In January 2016 at the Consumer Electronic show in Las Vegas, Netflix announced its expansion to 129 new markets including countries like India, Singapore, Vietnam, Turkey, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Poland, Russia, Azerbaijan among others. In many of these countries including India , Vietnam and Nigeria, providing access to HD enabled video streaming services has proved to be a difficult task due to uneven access to technology. High speed internet access is not a luxury most can enjoy, and data costs are extremely high. To watch an hour of content in HD for instance, one might have to shell out 3GB of internet data. In a market that is heavily dependent on domestic television programming, the entry of foreign media in a new format marked both note of jubilation and anxiety at the same time.
While lack of infrastructure for smoothening internet access was one of the concerns that prolonged the entry of streaming services in India, the timing of Netflix’s entry in 2016 also marked a strange convergence of debates on technological access, including a war of words over net neutrality between the Telecom Regulatory Board of India (TRAI) and Facebook. Facebook proposed a differential data pricing model that was tied to content services. Facebook’s Free Basics proposal, that effectively suggested ending zero-rating platforms in India was rejected after intense consultations. But the idea of digital equality through affordable internet access was looming large when Netflix started its expansion in India. After the initial success in mobilizing support over the need for equal access to digital platforms, Facebook lost its public support and had to end its negotiations midway. Coming straight after this, Netflix’s entry was seen as creating a rift between the haves and have nots, i.e those who could afford high speed internet and those who could not.
Interestingly, the subscription-based model that allowed users to access content was modelled by Nextflix in India based on a three-tier model. The Basic, Standard and Premium packages allowed users to simultaneous access one, two and four screens respectively. While the price ranged from $8 to $13, this was more at par with the basic cable and DTH plans in India. It raises a crucial question. Who were the prospective users that Netflix was targeting for its market? Were these users who are already familiar with the shows and who would prefer subscribing to Netflix than download content from torrent? Or was it a new constituency of viewers who were unfamiliar with English language entertainment, but supported blockbuster Hollywood films such as Iron Man and Godzilla with the same gusto as a regional language film.
So, effectively while the discussions were geared towards the need to catch up with the new multi-screen culture that allowed a smooth flow of viewing from tablet to smart phone to television, the essential infrastructure that could allow these to materialize was still seeped in the realm of the ideal-case scenario. In his announcement for the expansion into new markets, the CEO of Netflix identified the urge for the immediate and simultaneous consumption of media content as the drive that allowed Nextflix to bridge the geographical distance and language barriers.
Another crucial factor that contributed to the discussions on the viability of Netflix as a probable alternative to the cable broadcast is the way it was seen as a connector to the global media platforms. For instance, there were intense speculations about the smart phone boom in India in the last five years and how accessory products could be marketed around it. This not only brought back debates on net neutrality, but also allowed Netflix to cater to an already established mode of operation tested in the data usage package offered by internet providers. While the use of separate packages was not tried by Netflix elsewhere, the use of three-tier model was seen as forging an intrinsic connection between the already tried out formulae used by the internet providers in the Indian market, allowing a cross platform leverage that was relatively new to Indian mediascape.
However, the Indian media ecology was rife with informal and pirate modes of circulating and consuming media content. Netflix’s entry into the Indian market was thus, imbued with a strange sense of contradictions. For instance, the viewership share of English general entertainment channels in India is less than 1% and there has been a marginal decline from 1.1% in 2013 to 0.9 % in 2014, making the target users for Netflix even less tangible in terms of numbers.
On the one hand, the smart phone boom in India was perceived as a ripe time for Netflix’s Indian entry, especially because Indian Broadcast television never simulcast American shows and waited for several weeks after any series is telecast to stack its episodes. This was seen as a practice that was conducive to the “strip” format that was followed in India, a trend that acclimatized the viewers who pattern their media consumption practices on specific timings on a daily basis. The strip format has been integrated as a part of the television programming, with the distinct markers of weekly and week end slots clearly laid out.
Considering the emphasis on binge watching that Nextflix has relied on to galvanize its viewership, the focus on strip format has proved to be a difficulty. Even Indian broadcast channels are trying to reorganize their content after the entry of Netflix. For instance, Colors Infinity, a newly launched English entertainment channel is telecasting ten back-to-back episodes of American TV series Mad Dogs, as it is premiered in the US.
One of the persistent problems many Netflix users in India faced is the small catalogue and unavailability of content including the House of Cards, Netflix’s own production. This triggered off a search with multiple lists being compiled by users speculating on what could be stacked in unnoticed corners. For instance, finder.com.au, Australia’s most visited comparison site came up with a list and a clarification that the confusion regarding is content is more because of the way the streaming organizes the genre list. Another list was provided by Ogres-crypt.com to assist the viewers to navigate the terrain of the relatively new entrant to the mediascape. In fact, there were user guides and tips for new users that proliferated in a short time, especially on how use of chromecast could help those users without a smart TV.
Netflix’s troubles in India open up the question of the “globe” to acute scrutiny. With systems such as geoblocking in place, how can one conceive of a “global television?” Even in the era of the Internet, the idea of a truly global television then, remains haunted by questions of restricted access and East-West divide. What remains crucial to us as television scholars is to redefine the idea of the global by giving it up to polysemy and allowing for the ways content is distributed and consumed through informal systems. For instance, Indian viewers knew and watched shows such as Breaking Bad and Dexter way before Netflix ever hit the Indian shores. India didn’t necessarily need Netflix; rather Netflix’s corporate ambitions needed India.