Meet the brains behind Mainstream TV
Mainstream TV, the recently launched OTT platform has promised to be a resource of quality entertainment for every Malayali across the world. The wide range of content comprising Malayalam movies, web series, interviews, comedy clips and music has captured the imagination of viewers of various age groups with diverse tastes a few months within the inception of the platform. The founders of the platform S Siva and Jaya Krishnan boast of contrasting backgrounds. While Siva has television experience aplenty working with the Times Group for over eight years, Jaya Krishnan is an entrepreneur and also a musician in an independent band. LetsOTT.com gets them to talk about managing an OTT platform in the middle of a pandemic…
It’s a great time to be the founders of an OTT platform. It’s hard to imagine what life in lockdown would have been without digital content...
Jaya Krishnan: There are two ways of looking at it. It’s a great time for platforms to garner attention and grab eyeballs, the first episode of our first original Amyum Pillerum released last week. The average user time on the app has increased considerably. But the downside is the fact that it’s video on demand and Mainstream TV is monetised through ads. Most brands have cut down on spending, which may eventually affect us.
Your social media campaigns focusing on female actors through March and ‘guess the movie’ contest diverting users to the platform have been certainly impressive…
Jaya Krishnan: Engagement is always the key to add more users onto the platform. Having a new audience always matters for a brand that has just started out (like us). Just like you’ve noticed it, I hope the other users too have taken note of our platform. It’s gratifying to hear that we have provoked that thought and have done our jobs well. Another fact we can’t deny is that print, television ads are expensive options for a startup. Luckily, we have social media where we can experiment, get creative and be rewarded with impressive results for the same.
Would Mainstream TV be offering more creative freedom (than the mainstream platforms) to the content creators that come to you?
Jaya Krishnan: I think Netflix and Amazon are giving enough creative freedom to its makers – otherwise a Narcos or a Mirzapur wouldn’t have come about. We don’t plan to interfere with that either. Every kind of content is an art and we don’t want to corrupt that. Audience will not connect with the filmmaker or the content if we put a filter on it. Self-regulation is probably the only aspect that OTT platforms have cared for, basically to not fall under the eyes of TRAI but otherwise, I don’t see artistic freedom being curbed anywhere.
How has your television experience helped you handle an OTT platform in such a tricky juncture?
Siva: In the 7-8 years of my stint at Times, I got to play a key role in the launch of Movies Now, Romedy Now and MNX. These were predominantly movie channels. The common ground between these channels and the OTT platform is the fact that both are driven by movies that are popular (and not necessarily premieres of new movies). Many expressed doubts about Movies Now before its launch that it won’t get ratings until new movies are premiered. The whole idea of viewership in the channel was driven by the habit of people wanting to watch old classics any number of times. This experience of understanding viewership, genre preferences helped me with the OTT platform too.
Malayalam movies made between the 70s and 90s seem to be your focus area on the platform in comparison to new releases…
Siva: We had to opt for a creative idea in this hour of crisis. We couldn’t compete with major platforms that were throwing in about Rs 10/12 crores to acquire a movie. Being a bootstrapped startup, we had limitations and also understood that we’re also an audience that likes watching old movies. Why not take those movies, find producers and bag their rights for our platform? This also was an idea that came from my TV experience. An 80s Keanu Rooney movie got more ratings than a newly released movie premiering on a channel I’ve been a part of. Having a library of all the nostalgic content in the time of Corona is an advantage that Mainstream TV has. Our audience in the US and UAE found those old movies a way to connect with their roots, trigger childhood memories. It was a cheaper bet that didn’t even cost one-tenth of the money that we would pay to acquire a newly released film.
Except for Saina Play, why is it that most satellite channels dominate the Malayalam OTT space? What kind of a challenge does that trend pose to you?
Jaya Krishnan: The trend is relatively similar on a national level too - Amazon Prime and Netflix being major exceptions. Zee5, MX Player, Sony LIV, Sun NXT, Manorama Max are also owned by traditional media houses. Meanwhile, Saina also began as a DVD company and has been into movie distribution for a while now. I think we swam against the tide. A significant part of our team enjoys independent content and even creating videos. It's a challenge to be up against big brands because we're a startup that’s still aggressively seeking funds. Media houses have always had the budgets and the reach to experiment with their ideas – that made their OTT platform entry relatively easy.
Siva: When you come into the market, you know you’re up with a challenge. Most of the regional channels know that the future is OTT. Building an OTT platform is not easy though – it needs infrastructure, planning. There are a lot of regional players in Kerala that don’t have an OTT platform yet. They’re mostly settling for Youtube. From our conversations with them, they too are looking for a platform where they can monetise their content (or have an OTT platform for themselves). Hotstar and Manorama Max host movies, catch up content related to their channels only. Most of their content too is available on Youtube and the viewing on the OTT platform also is restrictive. Mainstream TV is different because it is channel-agnostic. We can pick the best content from each media house (licensed for a certain period) and host it on our platform. We have a bit of everything – movies, originals, trending Youtube content and are genre agnostic too. It’s an advantage.
While Malayalam films are earning new admirers by the day, it’s surprising that their digital content hasn’t hogged the limelight yet…
Jaya Krishnan: Malayalam digital industry is still in the growth phase. At least in the last one year, there have been many web series that have had over a million views in channels that have an impressive number of subscribers. It has been late to the party, yes, but the culture is gradually picking up in Kerala. It’s a state that enjoys its memes, so much that they have gone onto influence web series content – it has made the digital space more familiar to the Malayalis. The number of web series being made in the industry is only expected to go up in the times to come. Netflix and Amazon are part of a premium market – however, there’s a huge gap between them and the independent content creators. As long as the content is good and is in Malayalam, we’re here to give them better promotion, monetisation opportunities, advertising options, brand tie-ups than conventional platforms. That’s the reason why we are here.
Siva: Malayali channels in the early 90s used to come up with some of the best telefilms featuring popular short stories. It’s not that we don’t have material. The major OTT platforms are staying away from Malayalam because their focus is either on Tamil or Telugu. It’s a matter of time and returns. The market is small but the production costs remain the same (regardless of a Tamil/Telugu/Malayalam show). They are waiting for the market to evolve to suit their budgeting needs. Filmmakers have the right stories to say but are not getting the right platform to showcase their work.
The industry is still nascent. Things will change in the next few months because audiences will not prefer going to the theatres and this is the time mainstream filmmakers may also consider making their content on digital platforms.
What went into the making of your first web series Amyum Pillerum?
Siva: The current trend of Malayalam web series has largely been about slapstick humour. We wanted to bring in something more heartfelt and not merely funny. Amyum Pillerum is the story of a girl who comes into the life of three bachelors. It’s a long drawn story where she ushers in a change not only in the house and the locality but also the society. She is a cleanliness freak, discusses hygiene often and makes a difference by using recyclable material. In times when stories are character-driven, it was good to back a show which talked about the society in a subtle, humorous way. If all goes well, we may even plan three seasons of the show. The coincidence with Corona about hygiene made it more relevant.
The creative juices of independent content creators are flowing in the times of lockdown. Do you plan to associate with a few of them soon?
Jaya Krishnan: Absolutely! Thanks to the lockdown, there’s a humungous flow of content. People have shown that the restrictions we always talk of, need not limit us – they have created more content staying in a four-walled room than what they have done all their lives when the world was their oyster. We hope to associate with many such innovative content creators down the line, attracting them through campaigns.
Siva: Additionally, we’re trying to come up with a lockdown concert featuring promising Malayalam bands. Members in a band can’t come out of their houses due to this situation – we are combining the individual performances into a single video. It’s an opportunity for artists to produce music even when there are no shows. It’s not live because we want to focus on the sound quality and technicalities of the video. Lockdown interviews are on the cards too.
In content-branding in web shows haven’t been a success story exactly. The positioning of the brands in many shows have been way too indulgent and haven’t helped the show creators much…
Jaya Krishnan: Firstly, branding has to go with the series. You can’t merely do it for the sake of it. What’s the point if the audience frowns upon the branding segment in the show? You’re promising the brand a better visibility through the show and the audience must feel good about the placement. Neither the creator, the brand nor the platform will benefit out of it. Mainstream TV will never go for branding options that will interfere with the flow of the series. When we tie-up with a brand, it won’t be a sore thumb sticking out in the show. I can vouch for that. As someone who’s a regular consumer of digital content, I hope other OTT platforms too do that.
You’ve previously claimed that Mainstream TV originated with the idea of releasing Mohanlal’s first film Thiranottam on OTT (that couldn’t witness the light of the day) and giving a voice for independent filmmakers. Given that the demand for content will be on the rise during the pandemic, is the acquisition of independent films on the cards?
Jaya Krishnan: We’re always open to acquiring independent movies. We’re definitely reaching out to independent filmmakers and looking forward to premiering their movies. We haven’t struck a deal with anyone yet but we hope to do so soon. Even before this pandemic, the movie-watching culture in theatres was on the wane. The reasons are clear. Firstly, it takes up a lot of time (driving/travelling), involves a lot of expenses – besides fuel, a family is forced to spend at least Rs 2000 if they go together for a movie. They have naturally found more joy in watching movies at the convenience of their homes.
Siva: Certainly! People have finally accepted that streaming is a way of life. Our idea was to give a fillip to independent content through our platform. There are at least 100-150 independent films in 2019 that haven’t got a theatrical release they would have hoped for and weren’t also picked by any OTT platform/television channel. We want to be a platform to premiere such independent films and work around ways to monetise it. Unlike theatres where the smaller movies tend to suffer a lot, they can get viewership of their choice and visibility here. We’re in talks with several producers to release such films and get a monetising strategy for them.
Any numbers or viewing habits on the platform that have taken you by surprise?
Siva: Overall, we have many customers from the US who’ve been watching a lot of old Malayalam content. Comedy has worked well in most circuits. We have found a huge spike in the average time spent per user – it was 10 minutes earlier and now it’s about 35 minutes.