What startups can learn about the power of good storytelling from IPL, TVF and WWE

30th Apr 2016
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Since my post on creating a new product category, many readers have asked me for examples of the new categories that entrepreneurs have been pitching for recently.

While the vast majority of pitches we receive are, to put it rather harshly, ‘me-too’ businesses, one of the privileges of being in an early-stage VC fund is the opportunity to see how such categories are thought through and how their journey eventually pans out. Perhaps the most interesting segment in the life-cycle of a new category is how it evolves from being a quaint and niche-looking idea to one that becomes ‘hot’ and the ‘next big thing’.

YourStory-storytelling

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One category that has recently risen to prominence in this manner is that of digital content production – Most notably represented by The Viral Fever (TVF), a company which recently raised $10 million from Tiger Global (Tiger does seem to have the magical ability to make new categories cool for other VCs).

In particular, TVF’s ‘TVF Pitchers’ series has become iconic in the world of entrepreneurs, startups, and VCs. While the millions of views each of the episodes has received on YouTube paints a different picture today, might it have been reasonable to suggest that the target audience for startup stories in India is still rather limited?

MTV in fact rejected one of Arunabh Kumar’s (Founder of TVF) shows many years ago because “it’s too intelligent”.

Why then is TVF Pitchers popular with millions of viewers, so popular in fact that ‘Tu Beer Hai’ can be used as a legit line at any stage of a conversation?
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In its review of the first season of TVF Pitchers, Huffington Post India said,
Despite all these shortcomings, it is impossible to deny that Pitchers is highly addictive viewing.
This opinion was corroborated very succinctly by Abhishek Mittal in a Quora post where he wrote, “Watching TVF Pitchers is like getting drunk.”
I find it interesting that an addictive story can dramatically expand the target audience of an otherwise niche concept.
I was wondering if there were any other examples of such an effect playing out, and then it struck me that example was playing out live in front of me, quite literally – the Indian Premier League (IPL)!
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Yes, this is Cricket!
While cricket has long been India’s favourite sport, it has also, for several decades now, been characterised by a viewership comprised almost entirely of a male audience.
But a remarkable change is in progress. Last year’s IPL saw a women viewership of 36 per cent, and there is reason to believe that this number is headed towards near parity with male viewership in the years to come.
And what would explain this shift? Here are a few suggestions:
  • IPL matches are scheduled for prime-time viewing, either on weeknights, or on weekends. Most cricket games, especially test matches and ODIs, tend to be scheduled for day-time viewing, which is clearly sub-optimal for a significant proportion of the TV audience.
  • A full IPL match is completed in about three hours, which is about the length of a Bollywood movie. Therefore, it can be compared to a Bollywood movie as an entertainment option.
  • The creation of teams based on city/state franchises allows for loose loyalties that are easy to create, change and justify and carry no ramifications, especially for a cricket newbie. By contrast, many would frown upon an Indian supporting Pakistan in an India versus Pakistan match.
  • A “season” approach to cricket, especially one with matches being scheduled every day, creates the perception of continuity and progression, both within a season, as well as across seasons, much the way a sitcom series would. Outside of World Cups and major championships, cricket matches or tournaments tend to be one-off affairs, or at least that is what an outsider would feel.
For those who felt all of this was not enough to draw them into watching a game of cricket, IPL threw in a few “extras”:
  • Beautiful women as anchors, commentators, reporters, and, of course, cheerleaders.
  • Theme albums and anthems for every season, and for every franchise of the IPL.
  • Entertainment routines before, and after, every game.
  • Commentators resorting to hyperbole and excessive loudness to describe in-game events that are increasingly becoming commonplace (like a six, or Virat Kohli making a big score).
  • The use of fireworks and loud announcements to suggest something dramatic has happened (or is about to happen).
Have we seen something similar before?
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Of course we have!
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At first thought, it is almost too fantastical to believe that WWE (Formerly WWF, the World Wrestling Federation) is as popular as it is.
After all, how many of us watch or follow wrestling as a sport during the Olympics or Commonwealth Games?
It might be fair to argue that wrestling is at least as much of a male-followed sport as cricket. And yet, we find that 36 per cent of WWE’s audience is female (Exactly the same proportion as that of the IPL audience).
I decided to dig a little deeper and was quite astonished at one particular finding.
A recent study by Parks Associates identified the Top OTT services. Take a look at number 5 in the list below.
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WWE above HBO?
Yes, I was as surprised as you are. So how did WWE become as much of a global phenomenon?It was fun being a kid in the ’90s in India.When we finally had more than that one channel to choose from, one of the most popular options on TV was a show unlike any other.
A show that featured big men (muscular for the most part, sometimes just chubby) fighting it out for championships, pride, revenge and for all sorts of convoluted storylines that made infinitely more sense back then.
The show had violence, blood, anger and people who looked at each other with crazy eyes. It didn’t matter that none of us followed or even understood wrestling, we loved the rush this show gave us.
We discussed characters like Hitman, Yokozuna, Undertaker, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock and mocked people who didn’t know who we were talking about. Just like the IPL today, all the events in the show were obviously real and factual. (Many kids around the world still believe that the WWE shows real-life events unfolding on TV.)
The name of this show was WWF Monday Night Raw (Now WWE Raw). Today, WWE Raw has already broadcasted over 1,200 episodes, each of which is two to three hours long, a staggering amount of content by any measure.
WWE’s astounding combination of longevity and mass following can be attributed, almost entirely, to the way it has branded itself.
In the 90s, Vince McMahon, the billionaire Chairman and CEO of WWE, broke through the barriers of a limited audience by branding the WWE not as a wrestling show, but as “sports entertainment”. Nearly two decades later, WWE wants to be known as an “action soap opera” in order to create a broader entertainment company.
In fact, WWE’s reach today is so broad that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump have made appearances on the show. This might well be because WWE is one of the best channels for them to market themselves as Presidents or Presidential candidates, a view that is strongly corroborated by the fact that WWE has publicly endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential run.
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All of this, around a show born out of wrestling. An addictive story holds remarkable powers, the sort of powers that can create massive markets out of highly niche concepts. There is so much in common between TVF, IPL, and WWE.
Their models would have been identical if only the IPL’s matches were based on plots where the turning points and the match results were scripted based on pre-decided outcomes...
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory)
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Authors
Shubhankar Bhattacharya
Shubhankar Bhattacharya is a Venture Partner at Kae Capital, an early stage VC fund. Prior to joining Kae, he was Co-Founder and CEO of Yaqsh.com, an online store for diamonds and diamond jewellery. He has also played various roles at CMS Info Systems and Technip. Shubhankar holds a Bachelors degree from NIT Trichy, and an MBA degree from ISB, Hyderabad. His interests also include bodybuilding, video games, and conspiracy theories. Shubhankar's debut book 'VCs are from Venus, Entrepreneurs are from Mars' recently released on the Juggernaut app

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