Is OTT really over-the-top?

Streaming apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime may have presented a problem of plenty for viewers all over the world.

By K Badar

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Reuters file
Reuters file

Published: Fri 26 Nov 2021, 11:38 PM

Netflixing is a term that has not yet entered the dictionary, but it is fast acquiring a “selfie” type of cult following. The term selfie was used by every other youngster before it went mainstream. Urban Dictionary validates the common usage of the term “Netflixing”, with a loose definition like “To watch Netflix for an extended period of time, blocking oneself out of social life”. Parents, teachers and researchers know that the world is fast getting “Netflixed”. This is where we stand with the overdose of over-the-top (OTT) content irrespective of which part of the world we live in.

Just a sample of data explains the explosion that is OTT content. App Annie, a company that studies mobile usage data, cites in The State of Mobile 2021 report that in the fourth quarter of 2020, users across the globe spent a whopping 239 billion hours using video streaming apps!

It is not difficult to see how the Covid-19-induced lockdowns around the world have benefited OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. The closure of outdoor recreational activities, especially cinemas, has brought the high-quality premium content into mobile devices and smart TVs. Not to forget that, as if just in time, the premium content industry had cracked the problem of piracy through streaming security tools like digital rights management on OTT platforms. Once Hollywood and other major global studios got convinced that they do not lose revenue in a significant way on OTT platforms, they did not see problem in shifting wholeheartedly to them.

A raging pandemic, technological advancements, maturing of smart devices and affordable access to high-speed Internet, at least in urban areas, are the factors that work for the OTT space and have elicited a favourable response from investors, production houses and, most importantly, viewers.

Major global markets are facing a content deluge and are facing the problem of plenty in the OTT space, where concerns like quality, independence of productions, divisive agendas, social awkwardness, etc, are beginning to dominate informed debates in drawing rooms as well as among scholars. Everyone wants to know how the plethora of OTT apps will affect the youth. Will it make them more introverted and take them away from traditional activities associated with growing up? Is it a positive phenomenon, since viewers want the best from all cultures on a single platform, and not just what they have grown up watching? Do people across linguistic cultures react differently to the type of content being served on these apps?

‘The character of TV has changed’

Josiah Adiema Adiema is a Nairobi-based communications and public policy consultant who consumes content in English on OTT platforms. He enjoys the content diversity and discoverability on these platforms. As a trainer of communication and social media strategies, Josiah has carefully observed the developments of content consumption patterns in Kenya, as well as globally. He feels that OTT platforms have altered and greatly shaped how the original television programming was planned. In a short span of time, TV programmes, as known earlier, have been rendered defunct. He feels that people use smart TVs to watch OTT content, and not the known stations. “The continued centrality of large screens within households has also given rise to the aspect of binge watching and couch theatres right within the house even as its character has undergone a sea change,” he tells Khaleej Times.

Since OTT platforms are more like many traditional TV channels rolled into one, the explosion of content mirrors what happened to online news two decades back. Suddenly, there was a lot of easily accessible content from different countries available to local audiences. OTT content has similar vastness. “It is a good thing to have content diversity because it enables you to learn new ways and matter,” says Josiah, adding how the “spoilt for choice” concept creates a different kind of problem for producers but is largely a positive development for viewers.

“Content diversity has placed producers in a space where they have no choice but to produce quality programming. When they cannot, no one watches it as viewers just flip to the next available better production from a different producer or even another platform.”

The plentiful bounty emerging from OTT platforms has resulted in binge watchers, which is associated with the OTT space the way the term “couch potato” was used in the context of explosion of cable TV channels and live broadcasts. The allure of everything in one space allows the viewer to pick what they want and slide through quickly, Josiah says, warning that there is confusion in this state of getting too much choice. “For young ones, you simply put a cap on the amount of time spent watching TV or the sites. However, for adults, it is becoming an addiction and a social issue, since one can literally stay inside the house alone the entire day, thus curtailing social interaction.”

He is concerned about how the explosion of content on OTT platforms passes through little filters, particularly the amount of violence and obscenity that children are exposed to, noting, “Even cartoons exhibit lewd scenes or content worth censorship.”

‘French content has improved, but Indian content needs diversity’

Madhuresh Kumar is not someone who watches a lot of TV for entertainment. A Paris-based international development consultant of Indian descent, he would regularly use the Internet to watch non-Hollywood and non-Bollywood cinema. However, with the popularity of Netflix, he got hooked on to OTT platforms first to access the cinema of his choice and then web series in multiple languages. He found Netflix affordable in India for the content of his choice, but after moving to France, he finds subscription expensive.

Madhuresh is in a special position to compare OTT trends in two countries which are culturally set apart. “I do not think that there is a problem of plenty in the OTT space, but, definitely, in India, the emergence of a number of platforms has made it a crowded space, and not many are offering quality content,” he tells Khaleej Times. “Hotstar, due to its international collaborations, scores better on this count, and that is the advantage Netflix and Amazon Prime also have.”

On the other hand, Madhuresh does not find French OTT platforms overcrowded. “Over here, there is an emphasis on quality, and so Canal+ and Disney+ offer good quality along with Netflix and Amazon Prime,” he points out. He feels that the OTT space has widened the spectrum of content in France. Earlier, on French TV, you would find local TV shows and movies plus US content mostly with French voiceover and a few movies from other countries.

Viewers like Madhuresh had to go online to watch international stuff, mostly on streaming websites, which is what attracted them to OTT platforms. Now, they are discovering shows from different countries and understanding cultures and languages through that. “Once you start to understand which region is good for what type of content — the Scandinavian countries are good at crime fiction, for instance — you tend to make informed choices and cut through the clutter,” he says.

Give that he actively seeks a diverse list to decide viewing preference, the OTT space is fun to experiment with and be surprised with form and content of programming. He feels that narrative style changes from one culture to another. “I was a bit puzzled the first time I watched Korean TV programmes because I could not make sense of some scenes,” he says. However, he finds the Indian content on OTT platforms to be an extension of Hindi movies, where out of 100 films produced, “you get five which are original and have good content”.

Madhuresh does not feel overwhelmed with the bombardment of content on streaming platforms. Instead, he has scanned the platforms and identified the ones where he seeks fresh programmes. Regarding France, he believes that traditional broadcasters have been forced to improve their quality to stay in the game.

According to him, an increase in accessing OTT programming has added to the same concerns socially that researchers have identified with growing screen time — be it gaming, online reading or other forms of digital interaction. However, French society, he feels, is taking this challenge head on: “Thankfully, in France, people are still conscious [of children spending excessive time online], and there is infrastructure available for engagement in other forms of recreation, but it is still an effort for parents.”

‘When I am bored, it is the easiest thing to do’

Hailing from Scotland, Fiona Katherine Smith is a visual anthropologist with specialised knowledge of Central Asia and lives in Berlin now. She enjoys OTT content in English and German and finds that popular German shows — such as Babylon Berlin and Dogs of Berlin, are known to her family in Scotland, where they watch them online with subtitles. “Most content I watch is in English, mainly American serials, but because of the wide variety available on OTT platforms, I have started to consume a lot of Korean-language series,” Fiona tells Khaleej Times. She is able to distinguish between shows and films produced by OTT platforms and those hosted by these platforms but are created by another channels or producers. “The content from the OTTs is usually made for international audiences and, in general, shows a more diverse cast, whereas this is not always the case with other channels,” she adds.

Fiona likes the fact that OTT platforms offer excess programming that lets her choose what she wants. “The vast selection offered means that the user would be more inclined to watch something they would not have seen otherwise. I do tend to stick to genres I like, such as comedy, romance, mystery, but if the platform makes another recommendation to me, I don’t mind trying a different genre.”

While she acknowledges the demerits of growing screen time, she feels she has her reasons to binge-watch. “If the weather is good, then I will be outside most of the day. But in the winter, I watch a lot of OTT. Sometimes, I even just have it on in the background while I am doing something else, and I am not really paying attention to it. I know that looking at a screen the whole day is bad for your eyes and skin, so I try to limit it, but when I am bored, it is the easiest thing to do,” she says.

Fiona finds sexual content common in German- and English-language productions, “at least to a certain degree”. She cites the example of shows like Sex Education and Sexify which even play with sexual content to teach young people about topics relating to sexual health, consent, pleasure, etc. “It is, of course, important that content is age-appropriate, and children should not watch shows with strong violent or sexual themes; it is better for them to learn about these things from their parents,” she explains.

According to her, the OTT explosion of content is rather positive in character — especially in Germany and the UK — and does not see it causing much harm to social relations. She and her friends, who are mostly students, prefer watching OTT content at the end of the day to relax, especially during the weekdays, while weekends are kept open. “I would not say that OTT platforms are the main plan for someone’s weekend. It is more an alternative or a backup,” she says, adding that when flatmates get together to watch shows on Netflix, they are just following the old tradition of renting a film, just that this time, it is readily available.

‘OTT content can integrate Americans with the world’

As an English-speaking American, who is not fluent in any other language, Minneapolis-based Neil Shah finds the rise of OTT platforms transformative in the way viewers consume information. The talent acquisition specialist with a finance company sees it as a positive development with which society can bypass mainstream technological infrastructure such as cable, or services that were initiated physically to provide a much greater and more accessible and streamlined, array of content, mediums and services. “This has increased the efficiency of content pricing, advertising and delivery while connecting us with a much more diversified range of services,” says Neil.

He feels that the rise of OTT platforms has had a profound impact on American lives and culture, both in terms of how people acquire information and how they learn, interact, connect, shop and entertain themselves. “There is no going back to previous paradigms of content consumption. Rather, OTT platforms will continue expanding while bringing Americans closer and more integrated to content both nationally and globally,” he says.

Neil sees the reality of explosion of on-demand content across genres. “There are more channels than I have ever seen before in my lifetime,” he points out. Since this content overwhelms viewers in a gamut of genres including news, movies, sports, music, gaming, etc, it may seem like the problem of plenty to the average person. “Nevertheless, many Americans segment their viewing decisions and stick with them as per their particular interests and culture,” he says, adding that the large playing lists on OTT platforms create space for viewers interested in crossover interests.

With a large amount of content on offer, OTT platforms, however, expect viewers to spend more time on content apps. Neil does not see this as a problem for adult viewers. “This is not to say that there is not misleading, detrimental and divisive content out there that can create harm to people; there definitely is. However, for adults, particularly older adults, they have already experienced technological advancements and have adapted with them through time.”

He is more concerned about young audiences though, especially if their parents or role models have not helped them in setting boundaries or identifying red flags. At the same time, he feels that younger audiences are going to be exposed whether we like it or not. “In America, restrictions can backfire among the youth, as many want what they are not allowed to have access to even more than they would otherwise,” he cautions.

Neil feels that OTT channels have not adversely altered the content composition in favour of violent or sexually explicit content, as it was always available to the audience that wanted it. “It is up to us, our families, our communities and our own discernment to determine what is acceptable or not.”

The way he sees it, OTT platforms are widening democratic choices for people. “I believe that roughly six corporations control 90 per cent of media outlets in America. OTT platforms enable visibility for other organisations/production houses that may have otherwise been ignored or hidden from the public by the mainstream media,” he adds. “By giving Americans more options, it balances the power dynamic between the average citizen and the ones that seek to control the message.”

(K Badar is a multimedia journalist and writer based in New Delhi, India.)

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