Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Netted! Netflix and the Faltering Logic of Global Capital in India (Core Post 5)

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.


  1. This is a great blog post and I love the last sentence! When Netflix first announced its expansion to all the different countries and I saw Nigeria on the list I was excited but also curious as to how it would work. You point out the obstacle of being able to watch HD content when most of the people in countries like Nigeria, India, and Vietnam are paying for data as they go and aren't really on a data plan like those in the US and Europe. It seemed like Netflix wanted to make itself available in as many countries as possible but didn't keep the situation and structure of the countries in mind. The lack of content and access to watching the limited content in many of these countries makes it almost unnecessary for people there to subscribe to Netflix. Like you state at the end of your post, "India didn't necessarily need Netflix; rather Netflix's corporate ambitions needed India." That right there basically sums up the US desire to globalize in every aspect possible even when it's not necessary or needed.

  2. Great post Darshana! And I agree with Anna, I especially love your last sentence! Sure seems to me that Netflix needs India more than India needs Netflix.

    Anyhoo, I've been hearing buzz about the fact that Netflix's global expansion is not going as well as they planned, which actually isn't particularly surprising. Incase you're interested, I came across this short article from 2014, when Netflix was expanding to Australia and New Zealand (http://qz.com/299091/the-problem-with-netflixs-overseas-expansion/). The article notes how Australians and New Zealanders already found ways to bypass geo-blockers in order to watch Netflix, and questions the cost of the service and missing content (such as House of Cards). On an economic/industrial note, the author concludes: "If nothing else, Netflix’s march into new territories may highlight just how weird, arbitrary and outdated the system for international licensing of content has become."

  3. Amazing stuff Darshana. The "Global Television" model for some reason feels like it must be less translatable than the Hollywood Blockbuster model that has become the standard. Reading your post, I kept thinking about the development of Bollywood in the 1990s in relation to the NRI community, and bringing some sort of "legitimacy" to the market that re-energized a middle and upper class market that had largely abandoned domestic production for, well, satellite TV. I think as you note, a lot of these models are based around certain issues of access. To subscribe to "Global Television," you need a high-speed internet connection, likely in a major city, likely without any power issues, and then a subscription to Netflix beyond this. And even with something like "House of Cards," knowing how to "beat" the system is dependent on a certain knowledge base. All this leads me to simply think about "Global TV" as you have challenge as not just a horizontal spread across the globe, but how far it reaches up and down the class structure.

  4. Thanks for articulating this for us, Darshana! Many eyes have been on Netflix performance in India, which I agree is seen as the most prescient example of one of the more challenging countries that Netflix is trying to break into, given the dominance of "homegrown" material. Though China's situation is compounded by a government censorship and regulation system more restrictive than that of India's, many seem to want to predict Netflix's ability to succeed in China based on what happens in India. Audiences in both countries are also more used to sharing content for free (or cheap) compared to American consumers. Given such environments, it seems unlikely that Netflix has any hope of competing with native content. Perhaps its only chance is to export its original content and hope legal channels remain more attractive than pirated options. Given your argument about how socially and economically disruptive Netflix's entry into India may be, I see a great deal of potential trouble in the future.

    1. I am glad you mentioned the Chinese Television Industry, Danielle!! And I agree with your point that the government regulation would prohibit the coming of Netflix for sure. I would also like to add that , even if Netflix could make into foreign industry, it would hardy survive due to the numerous competition of the the emerging local streaming. It will need to make changes that is designed for that specific market. A successful example in Chinese market is how Amazon made into the industry through cooperating with local companies. The opposite example id the total failure of BestBuy in China, when it sticked to the same marketing strategy.

  5. Darshana, this is a great post, and I see a a future disertation on this topic!! Please do work on it because it will be an on-going project. It drives a question of how digitalization may not survive easily in the globalization. Though we a approaching to a globalized television viewing atmosphere, there are differences within the boarders of nations and audiences certainly do not experience the ubiquitous TV materials. The digitalization of television made a big step to distributing content in the the same platform, but regulations still prohibits the ubiquitousness. Hence, the shows travels, but the institution does not.Same as India industry, Chinese television industry is also very complex for Netflix to get in or make a profit. It is a totally different situation for online streaming companies such as Netflix to master another country's existing system. And though the program "House of Cards" could be a global phenomenon, the company that made the show could not travel as freely as the show.