Netflix, Amazon may teach people to pay for online shows in India: Arunabh Kumar

Arunabh Kumar talks about making movies, creating big budget shows online and his plans for The Viral Fever

The Viral Fever (TVF) founder Arunabh Kumar. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The Viral Fever (TVF) founder Arunabh Kumar. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

In February, Tiger Global Management Llc invested $10 million (Rs.65.6 crore) in popular online video content creator The Viral Fever (TVF), picking up a significant minority stake in the firm. Founded in 2010 by IIT graduate Arunabh Kumar, satirical videos from TVF on contemporary issues and integrated brand themes have gained a sort of cult status.

In an interview, Kumar talks about making movies, creating big budget shows online and his plans for the company. Edited excerpts:

How does it feel to be funded by Tiger Global?

We are happier with the fact that Permanent Roommates Season 2 is the biggest (web) series that we have made in terms of budget. Since we are talking about money and validation, I think when the business grows at that scale, it gives you confidence. So if the first season of Permanent Roommates was X, this season is 40X. The value of X cannot be revealed. But it is now comparable to any big television show that is put out. Brands have shown so much interest and faith in us because when they see four million views (for our shows) they know it has been watched by more people than a show on MTV.

India never had a youth entertainment network for the progressive, aspiring young Indians. So, we wanted to build it online and, to some extent, we have achieved it. We are definitely bigger than all the three youth networks—MTV, Channel V and Bindass—put together.

Which verticals will you invest the money in?

Our community platform, TVF Play—the video streaming platform owned and run by TVF—is where we want to offer more things to our fans. We want to build a larger community. That is where a decent amount of money is required. I mean, today, putting together a simple website at scale involves hundreds of millions of dollars. So, for us, it’s a good beginning.

We also want to make a film. By the end of this year, we are going to start working on movies. We want to make a film like The Avengers that comes out of India in the next three years, which is where the money will go. We are known for making viral videos which we have succeeded 200 times. We’ll try and make something which is at least as good as 3 Idiots.

Are you in conversations with studios?

We are in a good place as the studios want to tie up with us. They know that if TVF fans alone watch the film, it would make money. But more importantly, it is about which film to make. TVF’s first film should carry a lot of weight. So, that’s going to be the big piece for the next 18 months.

Are you exploring content genres other than comedy?

That’s something we’ve always done. We started Recycle Bin, a channel for non-fiction, two and a half years ago. We never said that our core team has comedians. We are all storytellers. We started with drama, non-fiction, we are helping a team do women-centric stuff with Girliyapa (an online Youtube channel run by an all-woman team).

So that is us. But, again, we won’t be doing stuff for people above 34. We can never reach the scale of a hotstar or an Eros which want to reach 50-100 million people. We will be a very close-knit and niche network for 5-10 million people.

Although I say ‘niche’, our research shows that two of our shows—Permanent Roommates and Tech conversations with Dad—are being watched by the whole family. We have been sent pictures where four generations of a family are watching Permanent Roommates because there are four generations in the show. We have 70-year-olds send us fan mails. We never really went into too many cuss words. So TVF has that quality, it’s edgy but not disrespectful. That’s why there has been an expansion in viewership.

Are you commanding higher ad rates now?

For branded content, we charge a lot. It’s comparable to television commercials. We may be TVF and make successful branded content but we have problems. Brands sometimes say they won’t pay so much money. But then, they just go and walk into a deal of Rs.5 crore for 30 seconds of content for a staid television ad. But in our case, a CommonFloor (real estate portal) can never be taken out of the season one of Permanent Roommates and Ola (taxi app) can never go out of the season 2 of Permanent Roommates. That is the value in perpetuity. (Online real estate portal Commonfloor and taxi aggregator Ola had brand integration and content creation deals with TVF for Permanent Roommates)

How do you view the entry of Netflix and soon-to-be launched Amazon video in the country?

I feel it’s a great opportunity for the creator community in India. Netflix and Amazon will perhaps teach people to pay for online shows in India. They will definitely try to do some market education which smaller OTT (over-the-top) players can’t do.

Mukesh Ambani recently said that video is going to be the future and the new voice in India for everyone from telcos to media companies. How do you see the internet video evolving?

It’s the same kind of irrational excitement which e-commerce had two years back and food tech had last year. So, this year is about irrational stupid excitement about video. The honeymoon will not last beyond December 2016 and everyone will realize the challenge and the fact that it’s not easy and they will leave it for people like us to build further.