Hoichoi has 13 million subscribers, the Bengali-language streaming service said on Friday. This is the first time the company has revealed a subscriber count for its service, three years after launching. While Hoichoi didn’t disclose how many of these viewers are direct subscribers, it is interesting to note that 40% of the company’s revenue comes from abroad, a notable figure for a regional-language platform. We spoke to co-founder Vishnu Mohta on what the platform has learnt, and generally on the Indian streaming service ecosystem. A transcript of that interview, edited for clarity and length, follows.

MediaNama: What have you learnt in the three years since Hoichoi’s launch?

Vishnu Mohta: This business is a mix of four or five things. This is something we realized early on, but we never realized the interplay of all of these things, which is the interplay of content, technology, great customer support, marketing, and distribution, working with partners. So the interplay of all of these things to work together to achieve your objective is extremely important. In most businesses there are two or three things that you’re aiming at. In the content business, you’re trying to do content and distribution, generally.

I have always believed that content is king, but in this business, you need content coupled with the technology coupled with customer support.

MediaNama: How is Hoichoi’s market different from more national streaming services like Hotstar?

Vishnu Mohta: SVF [Hoichoi’s parent company, a media company] has been making movies in Bengali alone for 25 years. Bengali has more than 200 million speakers, and it’s one of the biggest languages in the world. In a market like Bangladesh, they don’t speak Hindi, or English for that matter, in large volumes. Plus, there is a vast pool of Indian as well as Bangladeshi Bengalis. That’s a very unique phenomenon. No other Indian language can claim that. 

We’re not going to run out of people to address or cater to. It was more important to be global with our objective, global with our reach; this was going to be enough to keep us busy for a very long time. If I consume content in Bengali, I need something exciting every week, not once in two months or something. That is only possible with a very focused approach to catering to a very large population of people. So, that’s the thesis we went with. At the same time, you know, the big advantage we have is that we are not competing with anybody else. Today, luckily, we are the only ones doing this.

MediaNama: How do you look at bundling streaming subscriptions in telecom or broadband? It doesn’t look like these deals net a lot of money compared to direct subscriptions.

Vishnu Mohta: Yes, absolutely. Bundled subscriptions have to be discounted, but they’re actually huge volumes. We also distribute dubbed content through other platforms. So the reason for that is that you know, it is a way to broaden your [user base] without actually making content free. The strategy in a pay market is to make everything free and then people will hopefully pay eventually. The alternative would be to have some content free for sampling, which we don’t do. Your addressable audience becomes massive [with bundling], your reach and your sample base becomes very big.

MediaNama: Are you disclosing how many direct subscribers you have versus how many viewers are coming in through partnerships with telcos and bundling?

Vishnu Mohta: No, we’re not, and nobody else does either.

MediaNama: From a tech perspective, why do Indian-origin streaming services not have data-intensive streaming options like their international counterparts? Why do high resolution streams also get delivered in low bitrates?

Vishnu Mohta: Taking us as an example, we’re serving customers in both the US, who don’t care about data use and demand pristine video quality, and also people in Bangladesh, where data is still very expensive and people are conscious about their data use. So now what that means is that on phone devices, you can maybe see 1080p video at lower bitrates, maybe at 1.5 or 2Mbps. That bitrate is enough for HD video on mobile screens, and also doesn’t wear down the battery too much. The server or CDN costs are not an issue; once you attain a certain scale — we consume about 25 petabytes of data — adding 2-4 petabytes extra doesn’t matter that much. It’s more of a customer experience issue.

MediaNama: What have you learnt on payments?

Vishnu Mohta: I think what is clear is that subscription is probably the way to monetize premium content.

MediaNama: Because ads can only go so far.

Vishnu Mohta: Ads can go very far! They can go really, really far. The problem is that Facebook and Google eat up the global share of online advertisement. They control 70-80%, and the rest of the pie is fragmented amongst a million other things like game developers and so on. I’m not saying it can’t be done I’m saying it’s the volumes that you need and the kind of bond that you need [with viewers]. That is one problem. It’s also a supply side problem. I cannot go in ask a premium film producer to say you know what, give me your film and I will make it available for free on the platform.

MediaNama: How hopeful are you that the new Universal Self-Regulation Code for Online Curated Content Providers will get approval from the government?

Vishnu Mohta: There are two other businesses, streams of content businesses that we have comparison to when we’re talking about regulation. One is films in terms of theatrical and the other is television. Films works on the Censor Board model; television works on the self-regulation model. The simple analogy for that is a film just a public viewing, public screening, you know, on the street, anybody can enter kind of scenario. Television is mostly home viewing with the family. OTT is, I would say, 70 to 80% personal consumption, or 80%, personal consumption, and maybe 20% home viewing.

It’s more aligned to broadcasting, where the television self-regulation model has worked really well. Every OTT of significance in the country has signed the code, so that in itself is a herculean effort. I’m not in the right place to judge whether it needs or if it is seeking the blessings of the government, per se. But I think there is at least a very concerted, very direct effort to democratizing platforms, because you’re allowing the customer to make a choice and let him know age ratings and content descriptors.