking at a freemium service.”

The idea for Voot going forward is that viewers can enter for free, but will be charged based on “two additional features or dimensions”. One of these is more content, be it Hollywood fare or original content. The other piece rests on the experience – for example providing an ad-free experience, linear content, or programmes that air ahead of their linear debut to subscribers.

Vats says he believes India will follow the market development model of China, where he claims an almost entirely ad-supported market of around 400 million internet video users in 2012 grew to around 800 million internet video users in 2018, of whom about 15% were behind paywalls.

“I think India, if you look at last year, had about 300 million internet video users and the majority of the market is free. I think in three years we will have close to about 650 to 700 million internet video users, a bit like China, and I think we will also have close to about 15% of people behind paywalls.”

While Vats says that YouTube is “almost ubiquitous” with internet users in India and acknowledges the boost that Hotstar gets from its cricket rights, he claims Voot’s number is “close to about 45 million to 50 million monthly active users,” putting it “right up there” against its OTT competitors.

He says that close to 60% of Voot’s audience is female, making it “one of the most female-centric” services in India and claims that 80% percent of consumption is by 18-34 year olds – mostly people under the age of 30. He adds that watch time per-user per-day is around 45 to 50 minutes, demonstrating that the service’s content is “sticky”.

While the market may be getting crowded, Vats says it “will find its own level and there will be some consolidation, but the important thing is we have to be right up there and we are right up there at the moment.”

While digital will grow exponentially in India, like in the rest of the world, Vats points out that there is also a “lot of headroom” for growth in the TV space, where unlike in many Western markets, the number of TV homes is still growing.

According to a 2018 study by Indian TV measurement body BARC, the number of TV homes in India grew to 197 million last year, marking 66% penetration. With a third of homes still to reach, Vats is optimistic about the potential to reach new viewers in the coming years and believes that the country will reach 90% TV penetration in the next three to seven years – five being a safe bet.

With this in mind, he says: “We are not a TV company, we are not a film company, we are not a digital company. We are a content company that will create content, curate content, and develop content experiences. That’s the thinking.”

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