The year is nearly up and ZEE5 Global Chief Business Officer Archana Anand is headed into 2023 in bullish mood. The South Asian streamer, which operates in 190+ territories including the U.S. and offers about 200,000 hours of content, is coming off “our best year yet, and we’re ending it on a high,” she says.
In a wide-ranging interview with Deadline, Anand explains how India’s biggest film in memory, RRR, helped catapult the service to new heights globally this year, with a 209% year-on-year increase in consumption from January to October 2022 recorded. In the U.S., it has become the streamer of choice for many Indians and South Asians.
The New York-based Archana also reveals South Asian content is picking up audiences where even Bollywood hasn’t, with languages such as Telugu dominant among ZEE5 Global subs in the U.S. (a 20% share of local subs) and Australia (13%). While the Telugu language RRR has evidently led the charge, other non-Hindi titles such as Valimai, Karthikeya 2 and Fingertip have also driven viewing.
ZEE5 launched in the U.S. in 2021 and quickly found a niche among local South Asian audiences there by targeting them in local grocery stores and working with student associations. Dubbing and subtitling has led to major upticks in the U.S. and UK among other territories, says Anand.
In terms of content, ZEE5 Global has pushed closer towards the West with The Broken News, a remake of Mike Bartlett’s BBC drama Press, and is actively working on creating an original series out of the U.S., with a call to creators having gone out earlier this year. ZEE5 sources say the status of this initiative remains “under discussion” with updates likely to follow further down the line.
Anand and her ZEE5 colleagues will be hoping the momentum keeps up in 2023. Major corporate change is on the horizon as the merger between broadcaster parent Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited and Culver Max Entertainment (fka Sony Pictures Networks India) moves closer to completion. That would put the streamer on the same roster as rival SonyLIV, with many scenarios possible at that point.
Read on for the full interview.
DEADLINE: Let’s start with the impact of RRR. How did that help you position ZEE5 Global?
We want people to be aware there is a South Asian streaming service with around 200,000 hours of content in 12 languages, and we’ve got the latest movies. Last year, we had RRR and The Kashmir Files, which really helped us in that leadership game. Having been nominated for the Golden Globe, RRR has plenty more for us to extract.
DEADLINE: It’s been such a big crossover globally, breaking through in a way few Indian films have done before.
AA: This film is the only time I’ve seen a film getting people from the mainstream to come on to our platform to watch it on the back of the hype. That’s catapulted us to insane leadership, which we want to capitalize on with more exciting plans for next year. We want to really own South Asia in a very big way.
DEADLINE: All the talk of the RRR sequel will be very exciting then, presumably.
AA: Oh yes, absolutely.
DEADLINE: The film seems to represent a groundswell of interest in Indian content. Are you seeing that?
AA: I’ve been saying for more than a year and half that Indian content is the next thing waiting to happen and when it does, we want to be at the forefront of making it happen. We have the biggest right to win to make that happen. I’ve been very ambitious and it’s part of my vision that ZEE5 leads the charge. RRR has been a lovely impetus in pushing things that way.
There is a new found love of Indian content, but also there’s been a resurgent in South Asian content, more generally. Before it was all about Bollywood but suddenly it has had to take a step back, and people are asking about what the guys down South are doing. Their content is creating buzz around the globe that Bollywood hasn’t been able to make happen. People are checking out the formula to figure out what is connecting so beautifully globally. It is possibly the time for India, and especially the South, to shine.
DEADLINE: This is ZEE5 Global’s first full year in the U.S. market. It seems like you have carved out a spot there but what have been the challenges and what do you still need to do?
Archana Anand: When we went into the market, I was acutely aware I was chasing a cohort that is 2-3% of the population — and they’re not even localised in one area. They are scattered among the mainstream and in places such as the Tri-State Area, the Bay Area and Texas. It’s hugely challenging to even establish the brand with just 2-3% of the population as your consumer. If I was marketing in India, it’s a no brainer to take 20 hoardings in the most highly populated area and put out ZEE5 as a sure shot, but I don’t get the same return on investment in the U.S. I have to catch the areas where South Asian populations are dense. Putting something out in Times Square won’t attract the right people — how many South Asians are going to see it?
DEADLINE: So how did you attract those pockets of consumers?
Acquiring a consumer by digital marketing as a niche player is hugely expensive — upwards of $80/$90 each time, so we had to think outside the box. The way we went about is now a sense of pride and many have tried to copy us: We figured out where the South Asians are. No matter where you’re living in the world, South Asians want to get to South Asian stores so we tied up with Patel grocery stores in the U.S., which was the biggest vehicle to our win, and even in the UAE with the Lulu supermarket. The other big draw for South Asians in the U.S. is the IT and tech space. Many are university students, so it made a lot sense to tie up with the North American Association of India Students to do on-ground marked initiatives, one of which was a very successful university Bollywood dance competition. We had a student rate for them, and because they were away from home, the need to get news and entertainment from home made our discounted rate fairly compelling.
DEADLINE: How would you assess 2022 for ZEE5 Global overall?
AA: It’s been our best year yet and we’re ending it on a high. It’s been a journey of three years and in that time, I’ve seen how many have buckled along the way, confused by what they set out to achieve. I’ve been very clear why we set out on this journey and have fought with everybody in the ecosystem to ensure we didn’t lose our way.
Today, the numbers show that as a South Asian streaming service, we are in undoubted leadership across the globe. In the U.S., our primary market outside of India, we have leadership that is a dream come true. We’ve knocked all the erstwhile folks who were leading the story there off their perch. We’ve come from behind where bigger and mightier players have tried and failed, and we’ve actually lived to tell the tale — the numbers are right there as evidence. The overall story is deeply heartening for us; in a global context, it’s been hits right through. What hasn’t worked are the things we didn’t have complete control over.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about sports rights. Sports in India and among the Indian diaspora is massive. Just look at the numbers from the IPL rights auction earlier this year — that was really eye opening. You guys have pushed into that space by taking rights to the ILT20 cricket tournament. What does that represent?
AA: Whether it’s India or the Sub-continent in general, the thing people are most fanatical about after Bollywood is cricket. We are aware of the value it brings in terms of getting people glued to the screen — cricketers are out biggest heroes after Bollywood stars. Having said that, some of those rights have insane price tags associated with them so it is always a very tactical decision on what to spend against how you want to move forwards. We’re putting all our might into that, but how much we spend and how much we want to win will be taken on a case-by-case basis. ITL20 is the first of many you’re going to see.
DEADLINE: It’s been nearly two years since Indian streaming regulation came in, with many concerned how it might increase censorship. How has regulation impacted what you are doing?
AA: When we were championing and crafting the document on what we wanted as the regulatory way forward, we were fighting hard for self-regulation, saying that’s the fundamental difference with traditional TV. We were clear we are not shirking our responsibility and that we could easily point to our ‘absolute no’ categories, from a morality standpoint. But we fought equally hard to say creativity in its true form requires certain creative liberties and we wouldn’t like that curtailed under the guise of larger sweeping regulations. We believe that would take away the essence of how streaming platforms operate.
Going back to the global side, we have decided to go with the regulation of every local territory. For example, when we were operating in Bangladesh, I was fully aware it’s a country with much more stringent laws. It was the same in Pakistan and the Middle East. We understand that, whether it is religious or cultural sentiment, it is true to what they believe and you need to adhere.
DEADLINE: The question of how streamers should operate in local territories is really blowing up around the world. It’s become the big debate in Europe, where the question of how much should be reinvested is the bigger debate than what should be shown. You’ve talked about investing locally in the U.S. and it’s something you’ve done elsewhere.
AA: It’s fair to expect streaming investment in the local markets and it’s exactly how we operated in Bangladesh, for example. We were very committed to going local and did some stellar working creating local content for that market with local creators. We understand [the fear around overseas players coming in]. In India back in 1994, when globalisation happened, there was an initial fear of the big labels like KFC and Coca-Cola coming in — Will they take our jobs? Contaminate our water? It takes a conversation and time to prove net-net you are going to win. Wherever we go, we will give as much as we get.
DEADLINE: A final question on original content. Can you point to shows and films that have really worked for you and where have the challenges been?
AA: We have a really fun series called Tripling and a fabulous spy thriller Mukhbir: The Story of a Spy, set in a very specific context that will peak the interest of any South Asian as it’s about India and Pakistan; a spy story that’s very well crafted with great production values. But we struggled more on global side on back of originals rather than movies. I do not have the liberty to do surround marketing like I do in India. I can use word of mouth to make it work — I can ride off in that slightly delayed fashion on something that’s already popular in India. Otherwise, movies work far better. The hype around movies is global and the marketing gets done for me. Originals work well in the global market but I can’t build the hype in the same way.