Indian streamer Alt Balaji has notched more than 20 million paid subscribers as of the end of the first quarter of 2019, building a customer base by keeping prices low and courting viewers outside the big cities.
While the top five metropolitan areas account for 55% of India’s OTT users, Tier 1 cities account for another 36%, according to a study released in June by Counterpoint Research. Alt Balaji, a division of Balaji Telefilms, has made inroads in this market, and its subscribers are likely to hit 25 million when its next quarterly results are announced.
“We are in mass Hindi-speaking India,” Nachiket Pantvaidya, Group COO of Balaji Telefilms and CEO of Alt Balaji, told Variety. “We want people in Surat, Ranchi, Raipur to watch us. We want people in rural India to watch us.”
Launched in 2017, Alt has consistently managed to stay within the top percentile in a crowded market of more than 30 OTT players, including Disney’s Hotstar, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Eros Now, Zee5, Viacom 18’s Voot, Sony’s Liv and the Times Group’s MX Player.
Part of Alt’s popularity stems from pricing, in a market that is extremely sensitive to it. A 12-month Alt package costs INR 300 ($4.25), compared to Hotstar and Amazon’s $14. Netflix’s cheapest plan is $2.88 per month. “If you have to address mass India, you have to be as near free as possible,” Pantvaidya said.
Alt currently has 41 originals on tap, with 60 more Hindi-language shows in the works being co-created in a recently announced partnership with Zee5, whose 76 million monthly active users will get access to Alt content. Alt’s aim is to reach a critical mass of 100 shows.
Men account for 79% of all Indian OTT users, according to Counterpoint Research, in part because their tastes beyond sports and news are not catered to as much on regular television, especially in serialized entertainment. The streamers, including Alt, are trying to fill that gap. (Alt’s parent company, Balaji Telefilms, has had a stranglehold on the female-skewing Hindi-language soap opera market for 25 years, with top soaps on general entertainment channels Colors, Star Plus and Zee.)
Inevitably, some of the content for the male market tends to be racy, like Alt’s wildly popular “Gandii Baat,” now in its third season. But Pantvaidya said that raciness was not the show’s point. “If you take ‘Gandii Baat,’ for example, it is stories about rural India,” he said. “Five people sitting in the city will not find it to their taste because it doesn’t appeal to them, but it reflects the real lives of a lot of people. It explores sexuality in a world that typical city folks don’t understand.”
Non-racy shows like “Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain” and the gay-themed “Romil & Jugal” are also popular streams on Alt.
Alt’s annual production budget ranges between $14 million to $21 million. The group should be in the black this year, and Alt’s aim of breaking even within 36 to 48 months of launch is on track. For further growth, billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries, which owns a 24.9% stake in Balaji Telefilms, could prove a powerful ally.
“We are finding our feet, collecting the data, surviving the initial tough years in a market which is filled with Goliaths who are probably outspending us” by 20 to 1, Pantvaidya said.
A recent PwC report projects the Indian OTT market to grow 22.6% annually, more than double the global rate.