Arunabh Kumar, founder and creative experiment officer (CEO) of The Viral Fever (TVF), is one of the pioneers of original online entertainment in India. TVF’s original Web series, Pitchers and Permanent Roommates, have clocked unprecedented viewership. Both shows appear on IMDb’s List of Top 250 TV Shows. An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Kumar, once known as the “Qtiyapa guy", has spearheaded shows such as Barely Speaking With Arnub and Chai Sutta Chronicles. Edited excerpts from an interview in which Kumar talks about creating Web content for India and merging technology with creativity:

What was the genesis of TVF and what were the early days like?

I grew up in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, and went to school there till class VI. After that I changed 10-14 schools. My father was trying to find the best school for me. In Bihar, education is a strong currency. I studied in a boarding school from classes VIII-X and then cleared JEE (the Joint Entrance Examination) on the second attempt. I joined IIT, Kharagpur in 2001. I moved to Mumbai and started working as a consultant copywriter for advertising agencies; I was also making branded content. In the second half of 2010, I got the idea of registering The Viral Fever (TVF), which was a one-man production house for branded content. I made the first branded Web series (for Colgate Plax) in 2011. Mood Indigo Squads got 20,000 views, which was considered a lot at that time. At that time, everyone wanted a “viral". That’s how I got the idea of The Viral Fever. Today we have around 70 employees and have finally become an organization with HR and legal departments, air conditioners, and support for the team.

It’s been reported that a rejection from youth channels set you off on the entrepreneurial path.

I did pitch some shows. The channels said no. So rejection of TV shows, Canon DSLR cameras becoming cheaper and Google becoming aggressive with YouTube, all happened coincidentally. So I decided to apply my engineering/tech knowledge and figure out YouTube and build an online TV channel for youth.

In February 2012, we released Rowdies, our first original show. We thought that if it crossed 100,000 views we would go party, but it crossed 1.1 million views and went on to become the first original video to go viral. Then I said let’s try one more, and that might be coincidence and let’s try for one more after that and then it might be a pattern. I believed the TV generation had completely alienated us. Our TG (target group) is 14- to 40-year-old niche, progressive Indians. Today, our shows Pitchers and Permanent Roommates would be bigger than any MTV, Channel V or Bindass show. I thank my stars for the rejection from TV.

A still from TVF’s Permanent Roommates
A still from TVF’s Permanent Roommates

Is the Web content market for India at its peak?

I don’t think so. Content is nowhere in this country. In the last 25 years we have, at the most, told three stories. The bigness of Bollywood is also a result of people not looking elsewhere. The Web is just making a start, but there is 20-30 years of work left.

Who do you consider your competition? Do you have a reference point globally?

Competition helps you define who you are. I still consider MTV India as competition. I would like to have their scale of operations and reach. The ambition is to build a progressive youth entertainment network in this country. I have no ambition of reaching 100 million users like Hotstar, Viacom, Eros Now and Netflix and for everyone to see everything on their screen.

I still believe that we want to be a creation, and not a distribution-heavy, company. Personally, I am competing with Disney. In that scheme of things, we are planning to make a movie next year for theatrical release. In terms of monetization (TVFPlay is a free-to-view platform), the only thing Indian audiences are willing to pay even 900 for is a substandard movie. But they won’t watch the best of content for 1 on their screens.

What is TVF’s revenue model?

We work closely with brands and think deeply about brand integration. From the early days, when I would be given 20,000 to make a branded Web film, today a stand-alone piece of content with brand integration can be budgeted at $100,000-200,000 (around 66.5 lakh to 1.3 crore). For the original content on our channels, we do not charge viewers subscription. Some revenue comes in from YouTube. But those are small for such a big-scale set-up. We have a creative gene, so we might consider making a show for Netflix or Amazon. Creators, brands and viewers form the three corners of a triangle, and if you mess around with any of the three corners, you do not have good content. Maintaining a balance of these three is very tough. We have made mistakes. But when brands such as Furlenco (Truth Or Dare With Dad), which saw a spike in traffic with 16 million views in less than seven days—that’s a lot for a start-up, and they see CommonFloor.com (which partnered on Permanent Roommates), Tu Beer Hai, etc. becoming part of pop culture, it allows prices to increase from X to 100X.

Looking ahead, what are TVF’s plans?

With the funding injection we received this year, we plan to make feature films for theatrical release. I had written seven rules when I started, in our first proper office, and rule No.3 was that every three months we should make some content that we are scared to put out. The feature film will be that next big scary thing. While the bigger film guys are making Web series, why not try and take their jobs? I would like to make an Avengers or a Pixar type film in the next four years. We will continue to push the youth entertainment platform and tell stories there. We are also talking to all the big digital platforms, from Netflix to Amazon and Hotstar.

People confuse TVF with a comedy collective.

We are not comedians. This is a company of film-makers. We are good at stories. We cannot sustain ourselves for even 2 minutes on stage. The idea is to make films or share good films. TVFPlay is our community, where we can give our loyalists a universe of TVF experience. That’s why we launched TVF Drama. We made people cry in Permanent Roommates. We are showing a very serious documentary on cricket, Death Of A Gentleman, on our movie vertical, Inbox Office, which released on 29 April. Our fan base does not expect jokes from us, but they expect great stories.

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