Just when it started to look like the OTT platforms were about to usher in a renaissance in the Bangladeshi content industry, news of Zee5 shutting down came as a bolt from the blue.
The three-and-a-half-year journey of Zee5 in the country has ended abruptly with the platform announcing its departure to its users through texts and emails recently. The shutdown will be effective from January 15 onwards.
The platform, however, also assured refunds to subscribers, who had already purchased advanced packages.
A few questions now loom large. The most pressing one is what exactly went wrong with Zee5 and if it is a forecast of what might happen with the other OTT platforms in the coming months or years. This also brings to the fore the question of how the country's OTT industry is faring as a whole despite challenges and shortcomings.
We reached out to industry insiders to find these answers, and the upshot of those conversations offers several positives in regard to the feasibility of the OTT industry in Bangladesh. Thanks to the authenticity and freshness of Bangladeshi content, they have the potential to capture the imagination of a large Bangalee-speaking audience all around the world, helping the industry grow further in the coming years.
However, some negatives like inconvenient payment gateway systems, content piracy and potentially demanding OTT policy also came to light, which needs the government's immediate attention to ensure a sustainable future.
What exactly went wrong with Zee5?
To unearth the reasons behind Zee5's sudden decision, we reached out to Zee5.
"From my own assumption, the merger between Zee and Sony has some connection with this. What I sensed is that their priorities had changed, and they were no longer interested in investing in Bangladesh, at least for their OTT platforms," said Iresh Zaker, the Managing Director of Good Company, a subsidiary of Asiatic 3Sixty, who was behind the creation and management of Zee5's content in the country.
According to reports, Zee Entertainment was struggling for cash to bankroll its expansion plans, but the merger with Sony Pictures would give the merged entity greater access to cash flows and capital heft.
"Zee5 is a huge multinational platform, and it is natural that, probably, the Bangladeshi market is considered very small to them," added Zaker.
Another cue of Zee5 never really taking the Bangladeshi market seriously lies in the fact that they did not even set up an office in Bangladesh, as pointed out by Faisal Mahbub, Hoichoi's manager of PR and marketing, who said, "How can you be based in Mumbai and still win over the Bangladeshi people's hearts? It is practically impossible."
Shihab Shaheen, one of the leading filmmakers of Bangladesh directed the first full-length Bangladeshi web film for Zee5 titled "Jodi Kintu Tobuo," said, "Zee5's departure is nothing surprising. They were not very active with new Bangladeshi content for the last few years anyway."
The current state of the OTT industry in Bangladesh
Regardless of Zee5's decision to leave the Bangladeshi market, local industry insiders firmly believe that the performance of Bangladeshi OTT platforms in recent years has been nothing short of extraordinary.
According to the statistics presented in a seminar titled "Content as Currency" at Bangla Academy on 30 December 2022, the combined total subscribers in local OTT platforms is 2 crore, with a market size of Tk300 crore (yearly).
Hoichoi currently has 5 lakh subscribers through mobile and internet banking (for packages starting from Tk599) alone in Bangladesh. It also has plenty of users who consume its content by subscribing to smaller bundles introduced by local mobile operators. Overall, Hoichoi is now a profitable venture in Bangladesh, investing Tk20 crores for the past year in this market.
With such hefty investments by the OTT platforms, local producers are also getting a good chunk of money from each of their productions, provided they meet the highest-quality standard.
TBS obtained insider information that for every production, Bangladeshi OTT platforms pay Tk75 to 80 lakh, excluding VAT and AIT, to the production company. Meanwhile, Indian platforms pay around a crore for every Bangladeshi production. However, the amount is still somewhat low compared to the 3.5 to 4 crore paychecks received by every Indian production.
'Dhaka could be the capital of Bangla content'
At a session titled "OTT: The Future of Content Creation" on the second day of the recently-concluded Dhaka Lit Fest 2023, analysts expressed their optimism about the future of the OTT industry in Bangladesh. One of the attendees of the session was Prothom Alo's Managing Editor Sajjad Sharif, who made an ambitious comment about Dhaka's potential to become the capital of Bangla content.
"With the language barrier now being lifted thanks to subtitles, Dhaka could very well be the capital of content for the 35 crore Bangalee-speaking audience all over the world," he said.
"Conscious audiences now love all kinds of good content, from K-dramas to Malayalam movies, and even Turkish serials and Iranian films. It is because they now want to see good and authentic stories which reflect the lives and struggles of a certain demography.
On Chorki and other Dhaka-based OTT platforms, Bangalee-speaking audiences are being catered to the same [good and authentic content]," Sharif added.
The global scene
While the consumption of OTT content worldwide boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic, many predicted the growth would slow down once the world transitioned back to normalcy. But recent research data shows that the global OTT market is still growing, thanks to the availability of a wide range of streaming content in many regional languages and the simplicity of viewing through various devices and platforms.
Netflix is still ahead of the rest, holding 35% of the global OTT streaming share. As of the third quarter of 2022, it has approximately 223 million paid subscribers worldwide, and is likely to add another 4.5 million subscribers for the fourth quarter. This is a massive improvement from the first two quarters of last year, when it reported back-to-back losses of subscribers for the first time in more than a decade, with its subscribers dropping to 220.67 million.
Amazon Prime Video is in the second position with 205 million subscribers, also overcoming earlier scares of losses. Disney+ has 164.2 million subscribers, keeping up the consistency, with the company overall reaching 235.7 million across Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+.
Extensive research going into new content creation in Bangladesh
Spokespersons from the Bangladeshi OTT platforms claimed that nowadays they do extensive research work on what the audiences are watching, or might like to watch in future, before picking up or continuing new shows.
According to Hoichoi's Mahbub, this is the reason the length of every episode of a series does not generally exceed 25 minutes.
"We can see from the back end what the audiences are watching, and for how long. We have noticed that the lion's share of our audience is mainly young people who don't have much time to invest in a show. They like it short, hence we also try to keep it short, with a cliffhanger at the end of the episode."
Research work gets the topmost priority in the country's newest OTT platform Deepto Play -- a subsidiary of Deepto TV.
Mohammad Abu Nasim, the Head of Digital Media at Deepto TV said, "We were probably the first TV channel in the country who introduced a full-fledged consumer research team. It helped us to reach a very wide audience in a short time, and now we are again benefitting from it as an OTT platform too."
Payment gateway, still a headache
Bangladeshi OTT content is now more popular than ever all over the world. But a common allegation against Bangladesh OTT platforms is that many interested viewers living abroad cannot access Bangladeshi premium content owing to the absence of a proper payment gateway system.
Redoan Rony, the Chief Executive Officer of Chorki, claimed that they have been doing everything from their end, but the government is not making things easier for OTT and other web-based platforms.
"If you go through the payment systems of Chorki, there is every single way possible to make payments. We now have subscribers from 198 countries, and we receive payments in 29 currencies. Still, many people cannot access our content because we can not let them pay through Paypal. But this is not in our hands. We can open it [take payments through certain apps] as soon as the Bangladeshi government makes it possible," Rony said.
The piracy problem
Apart from Zee5, Shihab Shaheen has had experiences working with the country's other top OTT platforms such as Chorki, Binge and Bioscope. He believes his OTT productions are not yet getting as many views as his earlier work did on TV and YouTube. However, he also opined that it is impossible to get the actual figures because more people are watching content from pirate websites than on genuine platforms.
"I have seen people downloading my web films and shows from pirate sites and FTP servers. Even the local cable operators also run my OTT content on their video channels. This way my work is reaching a very large audience, but the records continue to be undocumented," he said.
Could the OTT policy pose more challenges?
With the OTT content-based service provision and management policy-2021 by the Information Ministry underway, there has been much criticism on imposing such a policy without taking feedback from the people inside the OTT industry.
Iresh Zaker said, "Rules and regulations are necessary to run any sector, but the more important thing is how it looks. You must take industry experts on board, and consider their opinion. But the current board mainly consists of bureaucrats who do not have much idea about the OTT industry."
One of the industry insiders who were consulted before drafting the OTT policy is prominent filmmaker Amitabh Reza Chowdhury.
"Our primary demand from them was to ensure that the OTT policy does not become a control mechanism for the state. Rather we wanted the policy to be business-friendly so that it could attract more entrepreneurs to invest in this industry. We also sought a proper definition of censorship from them. But we did not get any of these from them," Chowdhury told TBS.
"Having said that, we have the pornography act, ICT act and censor act in place. So the OTT policy is not likely to make our [filmmakers'] life more difficult than it already has," the Aynabaji-famed director concluded.
What lies ahead?
Despite all the probable challenges and setbacks, industry experts agree in unison that OTT is going to be the ultimate future of the Bangladeshi entertainment sector.
"It is an open market. Zee5 might have gone away, but their void will be filled by someone else. Bangladeshi OTT industry is going ahead in full swing, and I don't expect it to slow down anytime soon," said Chorki CEO Rony.
Hoichoi's Mahbub also echoed the same sentiment, "The market is so broad and wide that even the introduction of new rivals will not do us any harm. With the arrival of every new platform, the industry will grow and new eyes will be attracted."
It is estimated that by 2030, the OTT platform market size in Bangladesh will reach beyond the Tk1,000 crore milestone.