Just over two years ago, Netflix announced that it would be vastly expanding its service globally, becoming available in 130 new markets. India was one of those markets, and with the service available in the country for well over 24 months, it's time to see what has worked (and what hasn't).
At the time, Netflix was the first major paid video streaming service to make its debut in India. There were local streaming platforms, but none had Netflix's scale nor content library. Netflix's basic tier — which allowed for 480p streaming on one device — cost ₹500 ($7.80) a month, with the two-screen HD plan costing ₹650 ($10) and the 4K package coming in at ₹800 ($12.50) a month.
Two years on, the pricing has remained the same, but what has changed is the arrival of Amazon Prime Video and local streaming service Hotstar. Both platforms have managed to make significant inroads in the country through a combination of aggressive pricing and strong content libraries.
Hotstar, for instance, has the digital rights to HBO shows in the country, and streams Game of Thrones episodes the same day they air in the U.S. That's obviously a huge pull, as is the fact that Hotstar has exclusive rights to stream cricket and football games in the country.
Then there's the issue of pricing: the base tier of Hotstar is free (albeit with ads), and there's a single premium tier that costs ₹199 a month ($3). For that price, you get access to over 40 HBO shows, which in itself is a pretty great deal. The service serves over 200 U.S.-based shows in total, not to mention a dizzying array of regional programming.
Netflix costs three times as much as Hotstar and eight times as much as Prime Video.
As for Amazon, the retailer has invested over $2 billion in India over the last two years as it seeks to overthrow homegrown Flipkart. One way to attract customers is with deep discounts, and no one does it better than the Seattle-based company. Amazon continually holds sales events where it significantly marks down hundreds of thousands of products, and its Prime membership in India is the best bargain you'll find on an e-commerce site.
While a yearly subscription to Prime is $99 in the U.S., it costs just ₹999 ($15.60) in India. That's the new price, after Amazon doubled it at the end of last year. For the first two years, Prime cost just ₹499 ($7.50) in the country, an unbelievable offer considering what the retailer gave away with the subscription.
A Prime subscription in India doesn't have all the benefits as its U.S. equivalent — Prime Reading isn't available here — but you do get free one-day delivery on hundreds of thousands of items, access to deals ahead of everyone else, and unlimited streaming with Prime Video. To put things into context, a yearly Prime subscription costs about the same as two months' worth of Netflix, and you get much more value for your money.
In a country where piracy is seen as a right, competitive pricing is the only way to get customers to switch over to legitimate streaming services. That sentiment is shared not only by Amazon and Hotstar, but also by Google and Apple. Play Music All Access launched in India last year, and the music subscription service costs just ₹99 ($1.50) per month. Similarly, Apple Music costs ₹120 ($1.90) a month in the country.
The latest data from market research firm Counterpoint Research shows just how far off the pace Netflix is. The firm found that Hotstar is the largest video streaming service in India, with around 75 million subscribers (having an ad-subsidized tier certainly helps). Viacom 18's Voot is second with 22 million users, followed by Prime Video with 11 million subscribers.
Netflix is in fifth with a monthly active userbase of 5 million. What's even more troubling is that just 6 to 8% of those subscribers are paying customers, suggesting a majority of users aren't extending their subscription beyond the 30-day trial.
Although it costs significantly more than other streaming services, pricing isn't my main problem with Netflix in India. In the U.S., Netflix offers a wide selection of TV shows that includes Friends, The West Wing, The X-Files, Lost, Twin Peaks, and several others. Netflix India doesn't have any of those, and its movie catalog is also similarly diminished.
Netflix's main problem in India is its vastly diminished content library.
Even big-ticket shows like How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory — which draw huge audiences on cable — are unavailable for streaming on the platform. With Hotstar offering cricket and football matches along with a wider selection of regional content as well as more U.S.-based TV shows for a third of the cost, Netflix is facing a gargantuan challenge in India.
For what it's worth, Netflix's original programming is available in its entirety in the country. Shows like Stranger Things, BoJack Horseman, and House of Cards are clear favorites, but it's a tough sell to convince Indian users to pony up solely based on the strengths of the service's original content.
Netflix's barrier to entry is too high for most Indians, and it's unlikely it will ever gain mainstream acceptance. To drive home the point even further, we'll need to look at cellular data availability. The arrival of Jio has revolutionized the way Indians consume data, with the carrier essentially giving away unlimited data for the first year of its existence. As such, India has some of the most affordable 4G plans in the world.
Airtel is the largest carrier with over 300 million subscribers, and its unlimited 4G plan — with unlimited calls, texts, and 1.4GB of 4G data per day — costs ₹509 ($8) for three months. That's about the same as a monthly subscription to Netflix.
It's obviously early days for streaming services in India, and with initiatives like Android Go set to bring down the cost of smartphone ownership, there's huge potential in this segment in the coming years. For Netflix to even have a chance against Prime Video and Hostar, it needs to rethink its India strategy, and do it fast.
Update: Added the latest figures on the Indian OTT segment from Counterpoint.
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