New Delhi: Last month, American streaming service Amazon Prime Video launched its first regional web series in India, a Telugu dark comedy called Gangstars. After dabbling in Hindi and Telugu markets, video streaming service Viu will enter the Tamil market this July, with six new originals in collaboration with local production houses and talent while ZEE5, the streaming service owned by Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, will be, going forward, releasing one original show every month in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.

With the exception of Netflix that has restricted its India originals to Hindi, the regional market is a space that over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms are looking at closely in India, betting about 30% of their annual budgets on content produced in these local languages, according to video industry experts.

“While a considerable number of viewers in the metros like to watch content in Hindi or English, there is a majority of audiences who enjoy watching regional shows and movies as well," said Tarun Katial, chief executive officer, ZEE5 India.

According to the Ficci-EY media and entertainment industry report 2017, growth in India’s Internet user base will be driven by rural consumers till 2021, who are expected to grow from 38% to 52%. This will have a significant impact on the type and language of content that will need to be developed. Not just within the country, regional content also reaches out to Indian diaspora elsewhere. For example, ALTBalaji’s Tamil show Maya Thirrai witnessed traction across the Middle East, US and UK which house huge sections of Tamil population.

“While Hindi is a market with very wide potential, it is equally cluttered," said Shantanu Gangane, head of marketing, Viu India, that has seen much success with its Telugu comedy Pelli Gola and science fiction series PillA recently. “Having said that, regional content definitely gives you better uptake in terms of engagement, people usually take half the time to lap up regional content (as compared to Hindi or English)."

Manav Sethi, chief marketing officer at ALTBalaji, said a quick way to reach out to regional audiences is to dub Hindi shows into four or five different languages. However, the appeal of an original regional language story with cultural nuances is much higher than that of a dubbed show. ALT is currently working on a Bhojpuri show with popular actor-singer Dinesh Lal Yadav, besides looking at scripts in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam.

“Regional tastes have evolved and audiences are craving for content that is not formulaic, regressive or low-brow," said Ashok Cherian, head of marketing and revenue, Applause Entertainment that is looking to announce both north and south Indian regional shows in the coming months. “Good regional content will be an important play in the OTT space."

To be sure, for some OTT platforms that are owned by broadcasters, it is also a matter of capitalizing on their existing IPs (intellectual properties). For example, for VOOT, the streaming service operated by Viacom18 Media Pvt Ltd, digital programming started with putting out full episodes from their general entertainment channels Colors Marathi, Kannada and Tamil, dubbing them interchangeably and then moving to creating exclusive, unseen content centered around reality shows like Bigg Boss Kannada.

“We’ve witnessed close to 200% increase in content consumption on VOOT on the back of regional content over the last six months," said Akash Banerji, head of marketing, partnerships and licensing, VOOT.

The OTT move, from an organizational point of view, leverages the export of content from one region to another. This includes a lot of original IPs even on television that is remade into other languages, for instance, Ekta Kapoor’s supernatural series Naagin has been remade in Bengali and Kannada.

“We own the IP and if we see that a certain content narrative works with the audiences, why not localize and customize it, bring in some cultural nuance and share it across the spectrum," Banerji pointed out.

“The next thrust for us will be to start creating digital-first content at scale where the VOOT team works closely with the regional network teams, thereby unlocking the value at a regional level across multiple markets", Banerji said.

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