Culture Machine: Programming Video Content Is Both A Science And An Art
The social media revolution of the past five years has no doubt been a game-changer for content as a whole. There are few organisations that can claim credit for being one of the pioneers in actually creating this exciting new market of engaging video content. Culture Machine, started by Venkat Prasad and Sameer Pitalwalla, is definitely one of them.
We catch up with the dynamic duo for some insightful conversation on Indian audiences, finding the right investors and more:
Explain to us what you mean by ‘internet generation’.
Sameer: We mean an audience group which has grown up with early access to the internet and of whose lives it is an integral part today.
How and when was the idea of Culture Machine conceptualized?
Sameer: Venkat and I were introduced by a common friend, and we decided that there was an opportunity which the rise of platforms like YouTube offered — media platforms or OTT platforms like Facebook and Twitter etc. as well. We decided that there was an opportunity to create programming for South Asian audiences globally, and marry that with technology — hence the name ‘Culture Machine’.
Tell us a little bit about the kind of work you do, and the brand and creative culture that you follow. What is the impact you have achieved/hope to achieve?
Sameer: I think the vision was to create great programming for internet audiences, and use technology to understand what programming we should be creating, and how to create it at scale. The creative culture is a combination of being able to use what medium inherently offers you — the freedom to explore. The freedom to explore different formats, sub-genres as well as to reach out to different communities. The idea was to build programming to define the generation that is growing up with the internet and to create content that they could relate to.
Venkat: Also, Sameer used to work at Disney, right, so he’s inspired by that universe and fandom.
Sameer: Yeah, absolutely. The way they used universes to create programming and to create content inside of, and build really strong franchises, whether it’s Marvel or the Disney characters. They all emanate from a very clear sense of programming language, and the universe in which they are generated — they use that as a stepping stone to create wonders.
Venkat: When it comes to office spaces, I feel like it is also inspired by Google. Having worked there for so long, one of the big things I observed was that it was important to give employees enough space to ideate, to create. It should be like a second home, and that’s what our endeavour is to do here at Culture Machine as well.
Where would you say most of your inspiration and ideas for content come from?
Sameer: When it comes to the brands, we make decisions by looking at the market and the demand around it. We also use technology to gain an idea of which content is going to work for which communities; it’s a marriage of market need and what the technology says, so often, there’s a demand for a certain genre of content. We then need to figure out how sustainable it is (based on the economy of local demand), and use filters to gauge what audiences are going to watch. We look at the kind of storytelling that would work best, and how to best put forward the content we want to push.
How would your video content score over text-based social media channels?
Sameer: I think it has a lot to do with the fact that video is able to communicate in a market where reading and writing is limited to a just a certain amount of people. India is not just South Bombay and Bandra, after all. It’s a complex world, and there are a lot of subcultures. Visual programming is a combination of various art forms, whether it’s audio, video as well as scripting — it all comes together to create a wholesome product. It’s also a democratized form, and while I don’t think that this generation is reading any less — they are reading copious amounts of content, both online and offline — I feel like other forms are informing this sort of content.
This generation has grown up with the short-form content, aided no doubt by the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
In less than 3 lines, explain your understanding of what makes for viral content.
Venkat: To be honest, viral content itself is a misnomer. It is the right content for the right audience; once you’re able to create that and the audience becomes a community that shares that content with like-minded people who are able to appreciate it.
Sameer: Something that affects people so deeply, that they share it.
What are your thoughts on the social media revolution of the past decade, and how do you feel you have contributed to it?
Sameer: We’ve pretty much run most of it on YouTube. We’ve also built and incubated a lot of brands, especially comedy brands. We’ve helped them out in terms of programming, promotion, marketing, funding, the whole branding process. We have brands like Being Indian, Put Chutney, Old Delhi Films, Epified, Enna Da Rascalas, to name just a few brands that we’ve built from ground-up.
Besides that, we have 350 creators who work with us, and we want to make sure they can continue to make a living out of this, plus we work with several media companies as well. I’d say we are one of the few people in the industry who have not just contributed to it in terms of the economy, but actually built it brick by brick.
In your opinion, what is the future of video content in mobile-first marketplaces?
Venkat: That’s the new display.
Sameer: It’s going to be super immersive. We’ve already seen the launch of YouTube and Facebook’s 360 video players, and brewing content for platforms like these is going to be very different from anything we have seen before. We are looking at storytelling with not one, but multiple perspectives, all within the same file unit. I think that’s incredible, and will do more for the art of storytelling than say, theatre or cinema has done in the past 150 years. It’s going to open up a whole generation of storytellers and encourage them to explore different formats thanks to the inherent machinery on which it is built, which wasn’t possible before. The most innovative technology
Venkat: The mobile is your personalised TV, and it will soon be able to provide contextual vocation-based content. In the future, you can have your channels customised to your preferences, to your personal taste. And there’ll be millions of people doing this, with mobiles being the first outlet, with television or say iPads coming next. I’d say this is a possibility that is much closer than we think.
Sameer: I agree. I think that mobiles will definitely become more important than television in the next 3-5 years. A lot of millennials still do look at television as their primary source of programming, but with the right economy, quality of content (which is subjective) and sustainable programming based on audience-based feedback, the platform should be changing soon.
Culture Machine is really exploding right now, with three offices, located in Bombay, Singapore and California, and 350 channels in its network across categories. Tell us a little bit about the growth process, the challenges and the learning curve.
Sameer: The vision of Culture Machine is to know what content to create and actually create it, to create great entertainment for South Asians. The challenge which one always faces is the problem of doing everything — we can create content in any genre, for any medium, for any story. There are a thousand channels, and a thousand stories, but the reality is that some channels are more resonant than others. You need to find a way to back programming which is sustainable, and back brands which will have a survival rate. That is a combination of science and art. Science is a lot more precise, the art needs a little more work. While I’d say we’ve been better at it than most, we still have a long way to go to make it into a mature industry where a lot of the unknowns are getting known. With anyone who’s building a business in a new economy, there are challenges faced from the unknown because it’s unfamiliar territory. Nobody has built programming at scale for a business and a medium at the scale and pace at which we’re doing, using the technology that we are. We only plan on scaling up. Sometimes the shoes are too small, and sometimes, too big. The challenge is to get the size right.
Venkat: There’s also a level of market maturity that we want to create, because this market has never existed before. As pioneers, we are laying down the foundations for this and creating the direction. The ecosystem maturity depends on external conditions, such as the smartphone penetration and the advent of 4G. We have to sustain our business in accordance with all of these factors, which are often quickly changing, which is quite a big challenge..
Sameer: We don’t want to be the ones who discover America, we want to be the ones who discover and colonise America.
You’re creating the market as you go along — what is it that you do differently to have your content resonate with more people?
Sameer: We have our Playbooks which we use in order to understand which programming works with which audience. There are two audiences that we’re creating for, one is the audience, and the other — the advertisers. For the latter, the risk element is a lot higher, which is reduced by our technology where we’re able to use and guide data that we get from it to give them a perspective on what works.
With the audience, we have a little more leeway. We’re trying to invent the future by experimenting with newer content and formats which basically break the mould, and can actually sometimes be the antithesis to what the data says.
Venkat: That’s the great part of what we do, we get to experiment a lot while still having a chance to make not silly mistakes, but honest ones. We are able to experiment at a ground-level, and there’s more opportunity for innovation. We are now going to TV, after having started off on the web, and unlike traditional models, we actually own IP (Intellectual Property), which is very different. We want this to be a place where a lot of great stories come, and are able to find the mechanism that can bring them to life and find their audiences.
How has your storytelling evolved over the years of working on so many different genres at Culture Machine, and what have you learned?
Sameer: There’s always a disparity between what you think the audiences want, and what the advertisers want. It’s important to find the balance between that. It’s like building a circuit, so it’s important to fit all of them around each other in a way that it’s economically viable.
Every day, you get a good primer at not judging the audience and understanding that there isn’t just one audience, there are several audiences, with several race profiles and various niches. One large part of this is to remove yourself from the observatory position, and let the audience decide for themselves, with the help of data.
Thirdly, you have to find ways to optimise and increase sales at a large scale, without killing the bank.
Finding a way to educate the market, especially platforms and advertisers, about what really works and building a strong case so they continue investing in the company.