“If you don’t like how the table is set,” says Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician at the heart of Netflix’s House Of Cards series, “turn over the table.” It’s a gnomic bit of wisdom fated for a thousand management presentations. The streaming video company makes for a fine example, fittingly enough. Before Netflix launched the show in 2013, video-on-demand focused on licensing and streaming movies and television shows. House Of Cards was its first venture in original content. It turned out to be a critical darling and a hit. Thus started the latest phase in what has often been called the second golden age of television in the US. Now, with Netflix and Amazon Prime looking to start a content war in India, can they have a similar effect here?
The starting point of the revolution in television programming in the US is probably 1999, when The Sopranos premiered on cable channel HBO. TV had never quite seen its like before—a show centred on a mobster, juxtaposing the banality of his family life against the brutality of his professional life. It was unflinching in its portrayal and developed a depth and complexity in its character studies that rose on occasion to literary heights. HBO’s next bet was even riskier. The Wire, premiering in 2002 and written by a former police reporter, took the city of Baltimore, Maryland, as its canvas and examined everything from urban institutional decay and the functioning of city government to the feedback loop between inner city poverty and urban crime networks.
These shows could not have been made in prior decades. In television, as in cinema, distribution determines content. As long as US television was dominated by free broadcast channels with their dependence on advertising revenue, it had to cater to the broad middle. This kept the programming largely safe and uncontroversial; no advertiser would bet money on a show that took excessive risks or targeted a niche audience.
Paid cable television played by different rules. It depended on subscription fees, not advertising, leading to greater latitude in programming. Once it achieved critical mass—it reached its subscription peak around the turn of the millennium—this meant shows like The Sopranos and The Wire. The decade and a half since have seen a glut of high-quality risk-taking television programming—from Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Game Of Thrones—that has replaced Hollywood as the definer of the cultural moment. In the process, it has gained considerable cachet. The Wire is taught at Harvard and top-tier Hollywood talent like Martin Scorsese and Susan Sarandon, among a host of others, are now dabbling enthusiastically in the television world.
Changing distribution models have had a similar effect on Indian cinema. After liberalization, the abolition of the permit raj for ticket prices, allowing up to 100% foreign direct investment, and the rapid growth of multiplexes have allowed studios and film-makers to diversify while keeping financial risk at an acceptable level. Films that would have been deemed too urban, too regional or too controversial when distribution networks centred on 500-seat movie theatres and broad releases have now become viable. This has expanded Indian cinema’s palette; a subaltern Masaan, a feminist Pink and a regional language Sairat are now acceptable mainstream propositions. It has given rise to a generation of film-makers who are blurring the distinctions between art-house and commercial. And it has enabled quality independent cinema; Anaarkali of Aarah is a fine example.
But Indian television hasn’t been able to truly exploit the post-liberalization media and consumer environment. The occasional show may have broken the mould, but the content ecosystem is dominated by the middle-of-the-road programming that marked the broadcast era in US television. Part of this is to do with revenue streams. In the US, average revenue per user is much higher for cable than for Internet services; in India, the reverse holds true. Consequently, broad appeal is a must.
The recent entry of Netflix and Amazon Prime in the Indian market and their lack of dependence on advertising revenue—and thus greater risk-taking ability—mean that change could be on the way. The American video on demand giants are looking to acquire original content aggressively. For instance, Netflix has announced an original series based on Vikram Chandra’s novel Sacred Games, while Amazon has 17 original shows lined up. This is with good reason. In the 2009-15 period, scripted TV shows aired on broadcast television, cable and via streaming services in the US grew by a mammoth 94%. The US market is reaching peak television—and that means cutthroat competition, particularly with cord-cutting streaming services increasingly eating into conventional revenue streams.
Thus the hunt for new markets. There are limitations in India, of course; broadband Internet penetration for one. But the low base also means a great deal of scope for future growth—and a concurrent first mover advantage. There will inevitably be missteps in a market as varied culturally, linguistically and economically as India’s. Netflix and Amazon, however, have deep pockets and high stakes to play for. And if they can manage a high profile success or three, that will create pressure on Indian cable channels to follow suit.
India’s first golden age of television reached its apogee in the late 1980s with Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan—the show that brought the country to a halt every Sunday morning. Three decades on, there is potential for its own second golden age.
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