ChuChu TV is the third largest YouTube channel in India with close to 5 million subscribers. Here's what makes it tick
B.M. Krishnan, 45, is singing. Softly. In his heavily accented, sing song voice.
Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moooon.
The little dog laughed,
To see such fun,
And the dish ran away with the spoooon.
He stops. “What do you think it means?" he asks.
“It probably means nothing," he answers himself.
“There is no connect. Nothing. But my job is to make it more interesting. So after this paragraph, I brought in a mouse, bug, cheese and a boy. You already have the cat. So I created a little rhyme."
And he begins singing again, 45-year old Krishnan, a vermillion and sandalwood caste mark on his forehead, his right hand resting on the table, his fingers tapping…
Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the griddle,
The bug jumped on the cheese.
The little boy laughed,
To see such fun,
And the rat ran away with the cheese.
Krishnan is satisfied with his recital, a little smile playing on his lips.
That’s when I pop the question I have been wanting to ask ever since we met, some 20 minutes back. Mr. Krishnan, what exactly do you do? I can’t believe that someone actually writes nursery rhymes for a living. No. I really can’t.
Krishnan is mildly amused. “Ha…ha…ha". “You know, I’m a chartered accountant (CA). But even as a child, I always wanted to be a filmmaker. My brother was a CA. He said that place is not for us. So I studied B.Com, then ICWA (The Institute of Cost Accountants of India) and then CA. When Vinoth (Vinoth Chandar, founder of ChuChu TV) started this (channel)—and we have been friends since we were kids; I have seen him grow up in front of me—I started giving him suggestions. So Vinoth started pushing (me). Why don’t you do this? He wouldn’t let me be. So I did. Now, all I do is think and do what is nice for kids. How to make children happy. I am not doing anything... not working."
Sure. I can see that. What do you do the whole day?
“I read story books. I get to read what kindergarten teachers teach kids. I watch kids’ videos. Serials. And I write nursery rhymes (laughs)."
And, if I may ask, what does your wife have to say about this?
“Ha…ha…ha…she likes it. She doesn’t say anything. She says I used to sing for my kids too. It is the same. So, she is not worried but she is happy."
You don’t have to be a genius to figure out Krishnan loves what he does. He has every reason to. This 2 minute 20 second animated nursery rhyme, which he just recited, of a cat and mouse, dog and boy, cow and bug, spoon and dish, all goofing around to the nonsensical words of an improvised 19th century nursery rhyme, first went live on YouTube in August 2014. Since then, it has been watched 13.75 million times.
Step outside Krishnan’s cabin and take a stroll around ChuChu TV’s spanking new office in Chennai. There are glass cabins for the five childhood friends who run it; black and violet interiors; large glass windows; long desks with more than 50 people working on animated characters, a horse head here, a tree there, a cat, some sort of dance music playing in some corner. It’s difficult not to notice a sense of seriousness, a sort of mission—to create an animated nursery rhyme. One that eventually finds its way on YouTube. For ChuChu TV’s core audience, toddlers. Two- to three-year-old kids, who giggle, bawl or smile or whatever it is they do, to tell the world how they feel.
And you know, what’s the best part? Right now, this audience is kicking ass.
ChuChu TV is the third largest YouTube channel in India with close to 5 million subscribers. Its online audience is larger than that of All India Bakchod (AIB) or Viral Fever Videos or Comedy Nights or Colors TV and Star Plus. The only two channels larger than ChuChu TV are T-Series, with 11 million subscribers, and SET India with 6 million. Hold on. The story gets better. T-Series has uploaded around 9,500 videos on YouTube. SET India, almost 13,500. How about ChuChu TV? 115 videos. One hundred and fifteen videos only. And that’s still not the kicker.
ChuChu TV’s 115 videos have got, all put together, 5.19 billion views. That’s more than half of T-Series’s 9.31 billion views, with around 82 times fewer videos. SET India is at a paltry 2.7 billion views. Which makes ChuChu TV the second most viewed YouTube channel in India. Plus, ChuChu TV is famous all over the world—the US, the UK, Ireland, Middle East and South-East Asia, and several other countries and regions. On average, the channel adds 7,000+ subscribers daily. Its monthly estimated earnings are between $61,200-979,200.
Let this sink in.
Now, it is quite likely that you may never have heard of ChuChu TV. Well, then you must.
To understand what makes ChuChu TV click, one has to see a ChuChu TV fan (read: parent) video. Here’s one. Camera starts rolling. There’s the requisite toddler, seated in a plastic chair, with a green cup in her hand, in a bathtub with a green frog sticker on the side, half-filled with soapy water in which a red saucer is floating. Techie music (a characteristic of ChuChuTV’s videos) starts playing. This one is Johny Johny.
The toddler goes crazy, jumping up and down, wringing the green cup around, and giggling.
As the rhyme progresses, the toddler’s legs go up and down, splashing the water around. It is the same thing. Over and over again. Video after video. Once the video starts playing, the toddlers start smiling and giggling. Some copy the moves, others do a little dance.
What makes toddlers do this?
“Colours, music and beats definitely work," says Aman Dayal, content partnerships manager at YouTube’s kids and learning vertical for South and South-East Asia. YouTube is owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google.
“Early-stage learning happens in a musical format. Like how we all learnt ABC or numbers; it was in a musical way. Then characters and lyrics also play a part."
Is that why ChuChu TV works? That can’t be it, because animated or not, nursery rhyme videos are as old as YouTube itself. Dayal himself was sceptical when he first discovered ChuChu TV in late 2013. It was the music and the lyrics that first caught his attention. The music was way too techie, not like a lullaby. And the lyrics had a positive spin to them.
“The kids loved it," he said. “I’ve seen that with my own children. Nursery rhymes have an inherent negativity in them. ChuChu TV’s extension of the lyrics to give it a positive spin works. It got a lot of good feedback."
Still, the numbers don’t make sense. Five billion views. In less than two years. Where’s that coming from? The answer is rather simple: Pre-school or kids content is among the top content category on YouTube and is also the fastest growing category in emerging markets. Globally, children’s channels are drawing billions of views on YouTube. Little Baby Bum is the top kids channel with over six million subscribers and over eight billion views. Not surprisingly, YouTube formed a team, early last year, just to build the kids and education category.
Modern parenting, especially in nuclear families, is sometimes about gadgets replacing grandparents. Mobiles and tablets, Dayal says, “are more accessible and that’s kind of driving that shift. We lead busy lives and parents are handing over the mobiles to kids. That’s not all. See, most of India is a single-screen household. Parents come back and occupy that screen. That’s why kids get the devices. And with kids, it is repeat consumption. And kids are very particular about what they want to watch. They don’t want to watch something new every day. If they like something, they will watch it again and again. That’s why the views (of ChuChu TV) are so high".
Strange as this may sound, ChuChu TV didn’t start with any such research or analysis. There was no PowerPoint. No Excel. No studio. No plan. Literally nothing. How ChuChu TV came to be can only be called a story of serendipity. A story of a father who wanted to see his daughter smile and giggle. It is the story of Chandar and his daughter, ChuChu. Hence the name ChuChu TV.
Chandar, 38, is about 5’8, thin and dark. He has a scrappy beard, short curly hair and wears rimless, rectangular spectacles. He wears a black ChuChu TV tee, faded grey jeans and leather sandals. Chandar has a comfortable way about him; he doesn’t exchange business cards, likes to shake his legs while chatting, and speaks at a frenetic pace. Minutes into the conversation, you realize that the story of ChuChu TV is as much about nursery rhymes as it is about six childhood friends who prefer being together more than anything else.
The partners in Buddies Infotech are Chandar, B. Suresh, K. Ajith Togo, T.S. Subbiramanian, Krishnan and Parthasarathy Janakiraman Thumla, who is now in the US and not a part of ChuChu TV.
How else does one explain the name of the company, Buddies Infotech?
“So, we are childhood friends," says Chandar. “There’s Ajith, Partha, Subi, Suresh, Krishnan and me. They are much older to me, so they have actually seen me grow up. In 2000, we started our first business as a CD-writing and computer printing centre. We also used to do some hardware repair stuff. All the friends put in money and since we were all friends, we called it Buddies Infotech. There’s an Internet browsing centre we used to visit and play games. The owner helped us with a 100 sq. feet space in Pattinapakkam, Mylapore. That’s where we started."
As the years went by and ambitions grew, Buddies started dabbling in other businesses. Some ordinary, others quite fantastical. Here’s everything that Buddies took a shot at. Software development and delivering small IT projects for clients in India and the US. Selling ringtones of Tamil songs. Find your phone application for Blackberry. Making games like Freaky Flipsters, Draco The Dragon: Fire and Total Recall, a memory game. Making websites. Making apps. Or the one time when Vinoth thought that all the Vinoth dudes in the world deserved their own .vinoth domain name.
“Some of them were really popular and happened just by chance," says Chandar. “So the Tamil ringtone thing really took off. But like many of our ideas, we would scale it to a certain point and it would drop off from there."
That is, till ChuChu TV happened. The way Chandar tells the story, 2013 was proving to be another mundane year at Buddies Infotech. Life at home was more exciting for him, seeing his two-year-old daughter grow up. “So my daughter’s name is Harshita. Her nickname is ChuChu," says Chandar. “She was and still is really bubbly and I used to make her watch videos on YouTube. One day I said, I want to make her video, just to make her happy. She was very chubby so I made a video on chubby cheeks. I asked a few people from the game development team to help me. She really liked it."
“I uploaded that video on YouTube with a logo and called it ChuChu TV. That changed my life. Within a few weeks, it got some 3 lakh views. I was shocked. I went to my partners and told them, ‘We have got something here’. We made the second video, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Once we uploaded it, within a month, with just two videos we reached 5,000 subscribers. That’s when I left everything else and started doing this."
The rest of the story is pretty simple. It wasn’t long before the guys at Google came calling. They had been seeing the videos and the numbers and were wondering what’s going on. Dayal remembers the first time he reached out to Chandar. “I called him and Vinoth told me that he did it for his own daughter," he says. “We encouraged him to look at it seriously but he looked preoccupied. Sometime later, I called him to Hyderabad and by then, he already had 30,000 subscribers. I just showed him the potential in the kids’ category and he just latched on to it. There was no looking back after that."
It is my second day at ChuChu TV’s office. Chandar has been busy. Pacing up and down. The team has been working on a video for the past several weeks. Johny Johny Yes Papa Part III. Chandar has the final say on every video before it gets uploaded, so it is back on his desk for review. He plays it once. Staring into his computer. Then he plays it again. He isn’t very pleased. There is something off with a font somewhere. The ‘ha ha ha’ is out of sync. He suggests it should be louder.
Okay. What next? There’s another educational video, where ChuChu and her friends are identifying vehicles used by kids—like an airplane or a bicycle. He starts instructing his head of creative:
“It is a bicycle. Give a five-second gap before the claps. It is a ferry, clap, clap, clap." Chandar also wants more emphasis on the wow. “Like this, waaaooooow, see, waaaaaoooow, not wow." The head of creative nods and leaves the room.
We’ve been chatting about the videos and how they are made. “A lot of what we do is from the kids in the family," says Chandar. “So the opening voice in all the videos is Harshita’s. The closing voice, asking people to subscribe and bye-bye is from my niece. My uncle and I do the music. So I have a background in music. My late father, Chandrabose, was a popular Tamil music composer and singer. I learnt music from him. And then Krishnan takes care of the lyrics. We often brainstorm together. So I’ll tell him, let’s do a song on a dog. So he will come up with the rhyme and then I do the music. We compose music only for the lyrics and not the other way around."
While it may sound simple, animation is serious business. Because if you are not good, quite a few things can go wrong. Like a dog with one ear, or worse, one eye. Or a child with missing fingers. And all of this actually happens. “So, if you look at our early videos, you will see some of that," says Chandar. “But as we grew and hired more people, we said that our animation has to be excellent. It is not excellent right now but we want to make sure that we do not make any mistakes."
Do you think the toddlers would care?
“No. But we don’t want to put out a shoddy video. Animation plays a big role because that’s what they see on screen. You can’t compromise on that."
There have been other learnings. Significant ones. That the team didn’t even see coming. For instance, racism.
So the channel started with just one character, ChuChu. After a few videos, another character was introduced—ChaCha, ChuChu’s friend. It was sometime then that viewers started sharing their feedback that the characters were all white. Could they do something about that? Why just white kids?
“That’s when we introduced two other characters, Chika and Chiku, who are dark-skinned children. It is a good thing we learnt that children need to understand unity."
A similar concern cropped up around lyrics. For instance, ChuChu TV’s first video, uploaded in February 2013, on the rhyme, Chubby Cheeks. Here are the lyrics:
Chubby cheeks, dimple chin
Rosy lips, teeth within
Curly hair, very fair
Eyes are blue, lovely too
Teacher’s pet, is that you?
Yes! Yes! Yes!
When ChuChu TV became popular, and that’s after six or seven videos, feedback started coming in—why so much stress on fairness, blue eyes and rosy lips? Could something be done about that? The team at ChuChu TV realized that yes, perhaps there’s a point here. So, a new version of the Chubby Cheeks rhyme was created, with the following lyrics:
Chubby cheeks, dimple chin
Smiling lips, teeth within
Curly hair, flows in air
Eyes are cute, and lovely too
Teacher’s pet, is that you?
Yes! Yes! Yes!
Chandar believes it is this understanding of his viewers that is the reason for ChuChu TV’s popularity.
“It is not like there weren’t any nursery rhyme channels before we started," he says. “In 2013, we were actually late. But I had this thing that we can make it better. There is scope for improvement and so we pushed ourselves and I think we have just been very lucky. It was a challenge and it just worked out. We are trying to learn and improvise with every video. And we have just started on this journey…"
…The edited Johny Johny, Yes Papa is here.
“Do you want to take a look at it?" asks Chandar.
The video starts playing. The music is playful; it starts softly before turning into a full rhythm with beats. I can see the white and dark-skinned kids. And the prank, a sort of dollar bill with a thread attached to it, which Johny uses to lure his father. Of course, the father falls for it. Understanding that it was a prank, the father then chases Johnny around the living room and then into the garden...