Will Ronnie Screwvala’s bold new bet with Arré pay off?
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New Delhi: Edgy videos, serial-like podcasts, investigative documentaries, long-form narratives—with these and more, Arré, a content platform from UDigital Content Pvt. Ltd, one of India’s best-funded media start-ups, will go live from January.
The funding—around Rs.150 crore—isn’t surprising. UDigital is promoted by Ronnie Screwvala, a serial entrepreneur who has surfed almost every wave in the media industry in the country (and has several successful exits under his belt), and B. Saikumar, the former chief executive officer (CEO) of TV18. Ajay Chacko, the former chief operating officer (COO) of CNBC-TV18, is a co-founder.
The promoters say the name itself—a rough English equivalent would be Whoa—is a reflection of the kind of content that will be on the platform.
“If you just look at Arré, it’s different thing to different people. So Arré can end with a question mark, Arré can end with a WTF, Arré can end with a wow, I’m shocked, (am) in awe. And I think if it goes through that filter of something—like Arré how did that happen? That’s the filter we have chosen,” says Screwvala.
Arré’s business model revolves around branded content and, in the case of some content, subscription.
“I see no reason why we can’t fully innovate and disrupt a whole new idiom of branded content in this country in digital, which again knows no form or medium. And I also believe that like in the case of TV, the great hope of subscription came in 10 years after it was supposed to come in and even then I hear it’s a bit slow. But it should be noted that it finally came in,” says Saikumar, managing director and co-founder of UDigital.
Arré is close to finalizing a deal with a consumer appliances firm and a large e-commerce company for branded control and advertising-related tie-ups, he added.
“Beyond advertising, there could a be a telco tie-up where I am part of the pack and the telco charges the customer,” Saikumar said.
Digital advertising revenue in India is expected to grow to Rs.4,661 crore this year, 9.5% of overall advertising revenue, from Rs.3,402 crore last year, according to GroupM, a media-buying agency.
UDigital has a team of 25 in-house working on content, but it also has 60-80 people outside its workforce who have been commissioned to do the same.
“Ours is a fully outsourced model; for example, if it’s video, it’s production houses; if it’s text, it’s contributors; if it’s documentaries, it’s a range of filmmakers. We have writers all the way from creative non-fiction, to poets to fiction writers to news feature writers to journalists,” said Saikumar.
And it has started acquiring content—for instance, it has acquired the rights to Avirook Sen’s book Aarushi, based on an intriguing real-life double murder, and will be using it as the basis for a series of podcasts; it has also involved Sen himself in the project. And it is forging partnerships. One, with The Indian Express, for investigative documentaries based on stories done by the The Indian Express newsroom has already been announced.
There are more such alliances that have been finalized, says Saikumar, although he won’t provide details. “These deals are long term, but the nature of these partnerships could change as we go along,”
“On text, we are going to be an everyday brand; on podcasts, we hope to be everyday, but most of it will be weekly. On videos we are going to be deeply fictional high-end entertainment. We will be launching India’s first digital social experiment-cum-reality show.” The shoot for the reality show starts in two weeks in Delhi at a farm house. The team is working on two dramas, two comedies, one reality show and one crime show.
French interactive agency Area 17 that has created websites for sports broadcaster ESPN and international news channel VICE is working on the technology back end for Arré.
In its second phase, Arré will look at global distribution of content in markets such as West Asia, East Africa and the US.
“Once we hit a certain critical mass within India, we are certainly looking to syndicate it outside India.” said Saikumar.
Arré’s content will be platform-agnostic, with collaborations with YouTube, Google’s video-sharing platform, he added.
And the content will not be mobile-only.
“We will also be on tablets and wherever else you want to see us; I think our technology will be friendly enough to do that across the board,” says Screwvala.
Over the last two years, the number of smartphone users accessing online video content has increased 40%, said Prashant Singh, managing director at Nielsen India.
“In this space, YouTube has further consolidated its leadership position. While sharing of video content via chat apps has grown, we have seen time spent on online video content has gone up 25% in this period. Overall, as the number of smartphone users in India nears 200 million by the end of the year, we see big movements in this space,” he added.