How an internet show on startups delivered a stinging blow to Indian TV

A scene from TVF Pitchers.
A scene from TVF Pitchers.
Image: Screenshot/YouTube
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Five years ago, Arunabh Kumar’s concepts for television shows were outrightly rejected by India’s mainstream channels—including MTV. Eventually, he turned to YouTube, and started creating online content under his company, The Viral Fever.

This week, his new web series—telecast on the company’s own website TVFPlay and subsequently on YouTube—has made it to the Internet Movie Database’s (IMDb) coveted top 250 list of TV shows. IMDb is an online database that ranks TV shows based on the ratings that each show receives from voters.

TVF Pitchers, written and produced by Kumar, is currently ranked 43—ahead of popular American shows, including The Daily Show, Downton Abbey, Suits, among others.

One of the very few original web series in India, the show is about four salaried professionals who give up their lucrative jobs to set up a technology startup in Hiranandani Powai, an emerging hub for entrepreneurs in Mumbai’s suburb. ”The idea for the show came to me in 2012 when I went to Bengaluru,” Kumar told Quartz.

The story explores the challenges that young entrepreneurs face in India—from building a software and raising funds to parental pressure and copyright infringement.

The first season, which consisted of five episodes, has been acclaimed as realistic on social media. The Viral Fever’s last web series was a romantic-comedy called Permanent Roommates, launched in in October last year.

The company also creates satirical online videos on Bollywood, politics and Indian media.

So far, each episode of Pitchers on YouTube has around 1.5 million views, but Kumar is confident that it will touch 2-3 million soon, overtaking Permanent Roommates.

Bad television

The success of the web series is a slap in the face of Indian television—and its typically overtly melodramatic content.

Serial dramas, replete with old-fashioned values, dominate small screens in India. Non-fiction programmes—including reality shows, misogynist comedy shows and dance and singing competitions—also crowd general entertainment channels.

“The success of the show (Pitchers) is a testament that Indian television is heavily templatised to the lowest common denominator,” Sameer Pitalwalla, CEO of digital media startup Culture Machine, told Quartz.

“It is certainly losing its edge to audiences who reward quality storytelling over everything else, regardless of what platform they get to view it on.”

These web series by The Viral Fever and others explore subjects that connect with the Indian youth and their day-to-day problems, including live-in relationships, dating, and entrepreneurship.

“The show has become popular with the web-friendly youngsters because it addresses their aspirations. And no other TV show in India is doing that,” Sudipta Dhruva, chief creative officer of The Ideas Box, an ideas and content company for television and digital, told Quartz.

The web format also provides flexibility to the audience, which does not want to “bother with appointment viewing,” Dhruva said. “The new working crowd does not have fixed timings and hence, this works out well for them.”

Last year, a Google India spokesperson told Quartz that YouTube’s web originals partners (as distinct from partners that push television or film content online) in India had witnessed a 300% growth in traffic in just one year.

“This audience base is currently niche, but as more such online properties launch, the viewer base of online Indian fiction is bound to grow over time,” Shailesh Kapoor of Ormax Media, which tracks Indian films and TV, told Quartz.

As per comScore, YouTube has over 60 million unique users in India. The country also happens to be among the top five in terms of content generation.

“We are not denting older system like TV that is focussing on lower middle class… masses of the yesteryears. We are focussing on the newer system,” Kumar said. ”My audience is waiting for the second season of Permanent Roommates, and not Splitsvilla (a dating reality show on MTV).”

Real entrepreneurs

The show has certainly struck a chord with entrepreneurs in India’s Silicon Valley—Bengaluru.

In fact, dialogues from the show, including “Tu kya hai? Tu hai kya? Tu beer hai” (“Who are you? What are you? You are like beer”) have become catchphrases for many technology entrepreneurs.

“The TVF team has been able to stitch together a story that would resonate with many startup folks.” Avinash Saurabh, CEO and founder of game-based social wellness platform, told Quartz. ”Every time we meet, they point out one or two incidents in the latest episode, and explain how the exact same thing happened to them. One of my friend even uses the jury room method at times.”

The “jury room method” was used by show’s protagonist to make a critical decision for the company.

Ride-sharing startup, Zify, even held a screening of its first season’s finale episode at its Hyderabad office for its seven-member team. “By the end of the episode, some of us were very emotional because we could relate to those characters very well. I think, in our team we have people who are really similar to the four main characters of the show,” CEO Anurag Rathor told Quartz.

Another entrepreneur, Umesh Sachdev, who is the co-founder and CEO of Uniphore Software Systems, first heard about the show from an American investor during his trip to the US last month. But he isn’t too impressed.

“It’s good entertainment, but some things are not factually correct.” Sachdev told Quartz. “It is hard to raise funds, but then investor ecosystem is not all black, as shown in the series.”

“But then I understand that it has been shown like that for entertainment factor.”

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