Whether it was the latest sketch from The Viral Fever (TVF) or a funny review of a movie by Biswa Kalyan Rath and Kanan Gill, when Indians wanted to watch their favourite comedians two years ago, there was only one place to find them online: YouTube.
For more than half a decade, Google's video platform has been providing a platform for all kinds of talents to showcase their skills. The company has actively worked with those creators to help them find the right audience and build a brand name.
Much of those efforts by YouTube are still in play today, but many of the talents it helped nurture in India are increasingly looking at other platforms. The reason? YouTube doesn't have the sort of financial infrastructure in India as some of its streaming rivals do, several comedians, stakeholders, and people in the industry told Gadgets 360.
"As you grow in popularity, YouTube starts becoming less appealing, especially if you don't have any other platform to fall back on," a prominent comedian said.
Chief among those rival platforms are Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. In less than a year since debuting its service in India, Amazon's entertainment arm has signed deals with over a dozen top comedians in the country, most of whom built their brand on YouTube. Earlier this year, Amazon announced a partnership with Only Much Louder (OML), a company that represents several top comedians.
Some of those comedians include Sapan Verma, Sorabh Pant, Kanan Gill, Kenny Sebastian, Zakir Khan, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Naveen Richard, Anuvab Pal, Varun Thakur, Azeem Banatwalla, Neville Shah, Aadar Malik, and S Aravind. Many of them have already released their stand-up specials on Amazon Prime Video, and with videos by several others - including one by popular comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB)'s Ministry - in the works.
Inside Amazon's Stand-Up Comedy Specials – No Censorship, No Women
"The viewership patterns in India are changing rapidly," a spokesperson for TVF, which has over 26 lakh (2.6 million) subscribers on YouTube, told Gadgets 360. "Five years ago, YouTube was the only destination for viewers to discover and consume digital videos - since then, Facebook's video viewership experience has evolved significantly. Short form content has found a home on social networks where sharing is essential to discovery."
The media company has taken "a multi-platform approach to distributing content," the spokesperson added.
In the past two years, TVF has made several popular original shows including Pitchers and Permanent Roommates. In 2015, it launched TVFPlay, a streaming service for its premium content on the Web, as well as apps for Android and iOS. Since its launch, the company has been putting its long-form content on TVFPlay first, before bringing it to YouTube weeks later. The company has also partnered with Ola to bring its videos to Ola's connected car platform, Ola Play. TVF has also partnered with Uber for its upcoming infotainment system, Gadgets 360 reported in July.
TVFPlay, which continues to offer content at no charge, has already become one of the top video streaming apps in India, according to data from marketing research firm App Annie.
"YouTube remains an integral part of our distribution strategy especially for mid- to long-form content," a TVF spokesperson said. "For Web-series, TVFPlay enables us to offer a premium viewership experience, and helps us learn more about our viewers' likes and dislikes, allowing us the opportunity to extend time spent."
OML had similar experiences to share. "Most of the comedians are now present [on] all available platforms," a company spokesperson told Gadgets 360. "As the popularity of artists surges in free-to-use platforms, other paid platforms want to leverage their popularity by syndicating existing YouTube content."
The spokesperson added that free to use platforms are "not ideal for long form content." The media company, which also works with musicians in the country and with international artists, said most of the longform content it oversees goes to platforms that have a paywall.
Several stakeholders including comedians we spoke to didn't want to be identified, fearing a loss of opportunities. Even as they aggressively use YouTube's rival Facebook for promoting their work, and strike partnerships with Amazon and Netflix, they haven't completely ditched YouTube and continue to have a relationship with Google's service.
"The market is too fluid. No one knows what to expect. Also we should not forget Instagram and Snapchat. We don't share videos there but we do plug our videos there, and that too is important," a prominent comedian told Gadgets 360.
"If FB [Facebook] starts letting us monetise our videos, things will further improve," the comedian said. "You have to appreciate how in last three years telecom providers like Jio have helped more people to watch streaming content with their low-cost plans. That too has helped a lot to us."
The problem with YouTube - another comedian explained - is that you have to put a lot of effort in bringing sponsors, and then in working out deals with these companies. Those sponsorships, which happen offline, continue to amount for much of the revenue they get from YouTube, he added. An industry source corroborated the claims.
YouTube takes 45 percent cut on the revenue ad impressions generate on videos, according to the company. The rest goes to creators. This doesn't leave too much, and that's why sponsorships become very important.
Remember seeing gadget reviewers' and comedians' love for Ola? YouTube helps comedians find the right brands they should partner with for sponsorships, and the creators take 100 percent of that money, Satya Raghavan, the head of entertainment at YouTube India, told Gadgets 360 in an interview.
"We actively do a lot of matchmaking. Continuously, brands reach out to us and they say they want to work with certain type of creators. So we then share a list of creators that they could work with," Raghavan explained.
As one comedian mentioned, the changing landscape in the telecom industry - with Reliance Jio offering low-cost Internet access - has helped bring millions of new users online. Additionally, availability of vernacular content on YouTube has also helped it become more appealing to several Indians.
In an interview published in The Hindu, Ajay Vidyasagar, regional director at Google Asia Pacific said the company expects "regional language content" to push growth in India, where the company expects to double its userbase in next three years. Google told Gadgets 360 that about 200 million users from India consume content on YouTube every month.
According to an industry source, however, when a bulk of people suddenly start using your service, it comes with a catch. "The demand for views has jacked up," the source said.
This means that if creators were getting a certain amount of money when they delivered 1,000 views, now they have to get up to 3,000 views to make the same amount. This, in addition to the hassle of going through brand sponsorships, has further complicated things for the creators. The demand for viewership varies by the genre a creator operates in, the source added.
That's where Amazon Prime Video and Netflix come into play. Both the platforms offer a "minimum guarantee" payment to their content partners. The usual "minimum guaranteed" figure is in lakhs, people familiar with the matter said. When those videos perform well on either of the platforms, the content creators get paid more incentives, people familiar with details said. Both of these platforms also free comedians from the worries of seeking sponsorships.
Some comedians say that things could improve when YouTube brings its Red Originals programme to India. In the US, Google launched YouTube Red US in 2015, offering users ad-free YouTube videos and other benefits including access to exclusive content under the Red Originals umbrella for a fee. As part of the deal, creators are paid handsomely for their work.
When we asked Raghavan when we could expect Red Originals to come to India, he didn't share a firm timeline. But he added that the company is increasingly expanding the YouTube Red program across the world.
Google is at present testing whether people in India are willing to pay for content. Earlier this year, it launched Google Play Music, which offers subscribers access to a large catalog of songs for a fixed monthly free. That was the first time Google launched any of its subscription-based services for consumers in India.
As for the "talks" that creators are going to other platforms, YouTube doesn't see it as a problem, Raghavan said, adding that YouTube continues to help creators build large communities on its website. "In addition, YouTube helps them build a business around it," he said. "To us, when a comedian gets an opportunity on another platform, we get very excited. They continue to do stuff on YouTube, and at the same time they are able to grow a full business offline or online."
Raghavan said that it wasn't until 2014 that creators in the country - especially stand-up comedians - started to use YouTube to its potential. "Some of the people who came onboard early were people like AIB, TVF, and EIC and they found a lot of takers for their content and the platform responded really well to their content," he said. The number of takers has grown incredibly in the past two years, he said. "Now a creator who started his or her channel only 12 months ago is reporting one million subscribers," he said, adding that people who started in 2014 took much longer to reach such milestones.
But much of the content produced back then was in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam. And only certain states were showing a lot of enthusiasm in creating content. This, Raghavan said, changed in 2015 and 2016, when people from all corners of the country started to produce funny content, often in their native language.
"In 2017, we have reached that stage when we see these creators from all across India are going strength to strength. As YouTube worked on the supply side, even the demand side due to help from mobile operators like Jio - has skyrocketed," he said.
YouTube expects several more talents to come to its platform in the next one year. How quickly some of them start exploring other opportunities will be a thing to watch.