Last week, Sacred Games, an Indian-produced Netflix web series, was nominated for an International Emmy — the annual gala celebrating the best in international television. The nomination, in the best drama category, mirrors a boom in Indian web series production. From Sacred Games to Mirzapur produced by Netflix’s rival, Amazon Prime, local web series have emerged as the weapons of choice in an important battleground of over-the-top (OTT) digital platforms vying for the attention of India’s growing internet user base.

Beyond critical acclaim, which are the web series which have clicked with Indian audiences over the past couple of years? Answering this is tricky because streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Hotstar, are notoriously protective of viewing figures. The internet, though, can provide alternative measures. One such measure comes from Google Trends. In the past two years, Netflix’s Sacred Games has been the most searched Indian series on the global search engine among a list of 39 popular Indian web series released in the last two years compiled by Mint using data from IMDb, an online portal dedicated to movies and TV shows.

Searches for Sacred Games peaked in August 2019 after the launch of its second season, which also pushed it past Mirzapur (second season scheduled for 2020). None of the other Indian web series released in the same period, including Delhi Crime or Breathe come close to matching the popularity of these two shows. But all these shows’ are eclipsed by an international series - Game of Thrones (final season released in April 2019) - which generated the greatest search interest in India over the past two years.

Another measure of popularity comes from IMDb itself. As the world’s leading movie and TV portal, IMDb receives more than 250 million unique visitors every month which allows it to rank each web series based on visitor engagement with web series pages on its site. Even on this measure, among the web series released over the last two years, Sacred Games and Mirzapur are the most popular shows followed by Gandii Baat, an erotic-themed production from ALTBalaji.

What about their quality? On IMDb, users also rate movies, TV shows, and web series on a scale of 1 to 10 and these ratings can be considered as rough proxies for quality. Sacred Games has had 60,979 votes with an average rating of 8.8 (dragged down by a relatively poorer second season) while Mirzapur scored 8.5. However, both these shows, despite their popularity, lag behind shorter web series in ratings.

For instance, College Romance and Flames, two short five-episode web series produced by The Timeliners both score 9.3. While IMDb ratings may be inflated by enthusiastic fans, the success of these web series from local streaming platforms such as the Timeliners (which is a sister company of a larger platform—The Viral Fever) highlight the intense competition in the space. According to Google data, when it comes to searches for streaming platforms themselves, Netflix and Amazon Prime lag behind their home-grown counterparts.

Across India, after YouTube, Hotstar is the platform searched for the most, followed by two other home-grown streaming platforms (Voot and SonyLiv). Other reports, such as the State of Mobile 2019 report by App Annie, an analytics company, reveal a similar ordering.

Hotstar’s popularity is largely driven by its relatively low cost ( 299 per month or 999 per year) and its cricket coverage, with spikes in Hotstar search interest corresponding with major cricket events like the World Cup and IPL. In contrast, Netflix subscriptions, which until its newly launched mobile plan, were more expensive ( 500 per month for a standard plan).

And the market is only getting more crowded. Apple is planning to launch its streaming service in November while two weeks ago, Zomato, a food aggregator, announced plans to enter the web streaming business.

These firms are all chasing an increasingly lucrative video market in a country with rising internet penetration. According to App Annie’s report, mobile video streaming in India has increased by nearly 200% over the last two years - the highest of the ten countries tracked in the report.

As the fight for the video market intensifies, it is worth watching how imaginative the web platforms get in wooing Indian audiences, and how many Emmys they lap up in the process. As for Sacred Games, we will know only in November whether or not it wins the prized trophy.

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