One can definitely call TVF the new MTV in the country
In the latter part of the two-part series following our conversation with Arunabh Kumar of The Viral Fever, we caught up with him prior to the launch of their mockumentary comedy series, Not Fit. The first episode of the series released on December 16, 2015 on TVFPlay.com. In our chat with the young entrepreneur, we delve deeper into the creation of the internet viewing culture, TVF’s collaboration with smaller, talented production houses and making it to the IMDB Top 250 list:
When it comes to the video app businesses, would you say that the credit for these somewhat goes to TVF, having been the ones to begin the whole culture of Internet viewing?
I think so. People keep writing about how we started the revolution, and I think that I can take only a little bit of pride in that, that happened. If you look at the facts, ‘Rowdies’ is actually the first piece of original content to have gone online. ‘Permanent Roommates’ is actually the first web series to have gotten a viewership which is only beaten by our next show.
So I think that I can accept that — and be happy about the fact that — we did start the revolution though I personally believe that we started the revolution in content, not really in web or online content. That’s just the way the audience consumed it.
So would you call TVF a content creation company or a creator start-up…
I think you can definitely call it an online network of entertainment; the new MTV in the country. Even besides the quality, I think even in terms of scale, we have grown bigger than MTV. We are a 90-people company producing 8 original content videos in a month, with offices across 3 cities and 12 really popular shows, out of which 2 are in the Top 200 in the world.
Who are your favourite international YouTube creators?
I have no favourite YouTube creators. I like CollegeHumor… like I said it’s all in the semantics of the media. I love several HBO shows and Netflix series, as well. There’s also a series called ‘Video Game High School’ by Freddie Wong, which I really like. It’s all pretty much content, it being on YouTube has very little to do with the quality of the series. YouTube is just like the Tata Sky of channels, a set-up box where they reside.
Describe to us in a few lines your understanding of the young Indian audience that you’re targeting with your videos.
It’s partly how I’ve been brought up; I’m a product of my environment of upbringing and that’s how I started thinking and making certain kind of content, and attracting similar kinds of creators. At the same time, we try to be honest and stick to fundamentals. Nobody is a delusional art-lover in our office, which is something worth noting I think. We don’t have any of those ‘creative geniuses’ or ‘artists’ in our office.
‘Permanent Roommates’ is one of the most watched branded web series in the whole world today, which is incredible. How was this show conceptualized, and what was the motivation behind it?
It’s pretty simple — the concept surrounds a couple, and every time the guy wants to get married, the girl doesn’t, and vice-versa. Then we wrote a lot of pages on it, and there’s really nothing more to it. Ideas are a dime a dozen; anyone can come up with an idea and leave, it’s the execution of the idea that is paramount.
Do you think the expectations from Season 2 of ‘Permanent Roommates’ have sky-rocketed, after ‘Pitchers’?
Oh, don’t even remind me about that. (groans) That’s something that just kills me… let’s see, I hope we can live up to those expectations. We’re launching a new show called ‘Not Fit’ and it’s by a company called Dice Media. It’s going to be TVF-Play’s first original show releasing in December, and it’s also India’s first mockumentary. After that, we’re launching ‘Permanent Roommates Season 2’, around Valentine’s Day.
You have been collaborating with companies like Dice Media and Teen Patti, to name a few — How do these associations work, do they come to you with content because you have an audience or is it the other way around?
If there’s a company that really works hard, we are more than happy to work with them. Because we were the first to do this, and having done a prolific amount of work, we have become the biggest network and have the biggest content space. I think that is something which no investment or amount of work can buy you tomorrow, because there is so much clutter online. Content discovery is the biggest problem. Even AIB’s new show ‘On Air with AIB’ is struggling to get viewership. AIB’s never needed hoardings to go viral before, and now that they have all the hoardings in the world.
Today, the landscape is so cluttered and there is a lot of adulteration, but that’s actually a sign of the ecosystem growing bigger and also growing tougher. There’s a lot of great content, but no one’s watching it because it just isn’t getting discovered. Once a brand value is created, it’s done — after that, it’s very tough with new guys with no money to come up. If you look at the scene, it’s all the older studios which are able to spend a lot of money, and talk about the series without even having launched.
TVF has almost a 5 million audience, a hardcore TVF loyalty, which is twice of MTV India’s audience space. That’s something that’s required real hard work for over 40 months. We were a start-up once too, and now that we have our own platform in TVF-Play, we’re happy to get the smaller companies discovered through our channel. And some of the greatest and most progressive content creators do value that, and that’s why they want to expose our audiences to that because they know who they want to target.
If a startup content creator wants to reach out to TVF, how do they go about it?
They can definitely reach out to us on social media, or Tweet at my personal ID, and we’d be happy to take a look at things and see how we can work them out. That’s how we discovered Teen Patti and Dice Media, and I’m sure we’ll be meeting a lot of other new content creators similarly. Feel free to reach out to us, we’re very welcoming.
Do you think digital is the new mainstream media?
It has been called the ‘new media’ for a very long time, and I think in a couple of years, it will be the actual media, and everything else will be the old media.
It’s not really the future anymore, it’s the present. At the same time, considering our country and our bandwidth issues, television is still going strong in India.
So would you consider making content for television?
I think the day we have our own television channel, yes.
I was talking to Nikhil Taneja, and he was talking about how Arunabh was always the guy who wanted to be in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, and he’s now reached there with a lot of hard work and his own means.
Unfortunately I couldn’t reach Forbes Under 30, but I did reach Fortune’s 40 Under 40. But I might be one of the younger ones, at 32. I was also in GQ’s ‘Most Influential’, which is something that makes me happy and rather boastful. (laughs) It has never really been an easy journey and I never had a mentor, which was both the best and the worst thing.
At the same time, to be able to build a great business as well as becoming a great content creator has been a humbling journey. It motivates me to do better. Globally, I feel like very few people have managed becoming a business-builder as well as a content creator; I have taken baby steps towards it and I hope to do better in the future.
People like Coco Chanel and Walt Disney are my idols, so I hope to reach at least 1% of the kind of work they have achieved.
How was your experience at the WebTVAsia Awards 2015 recently?
It was quite good, although half of us couldn’t get a VISA to go. Vaibhav went and received the award. It was great to be recognized as the best channel in the country. I think that honorary awards do make you happy, and I think something I was really happy about was when I represented India in the Global Creators’ Summit. TVF got to represent us in New York, that was very personally satisfying to me.
Brandcast happens to be the showcase of Google to the entire world of advertising, and to represent India in a forum like that was amazing.
How surprising was it to be ranked in IMDB’s Top 250 TV list?
Oh, it was too surprising! There was a time when we were sandwiched between ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’, and I remember thinking that this is the best threesome I could ever have. And then we crossed even the ‘House of Cards’ rank and now we’ve almost settled at Rank 21 — that’s definitely a great feeling. All we want now is a movie there, in the Top 20.
Your audiences are one of the most loyal that India has created, since the late 90’s of MTV. The kind of comments we read on your channel are worth creating content out of itself.
I think that’s where the new fandom and the whole fandom culture comes into play. When people used to see a Farookh, they’d be intimidated by him, but when they see a Jeetu, they want to take a selfie with him. They feel as if they know him, he is a friend. That’s just the way the world has changed, and that’s the power of a medium where you’re not just a passive consumer, but you can actually Tweet to him, and like and comment on posts. That barrier has been broken, and that’s something I really like about this medium.
Personally, self-importance is an obnoxious quality that I really can’t stand and that’s why I like how interactive the medium is; it keeps us grounded and keeps success from going to our heads. That’s what drives our cult following, they shout out to us as friends more than fans, really.
Do you feel like those 20 stars that you mentioned TVF has created a following for, have succeeded because audiences can identify with a Nidhi or a Jeetu?
I think all these guys are great people. None of them are from a film family, and everyone has worked really hard to get to where they are today, they are serious about their careers. I think it always percolates top down, but it eventually becomes the culture of the company. Now with 90 people and the same culture, we’ll now be able to retain it over a long period of time.
How did you go about creating your initial team?
You meet people, you work with them and see if you like each other — it’s very organic, there is no formula for it. I never really raised an investment and tried to build a team.
Nidhi is the only female amongst all you guys, and she comes from a very compulsive theatre background — how did that work out?
She isn’t just the only female amongst us — in fact, she’s one of the only creators/performers in this online evolution, across the board. I can’t really think of anyone else who has done the kind of work she has. I met her way back in 2009, and I really liked her attitude; she was very uninhibited with her craft.
She was humble, willing to learn and always wanting to push the envelope. The kind of stuff she pulls off onscreen is just brilliant! I think she’s got a lot of courage as an actor, and that’s what makes her amazing.
Jeetu’s the find of the decade — how did that happen?
People are fans of other artists, but Jeetu — the audience loves. He evokes a feeling in people that makes them want to be his friend, or brother, or parent. We hope that he becomes the answer to some of these Khans, only he’s a much better actor. (laughs)
He has a lot of dedication towards his craft. He’s actually very introverted and doesn’t speak much, and his only agenda in life is to do great work.
Jeetu, Abhay, Naveen, Sumeet, Nidhi Singh, Mandvi.. the entire repertoire just eventually came together. I remember Deepak was thrown out of a MTV audition for a TV show. I always knew that he could be a great star, and he ended up being the first great star in this country — he’d go to colleges and have his shirt torn. It all just fell into place, really.
TVF, as a case study, is probably going to IITs and IIMs soon, as you basically created a business model. If you had to give it a tagline besides ‘Lights. Camera. Experiment’, what else would it be?
We’ve kept it simple, and we haven’t really gone out looking for a formula when it comes to content.
People often watch films on their laptops, but they want to make films for the big screen. So what is your opinion of a theatrical release vs a digital one?
We haven’t really moved forward in that spectrum. Every filmmaker has a dream of releasing his film in a theatre, for the sake of gratification and ego, as opposed to how many people are watching it. At the same time, everyone’s allowed to dream big screen — but I do think that people can be more judicious. Ultimately as a filmmaker, the priority should be that the film is seen.
You’re right about TVF creating a parallel ecosystem for the entire content industry, and we’re doing it one step at a time. Time is of the essence, so why waste time pleasing someone when you can be creating something of your own? Today, we’re creating more original content than some of these established TV channels and have an audience of 5 million. Today, we’ve released a movie that was watched way more on Inbox Office than in theatres… we’ve also created a series which is India’s only contribution to TV in the world. It has all shaped up in a very alternate fashion, and it’s been a conscious effort to circumvent and do my own thing rather than follow the herd. I just thought the rules were pretty archaic, and weren’t going to be very advantageous for me.
If a filmmaker or a content startup approaches you for tips, what advice would you give them?
I’d say, always be more process-oriented than result-oriented, otherwise you’re never really going to reach excellence.
Tell us a little bit about the departmentalizing of TVF with TVF-ONE and TVF-Play.
That was an internal process, and it was about approaching it in an organized fashion. This country is very disorganized, and the industry, even more so, so that’s what we tried to.
Other than the film and Season 2 of ‘Permanent Roommates’, what other exciting things can fans expect from the channel itself?
India makes a lot of terrible movies and great movies are very few and far in between, that’s something we’d like to tackle next year. Let’s hope the ecosystem grows bigger and better from here on, it’s always about outdoing your own previous work. We should be touching a 10 million following soon, hopefully.
-Inputs and Transcription Aditi Dharmadhikari