Hoichoi, the year-old video-streaming service floated by one of India’s biggest entertainment companies, is responsible for a string of firsts in the OTT industry.
In the autumn of 2016, creative and business heads at SVF, eastern India’s largest entertainment production and distribution studio, assembled to relook their digital strategy. What could be done on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube or elsewhere? Or was there an entirely new avenue in the offing? The team discussed and deliberated.
This was also the time when winds of change were blowing over India’s internet ecosystem. Or what SVF Executive Director Vishnu Mohta calls “a tectonic transformation”. It was triggered by the rollout of Reliance Jio in September 2016 that had made 4G data cheap, speedy, and widely available across the country.
“Because of the speeds available, people could stream an entire movie or a show without the frustration involved. 3G was a pain, 4G fixed it. It was abundantly clear that everyone’s entertainment viewing was moving towards the internet,” Vishnu tells YourStory.
“So, we thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something in this space. With our depth of content, IP ownership, and the experience of making so many TV shows, we felt it was the right time to transition into the third form of storytelling - digital,” he explains.
And thus was born Hoichoi (which means ‘fun and excitement’ in Bengali), a subscription-driven video-streaming platform for Bengali movies, web shows, music videos, songs, etc.
It was the first dedicated regional language OTT service in India, and also one of the few streaming platforms (Eros Now and ALTBalaji being the others) to have emerged out of a large, traditional film production house. (Hoichoi parent SVF has been making and distributing movies for over two decades, with a host of National Award-winning Bengali films to their credit.)
Co-founder Vishnu says,
“Hoichoi’s stated mission was to be a 360-degree entertainment platform for the 250 million Bengalis worldwide. A lot of legacy content existed, and there was new content to be made for the digital world. Unless we got our hands dirty, there was no way to clearly tell if a market existed or not.”
Vishnu invokes the legendary Steve Jobs, whose poster adorns the monochrome walls of his sprawling Kolkata office. “Jobs said, ‘If you want to predict the future, invent it.’” he states. And that is what Hoichoi is out to do - “create demand and go deep into Bengali content” before anyone else enters the market.
Doubling the content platter
Hoichoi launched in September 2017 with a slate of 20 original shows, a library of 400-500 Bengali movies (including SVF’s own 120-odd titles), and over 1,000 songs. About 1,400 hours of content was made available at launch.
In a year, the platform claims to have streamed over 240 million minutes of content, with 60 minutes being the average time spent (among the highest rates in the industry) by per subscriber. The Hoichoi app has notched up over a million downloads, and is available on Android, iOS, web, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast. There are 800,000 monthly active users.
Enter ‘Season Two’, and Hoichoi is doubling its programming hours this year. It has announced 30 new shows, 12 original films, and an acquisition of 200 Bengali movie titles. Some of its upcoming shows include Spiti Valley, The Experiment, Bong Janani, Cell No. 42, Taranath Tantrik, Paanch Phoron, and so on.
In addition, the service is also foraying into international markets — Bangladesh and UAE — where it sees a potential customer base of “more than 180 million”. On the distribution side, Hoichoi has entered into a partnership with Airtel Movies and would now be available to all Airtel mobile and DTH customers.
Pioneering innovation in OTT
Hoichoi’s most interesting — and possibly most important — innovation is on the retail side. In a first-of-its-kind occurrence in the domestic OTT industry, it has launched subscription top-up cards that can be bought from kiosks in malls, movie theatres, and even at small kirana stores. Customers can avail a Hoichoi subscription just like they buy a mobile recharge.
Mahendra Soni, Director & Co-founder, Hoichoi, says,
“Almost 40 percent of our audience comes from non-urban areas and their primary mode of transaction is cash. So, we decided to adopt the successful telecom model of top-up cards to make it convenient for them to subscribe to Hoichoi. This offline payment mechanism is unheard of in the OTT industry, but it will help us reach the masses in Tier II and Tier III cities.”
At present, there are three subscription plans to choose from: Rs 399 for 12 months, Rs 249 for six months, and Rs 149 for three months.
Additionally, Hoichoi is also rolling out a Pay Per View (PPV) feature that allows users to pay for content on an à la carte basis. This too is a rare thing in the OTT space. Neither Netflix nor Amazon Prime Video offers this feature. Even homegrown services like Hotstar, ALTBalaji, Eros Now, etc., operate on bulk subscription models.
The PPV model is mostly targeted at movie watchers. Hoichoi plans to digitally premiere films within a short span of their theatrical releases. PPV ensures that viewers can pay for just the movie they’d like to watch as opposed to buying an entire subscription. This reduces the entry barriers to the app and also enables Hoichoi to widen its audience base.
Vishnu says, “These are different ways to increase adoption. Telco partnerships is one, subscription is another. We firmly believe this is the way forward.” Soni adds, “PPV will help in discovery and also grow the Hoichoi community.”
In fact, Hoichoi is also releasing dubbed streams of its original shows in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Arabic - another first-of-its-kind innovation in the industry.
Soni, however, admits, “We haven’t entirely thought through the dubbing strategy yet. I cannot ask my customer to pay for a dubbed stream. So, if any other player wants to add ‘X’ hours of content to its library, we can give them the rights of dubbed versions.”
Overcoming challenges in tech
While opportunities in the regional OTT space are aplenty, and Hoichoi is largely keeping up with innovations, on the technological side, it wasn’t smooth sailing for the service, to begin with. Its app would crash, streams wouldn’t be clean, users would run out of storage space on their devices, etc.
“We launched on both iOS and Android. iOS did well. But, there were problems on Android in some pockets of India. People use these really old versions of Android or they have non-conventional phone models that create their own ecosystem on top of Android. So, we had to do constant bug testing, and keep tinkering with the product.”
Hoichoi’s technology partner is a New York-based company called ViewLift that is known for its expertise in cross-platform OTT apps for over a decade.
Manik Bambha, CTO of ViewLift, said in a prior statement, “We are glad to be associated with the development of the next big thing in India’s OTT space. Hoichoi will benefit from our extensive marketing, data and analytics tools that will help them enhance interaction with their audience.”
The road ahead
Hoichoi clearly occupies a space that is poised for exponential growth in time to come. While it refuses to divulge numbers, the service expects to break even in about four years. And in 10 years, Hoichoi could be as big as its parent, SVF.
EY estimates the number of people who stream online videos in India to reach 500 million by 2020, making it the world’s second-largest market after the US. The OTT subscription market too is growing and is projected to reach Rs 4,000 crore in two years, according to an IMRB-Kantar Media report.
To top it all, regional is the way forward as a majority of India’s new internet users are, what Google calls, “Indian language users”. The search giant estimates there would be 500 million vernacular users by 2020 who would need “access to great content in their native tongues” on their smartphones.
Hoichoi may well be the first of several vernacular OTT services to emerge in the days to come. Soni says, “When satellite TV happened, it took nearly a decade for channels to realise that regional is also a big market. The same thing is playing out in OTT. So, by the time these giant players wake up and come to Bengal, we’d already have our share of the pie.”