“It is an opportunity to build a habit of non-linear entertainment”

Industry veteran Sameer Nair dissects the impact of COVID-19 on the entertainment industry, and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead

Did you see Katrina Kaif washing vessels? She does it no differently, except maybe by filling the sink with soapy water to conserve water. She posted it on Instagram, to stay connected during the lockdown. Malaika Arora shared how she cooks Malabari stew and Akshay Kumar (dressed as a tree?) showed how to spend quality time with your partner. (As an aside, do people actually wear tropical-looking clothes before sagging into a hammock? Maybe celebrities do.) While other businesses are shrivelling up under the heat of this pandemic, entertainment industry seems to be seeing divided fortunes. On the one hand, new content is difficult to generate and monetise (with ad revenues set to plunge) and on the other, people are gobbling down whatever is available at a faster rate. According to a Nielsen and BARC study, average daily viewership for television grew by 32 million from January 11-31 to March 14-20. The time spent per user per week on video-on-demand apps has also seen an increase of 3%. To understand how the industry sees its future panning out, Outlook Business caught up with Applause Entertainment CEO Sameer Nair.

Could you give us a sense of the impact that COVID-19 has had on the entertainment industry, especially considering that summer is one of the best performing seasons?
It is actually a bit of a Hobson’s choice (of taking what is available or nothing) here. All production and post-production work has been stalled. Moreover, for the entertainment industry, the shutdown started a week before the 21-day lockdown. Therefore, no new content is being created right now. Meanwhile, now that everyone is locked inside their homes, they tend to watch television or stream content on other platforms. The streaming services are seeing a larger audience because they still have new material. For the television industry, there is video subscription revenue and advertising revenue. So, consumption has gone up. Usually, we see a huge peak in advertising during April to June with all the cola brands, air conditioners, IPL and more. But because of the lockdown, sales of many products have also stopped. So, the big chunk of ad revenue is going to be subdued this year.

Before COVID-19 struck, how was the industry performing in FY20?
Because India is such a large market, I think we were seeing an all-round growth across entertainment. India has a lot of headroom for growth in TV, theatre as well as streaming. The entertainment industry was doing well and I believe it will continue to do well once we bounce back from the crisis.

How are you utilising this lockdown period?
We are trying to keep things as normal as possible. We started working from home much before the lockdown started. So, my team is more acclimatised to this by now. We have schedules like any other day — which include meetings and e-mails. We had two to three shows in production, which have now been stalled. Hence, we are focusing on writing, developing new ideas, completing all legal and contractual work and essentially preparing to hit the ground running when the lockdown lifts.

Do you have any recommendations for people to keep themselves entertained at home?
I just saw a wonderful show on Netflix called The English Game. It is a beautiful drama about the birth of modern football with a backdrop of the intense class struggle in Britain between the poor and the rich. I have also started watching Stranger. And Amazon Prime Video now has Parasite, so I would recommend that.

Platforms such as YouTube/Amazon Prime Video have reduced their streaming quality to enable smoother usage for users. There are also reports of smaller platforms opening up their libraries for free. What is your take on these steps?
It’s an extremely smart move. For example, if everyone opened up their services without a paywall, then they can introduce their content to a much larger audience and give them a taste of what is available. That would be a silver lining. Reducing the bandwidth, the actual bitrate, is a good thing too because there is a surge in consumption. The last thing you want at a time like this is our internet services to collapse. Be it MX Player, Hotstar, Zee5 or any other streaming player, the executives at these platforms will come up with all sorts of innovative ideas to keep customers entertained and sustain their business through this period.

Could this be an inflection point for digital platforms?
It is not a scenario where Uncle Scrooge would rub his hands with glee because he is expecting to make a lot of money. But it is surely an opportunity to build habit and to introduce consumers to a whole world of non-linear entertainment.

On an average, at any given point in time, how many shows and movies are being produced in the country?
Usually, India produces about 800 movies a year. On a quarterly basis, that would be 200 films. With television and online shows into the mix, across all mediums and languages, we would have about 400-500 live productions going on at any given point in time in the country.

That means a lot of daily wage earners have also been hurt. How do they get compensated at a time like this?
About 50-100 people are involved in any single unit. Of these, 60-70% would be per-day wage earners. In terms of compensation, the industry has stepped forward. The producers guild and the Indian film and television council has put together a relief fund. We are all contributing to that. Plus, all studios have assured production partners that daily wage earners will get paid even though the shooting is cancelled.

What do you think about the steps taken by the government to handle COVID-19?
The fact that the government is taking this seriously is already a big step forward. They have been trying to enforce the lockdown quite strictly. It is genuinely an all-hands-on-deck approach. If we are not careful, we can have a human tragedy of epic proportions. The big thing to look out for is the migrant worker population. We need to look after those displaced and also ensure that we prevent spread of the virus. It is really impressive how the state chief ministers have risen to the occasion. It is not about one grand idea. It is a daily battle.

According to you, what must be done to make the recovery process easier?
Most people who have fixed employment will not feel the heat as much. Every company must step up and look after its ecosystem, whether it is the employees or the community that surrounds their business. That alone will be a big step. Beyond that, the government must ensure that daily wage earners are taken care of. There are an estimated 200 million people in this category. It is a double whammy for them as they cannot stay in the cities (without employment) and when they try to return to their hometown, they increase the risk of taking the virus and infecting regions that have not yet been exposed to the virus. It is popularly said that this coronavirus is a rich man’s disease. It arrived by air, not by train. And now it is going by train to the heartland. We need to stop that.

What is the first thing you want to do after lockdown is lifted?
I don’t have anything that I particularly want to do, but I hope we get through this relatively unscathed. I hope we are able to contain it and that we don’t end up seeing major loss of life and displacement.