Updated: July 1, 2020 9:24:10 am
Currently, discussions are on about a few web series that have come into focus, not so much for excellence but for their unbridled content. It would be interesting to explore this era of entertainment and understand the building blocks of this emerging industry, which is slated to snowball. BCG estimates India’s OTT (applications and services accessible over the internet) market to be in the range of about $5 billion by 2023. Moreover, whether as marketers, brand custodians or informed citizens, we need to decode and understand the sentiment unleashed more intricately.
Comparisons between cinema and OTT are apparent. While cinema is a more mass, public consumption product, web series and OTT platforms are ostensibly more individualistic and watched over personal screens. The content codes, therefore, are considered different.
However, the pandemic has changed perspectives and consumption habits. The lacuna that cinema viewing and other outdoor leisure activities have left has resulted in an increased intake of content on OTT platforms. Since most people across age groups are confined to their homes, there is also an increase in collective viewing. This new reality, in some ways, has led to a greater scrutinisation of content by the viewers.
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I have always believed in the power of informed choice, especially with regard to children. Transparent classification of content is imperative. Many will point to the 13+, 16+ or other age ratings of online series. We need to understand more clearly how this classification is done. Are these categorisations done solely by the content creators who seek to gain commercially from them? Or by independent minds who take on board concerns of parents, teachers, experts in child psychology and those well-versed with socio-cultural nuances? What are the standardised norms, due diligence followed by the content creators specific to the Indian context? There needs to be more transparency and a fair sense of informed choice.
Reports in the media cite the instance of a Digital Content Complaint Council (DCCC), which has been joined by a handful of players, but most of the OTT players are said to have opposed the move and refused to join the council.
Some will misconstrue and say that I am hinting at some sort of policing. Please do not be misled or trivialise what I am honestly putting up for a rational and civil discussion. One is talking about responsibility and regard for the audience and its milieu. After all, shouldn’t cognisance be taken of the share of voice of the people, whose wallets’ share is desired?
Let’s peer through another lens: Companies often term their content as entertainment products. Through my professional life, I have observed branding and products carefully. Every industry values its consumer and marketing books are replete with references to treating the consumer as the king. After all, a sound product reflects an inherent concern for the consumer. The cultural fabric of the market is crucial to responsible companies around the world. There are fabulous and robust codes of conduct in reputed organisations as well as a fair degree of mindfulness and restraint.
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Yes, you want to entice your consumer or viewer; sure, there is hyperbole in the communication. But nowhere is consumer sentiment devalued. And in case, if that does happen, there are checks, balances and redressal forums.
Given that OTT, web content is at its initial stage, it will hopefully mature in its approach to the consumer. The nascent industry needs to be ready to evolve and heed contrarian points of view. In many countries, there are robust frameworks in place. However, trying to import business practices and force-fitting them will create only turmoil if the indigenous, nuanced point of view is disparaged.
My experience in brand building and designing communication for various international and national brands has taught me that though one can have a global outlook, cognisance needs to be taken of the inherent cultural sensibilities in varied markets. They need to be embraced, not flouted. After all, culture gives us a context for life. A mundane object finds meaning and significance because we attribute a certain narrative to it. Societies cherish their narratives deeply. Understanding the cultural underpinning of the overt is vital, for life’s beauty lies in intricacy, in nuance. Significant brands keep this context in mind and are not driven by a short-sighted, opportunistic mindset.
I understand artistic products are more complex than many others. Creative thinking and artistic prowess need to be finely balanced with market needs and consumer sensibilities. Self-expression and experimentation are intertwined with business realities. I do not doubt that many seek this balance, but deep down, it also boils down to intent. Fundamentally, I believe a true artist has immense respect for the audience, knowing that their audience makes them. But when this gets compromised, the very intent gets corrupted, it results in a distorted reality.
The highest price we pay for this distortion is the loss of trust between the creator and the audience. There could be disillusionment, and the audience can become wary of content creators.
This loss of trust can destroy the very fundamentals of the creative world, especially the commercially creative world. For, there is a difference between pure art and an artistic “product”. When art is packaged and sold as a commercial product, it acquires another hue. As far as entertainment products are concerned, in an industry with a balance sheet, art is more commercial. It’s different when we speak of fine artists. In their case, self-expression is the dominant emotion. An intense inner compulsion exists, and creation takes place regardless of consequences. Market forces matter little, for a restless soul is in the quest to find meaning, not money. And it’s important for humanity that this unadulterated introspection and expression takes place unhindered.
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One cannot, and is not, undermining the calibre of popular genre products. In commercial art, there are instances of staggering self-expression and many of them are deliciously poised between art and commerce. But there is undoubtedly a difference when you tailor-make an entertainment product after analysing and pressing convenient buttons aimed to please or cater to the lowest common denominator. One invoking pure artistic license while promoting a commercial art product will be seen through eventually.
Let’s not forget that a piece of creative work is almost like a journey, where the audience has practically surrendered and submitted to the will of the artist and content creator. Literally a frame of mind of, take me where you want, I want to see what you see and experience what you experienced, sense every bit of joy, pain, despair, jubilation, melancholy that you did. I am undoubting, and I hope that you won’t abandon me midway. You may want to shake me, but not with the intent to destroy. To make me finer and evolve. This sentiment is a reflection of the relationship that makes a piece of art connect and resonate.
Currently, introspection is required whether this very fundamental relationship between the creator and the audience is being compromised.
Let me reiterate, no matter how frantically we want our entertainment products to succeed, certain things must be non-negotiable. Many of us talk about women’s empowerment and give lofty lectures. However, when it comes to the portrayal of women in cinema and entertainment products, we turn a blind eye. There has to be a correction — dare one say, over-correction — in this regard. Also, we cannot, in the name of art, and for commercial gains, compromise the vulnerable section of our society like children. As makers, let’s not take clever shelter under “context” or other such nomenclature; or conveniently blame it on the audience’s muddied understanding. This should be the last justification for creators, especially when concerns loom about a trust deficit between them and the audience.
Whilst we collectively explore the next phase, for starters, I believe we need to stop defending missteps. And with an open mind, course correct and discuss the emerging reality, genuinely and honestly.
Then, the road ahead will be brighter and smoother.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 1, 2020 under the title “Regard for audience, its culture”. Joshi is a writer, poet and communication professional. Views expressed are personal
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