Rounds of Applause

Veteran Indian programmer Sameer Nair was around at the dawn of multichannel television time in India. Now he is leading the vanguard into a premium production era driven by local and global streamers, fast-tracked with a slate of scripted formats, and powered by a deep well of local creativity and stories. Janine Stein speaks to the chief executive of Applause Entertainment about rewriting the domestic playbook for indie production.

As legend goes, Sameer Nair was in the room, at the beginning of the region’s pay-TV history as we know it, when Rupert Murdoch hammered his hand on the table and said he never ever again wanted to see a chart that showed Star trailing. He was also, the story continues, the one who answered Murdoch’s question about a cash prize big enough to make eyes pop, jaws drop and turbo-charge tune-in. And so Kaun Banega Crorepati (India’s chart-busting version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire) happened. Nair went on to steer Star’s entry into Hindi programming and has borne witness to more than two decades of content development in a mammoth market of 1.2 billion people.

And so here we are, 20+ years later, at the dawn of an even crazier content age. The 25 million cable homes of the early Kaun Banega Crorepati days have grown to 197 million, the 50-channel environment is now jammed with 600, maybe even 700 channels and there might even be room for more. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have prioritised India, changing story-telling culture and jostling hard with homegrown services led by the Disney-owned Hotstar.

Once again, Nair, now at the helm of the Aditya Birla Group-backed Applause Entertainment, is in the eye of the storm. And once again, he is at the forefront of rewriting the domestic playbook for indie production.

In a world of unprecedented opportunity and demand for premium stories audiences will pay for and monthly subscriptions they will stick with, Nair is building value with a mix of scripted formats, original stories tailor-made for streaming platforms, and a funding model that lets him retain IP.

His latest production is an Indian version of Yes Studios’ Israeli drama, Fauda. Filming starts in 2020. Fauda, a multi-layered story of conflict and struggle against a backdrop of political tension, joins shows such as The Office, Hostages, Criminal Justice, Mayangari – City of Dreams, Mind the Malhotras and Avrodh, a homeland security story set in Kashmir and Pakistan about India’s strike back after an Indian army camp is blown up.

Looking back, Nair counts the ways the Indian market has grown. And then he lists the one big hole – premium drama for television. “We’ve done fantastic reality and format television. We’ve got all sorts of international content. We have sports, news... But with regard to entertainment content, we got stuck in a time warp doing daily soap operas, which is the dominating feature of Indian television. And it has done really well, so no one is complaining. Everyone made their money.”

Applause set out with a deliberate mission: to fill this high-end drama gap. “With the rise of OTT/streaming platforms, an opportunity opened up to tell different stories to India,” Nair says. “There was a big need gap,” he adds.

“There’s an audience out there that’s really hungry for new content and no one is doing it. And the platforms are rising and they have to create this content because, unlike anywhere else in the world, there’s nothing to buy in India. So you can’t come with a truckload of cash and throw it at the problem, because you still have to make it.”

From the beginning, Nair’s aim was to invest in content, “to get things going, to take a degree of risk in the hope of some reward eventually”. To fast-track the initiative, Applause decided on an early slate of scripted formats, kicking off with a local adaptation of The Night Of (aka Criminal Justice). That worked. “These adaptations become not foreign stories being told in India as much as Indian stories because they have universal themes that travel,” Nair told delegates at the ContentAsia Summit at the end of August.

The goal is to create what Nair calls “cinematic television”. The effort is not without its stumbling blocks. “The big learning for us of course is, first of all, how to write cinematic television, and then how to produce cinematic television”. Story telling, not so much. “India has a very big rich history of audio visual storytelling,” Nair says. Telling those stories is not as much of a challenge as understanding the new medium.

“Typically, daily soap operas are stories that start and never end. Movies are stories that have a start middle and end. [Premium drama] involves a more layered, deeper story over 10-12 episodes, and multiple seasons. It attracts a different class of writing, a different class of actors. It’s a different way of doing it, but it’s still a story. At the end of the day it’s on a screen, you have to press play. If it interests you, you’re going to watch. If it doesn’t, you drop off.” In other words, some of those old rules apply.

The funding model also turns traditional Indian practice on its head. Applause invests in creating the shows, a habit Nair is encouraging the entire industry to adopt. “We have a sense of what the audience wants. We have a sense of what the platforms want. We spend a lot of time and effort making these shows. We do all the heavy lifting. We take the risk,” he says.

“The most important thing in our model is not really the first season as much as the show doing well for the platform and for both the platform and the audience to be happy with it. And then the subsequent seasons is where you build scale and that’s where the business kicks in. So that’s our play and it works quite well,” he adds.

Does Applause get to keep the IP every single time? That depends. Either the series is licensed long term to platforms and Applause retains the IP. Sometimes, the IP is sold or transferred. In either case, Applause keeps control over production of subsequent seasons. “That’s how we are building value,” Nair says. The underlying assumption is that every streaming platform will need at least one or two shows a month, which, with eight to 10 big platforms out there, translates to a lot of high-quality content.

Nair describes Applause as a “complement” to that business. “We’re really here to help platforms, to work with them to get better, to attract more subscribers and retain them... and hopefully to order subsequent seasons.”

All with a reasonable reward. Nair says he’s a big fan of Warren Buffett and has adopted Buffet’s motto – get rich slow. “We’re in no rush at all. If a show succeeds and if we can do many seasons, there will be money to be made for everyone and it will be good for the audience,” he says.

In a streaming universe questioning the value of more than three seasons of a title, Nair says there is no right answer on whether there should be two seasons ... or 15. “A lot of this depends on the kind of stories being told”.

“The big opportunity is to tell more stories of different kinds and put stuff out there. Some things will go longer, some things shorter... there is something to be said for returning to the familiarity of recurring seasons, and there’s something to be said about desire for change, for interest in the new shiny thing. So it goes both ways.”

Applause, too, spans a broad genre spectrum, from the family comedy of Mind the Malhotras, an adaptation of Israeli format La Famiglia, to the darkness of Criminal Justice. And then there’s Indian drama, created from scratch, like The Scam, an adaptation of a book about stockbroker Harshad Mehta, who almost brought the stock market down and the Indian government with it in 1992. Another from-scratch original is City of Dreams, a political thriller based in Bombay that streamed on Hotstar, and Avrodh, based on a true incident where Pakistani terrorists attacked and Indian army camp and India’s retaliatory strike. Applause’s treatment of Avrodh makes it a story about political conflict, the military, terrorists, journalists, media, politics and the whole social fabric of Kashmir. “It lends itself to lots of great patriotic and heartwarming storytelling,” he says.

Nair is a “big believer” in homeland security stories. “The U.S. made an industry and a fortune out of being perpetually paranoid and scared ... a state of fear translates to a lot of money,” he says.

“The opportunity to tell different stories is incredible,” Nair adds. Although Applause’s activity so far has been India-centric, there’s no geographic limit to the company’s ambition.

“We have focused on India for now because it’s such a big market and there’s such a huge appetite there. So it would be a pity not to do that.” But he’s also looking at regional and international collaborations. “We don’t delude ourselves by trying to make content that will be viewed by audiences in 180 countries, because that’s not really the way to make content,” he says, adding that he is exploring collaboration with Israeli and Korean producers.

“We’re looking to do these partnerships to get stories. Often you can’t make a show that can work in India and Korea. Some things travel, some things don’t. But there are definitely synergies to be had in production investment, in creating formats that can travel both ways. There’s a lot of opportunity”.

The future, he says, is “going to be all about share of consumers’ time because everyone is fighting for that, and time becomes money.”

Published in ContentAsia's Issue Seven 2019, 4 December 2019