The future of Entertainment

The defining deal of gobal media  and entertainment in 2017 is undoubtedly the Disney acquisition of 21st Century Fox (except Fox News and Fox Sports). This is a watershed moment as it indicates that a big shakeout in Global Media & Entertainment Business. India too will be affected by this cataclysmic change. The reluctance of legacy media to adapt quick enough has left it most vulnerable, as if waiting for the new Mediatech giants to gobble them up. The winds of change were first noticed in the late nineties but were largely ignored. I remember writing about the reluctance of Hollywood to talk to Silicon Valley way into the new millennium. A failed takeover of Time Warner by AOL was seen as the indication that the twain shall never meet. If Hollywood is   tardy India is still in the stone ages as far as change goes.

Now the worm has turned. We are well into the second decade of the Digital Age. It is no longer about digital natives and migrants but about digital haves and have-nots. Today the choice is simple either you jump on the Digital Express or be left behind in analogue wilderness. So if you were to ask me who are the five top media and entertainment companies in the world today, the answer is simple — Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Disney. Only one legacy Media Company makes the cut. In India Mukesh Ambani is the top Media Moghul in the country (Jio, Network 18,50% of Viacom and sundry investments in other companies). Amongst the traditional companies only the Times Group has the potential to remain in the Digital world (though there are unconfirmed rumours of a split in the digital and traditional media assets between the two Jain siblings). Zee the homegrown TV giant actually belies its potential and in a Trump like fashion its founder Chairman has his own TV show and is unlike Trump a minor politician. Somehow their business is stuck in a groove. The other companies will either sell themselves or become part of memory.  While creativity remains an individual effort  in excellence, marketing it and transmitting it to public is now the domain of the big boys.

There is a peculiar dichotomy at present. More and more people are consuming media than ever before, yet there is a pall of gloom in the creative fraternity. Digital devices are accessing more and more content from online, over the top and mobile phone service providers. In India, for example, people are spending two hours before a TV and one hour on the mobile phone chatting, playing games, listening to music, watching news or cricket matches, even movies.  India’s economy may be booming but our per capita spend on Media and Entertainment is still amongst the lowest in the world (less than 1 per cent of GDP). Over exuberance of stakeholders (creative industries have no entry barrier) has brought about a glut in traditional media.

We produce over 1,500 feature films in over 20 languages and yet have only 8,000 screens to show them. Obviously this results in 90 per cent films making a loss. Four hundred news channels in different languages and geographies vie for a slice of the audience pie of merely 10 per cent of a potential audience of 600 million. No wonder they are all bleeding.  Arnab Goswami broke away from Times Now (the Jury is still out on who made whom) and started his own Republic TV, funded by some rich friends. He fought the popularity wars with an equally belligerent Times TV. Both are loud and shrill and pro BJP. NDTV is anti-BJP but unwatched. Others vacillate between sensation, banal and the obvious. Aaj Tak, India TV make money but are biased anyway. The rest only make noise and occasional news. CNBC-TV 18 and its clones keep on doing more of the same stuff with fluttering eyelashes. Regional news is a brasher and more biased but equally blaise. Meanwhile the millennials have   simply switched off TV news (and newspapers). This trend of watching news, generally headlines online via OTT services or mobile phone will only accentuate. There are  a few news portals(how I hate this outdated word) like dailyo.in, scroll.com, the wire.in, the quint.com and media sites like indiatimes.com, ndtv.com, moneycontrol.com which have attracted readers but most are still struggling to make any money. Some newspapers like Business Standard are trying the walled garden approach with a payment driven access but most youngsters are happy to access news and information free on their laptops/tablets and smartphones .

The majority of TV viewers are still glued onto syrupy soap operas. They all look alike (fake and artificial) where often-regressive characters mouth clumsy dialogue. But as long ratings and advertising keeps coming, no one looks at some of the top rated shows on Indian telly. India’s Got Talent. Bigg Boss, Kapil Sharma Show, Comedy Nights, Bhabhijee Ghar Par Hain, Crime Patrol, Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashma (popular but a throwback to the 1960s radio skits), Nagin, Balika Badhu, Kum Kum Bhagya, Is Pyar Ko Kya Naam Doon et all. Watched loyally, quality be damned. When you are opiates for the eyes why bother with who does what? It was good to see kabbaddi and badminton get champions and eyeballs. Cricket, of course, ruled the waves. IPL media rights went for an impressive Rs 16000 crore for five seasons. TV stars, meanwhile, have become celebrities and are making money cutting ribbons and dancing in stage shows. Short form content has a bright future in this attention-deficit age.

The silver lining is that the elite is watching Narcos, The Crown, Game of Thrones on Netflix and Insider and The Last Tycoon on Amazon Prime. Both the streaming giants and the local Hotstar, Voot and Alt have promised more originals on line next year. This means more popularity.

My prediction: In three years more people will get their daily soap fix on their smartphones. So get ready for more on Jio TV, Wink and others. With better interoperability of different access and display technologies home entertainment is bound to get a fillip. I am certain in  five years OTT will overtake conventional broadcast in India.

Bollywood struggles between franchisees and disenfranchising the Khans who still dominate. Ranveer Singh and Varun Dhawan are the new favourites and Tiger Shroff the new kid on the block. Akshay has the hits.  Nawazuddin and Irfaan are the alternate stars. Tabu, Vidya Balan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Radhika Apte and Richa Chadha are the go to actresses for off-beat films. Shabana Azmi continues to be the grand dame of acting and the Great Bachchan the star of all seasons. Deepika, Alia, Anushka and Katrina are the reigning queens with Priyanka and Kangna as the outliers. In spite of falling footfalls some brave films do get made Lipstick under my Burka, Death in the Gunj, Newton, Tumhari Sallu, Shubh Mangal Sawdhan, Bahubali 2,Tiger Zinda Hai, Golmal, Again, Toilet Ek Prem Katha and Fukrey were the hits. Next year, more of the Khans, Akshay, Hrithik, Ranveer and Varun and a hope that Ranbir Kapoor gets a hit in Rajkumar Hirani’s film. Rajnikanth still is Rajnikanth. Kamalhasan lives on to fight a political battle. Pawan Kalyan, Mahesh Babu,Prabhas,  are tops in Telugu. Ajith, Vijay, Dhanush, Surya and Vikram rule Tamil films. The girls in South are some of the Hindi ones like Tammanah, Kajal Aggarwal , Rakul  Preet Singh,and others like Anushka Shetty,Samantha and Nayanthara.My friend Prosenjit is the King of Tollygunj and other top stars include Jisshu Sengupta and Indraneil Sengupta. Daljit Dosanj followed by Gurpreet Ghuggi rock in Punjab and Canada.

Bollywood is turning from a large club to a cozy coterie. Though I don’t accept the nepotism theory. What has happened is that the top stars and filmmakers are between them making 50 odd films (in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Malayalam), which dominate the National box-office, and hog all the screen time leaving little room for others. It’s obvious that these people meet each other and are the ones in the news. Of course, once in a while they love to promote an underdog but are otherwise hugely patronising. So be it. It is an open market after all. Meanwhile even the small off centre films are also tying up with either a large studio or Production hoses to get a release. In my opinion the others (and there 1,500 others) should start looking at other platforms like OTT, Cable or online for release or just quit filmmaking. Online, mobile and OTT are opening new avenues for short films which is encouraging trend.

The future for Bollywood is a long struggle as the audience drifts away slowly to newer digital pastures and other pastimes. Gaming which I still a small Industry in India will soon grow much larger. Live Entertainment, Sports and Amusement parks will garner a larger share of the leisure spend. Eating out and travel are two other trends, which are catching up in India and taking away a part of the spending on leisure fulfillment. The pie must grow bigger before we can expect bigger slices. The more I emphasize the technological upheaval the less I see the Indian entertainers and media people ready for it.

Internationally, I expect AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) creeping into both phones as well as online space. Even Hollywood is slowly experimenting with alternate reality in cinema. Closer home, Star will launch VR via Hotstar during the forthcoming IPL. As far as print media is concerned, India is one of the rare markets where the medium is still thriving. It’s only a matter of time as the young now access news only online. FM Radio flatters to deceive. The sameness of various stations is resulting in a fatigue setting in. Prasar Bharti is facing an identity crisis. Failing to be a public sector broadcaster, it alternates between being the government’s handmaiden and a B grade entertainment vehicle. The government of India in its ignorance continues to place restrictions on content and lacks any policy or vision. This is not about this government, but the previous ones too. The state is obsessed with news and occasional events like IFFI and the national awards. They need to go get a life.

So as we bid adieu to 2017 and welcome 2018, the resistance to change will continue but change will happen. Those who ride the new wave will rise to newer glory, while others will face a big drenching and an eventual washout.

Happy Reading, Listening, Watching and Experiencing in 2018.

(The author is a filmmaker, lyricist, poet and media guru)