iStream plans to become next Netflix for India

By Sruthi Ramakrishnan
September 10, 2012

If you are an Indian sports buff, but were stuck in the office during the Euro Cup or the India-Sri Lanka cricket series, chances are the live streaming of the matches you caught on your computer or smartphone was from iStream.com.

A video streaming site that started off as a regional partner for YouTube and Dailymotion, iStream bagged the exclusive Internet streaming rights for two of the most-watched sports events in the country.

But regional content is the site’s forte — news, television shows and movies mainly in southern Indian languages Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, but also in Hindi and English. It has some 60-65 Indian television channels as content partners, and is in talks with U.S.- based production houses such as FremantleMedia Ltd, which owns “American Idol”, and UK-based “Big Brother” maker Endemol and ITV for content rights.

But iStream.com plans to go one step further: produce its own shows. “If there’s scope for an ‘America’s Got Talent’ or a ‘MasterChef’ sort of program in India, we’ll definitely look at having an online version of that,” said co-founder Radhakrishnan Ramachandran, who goes by Radha.

These could be offered as premium content, though they don’t think Indians are willing to subscribe to programming that way yet.

“As of today, we are depending on an ad-supported model,” Radha said. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, General Electric and Renault advertise on the site.

The idea for iStream.com had been in founders Radha and Chellappa Dhanukodi’s minds since early 2007, when Hulu meant just “gourd” in Chinese and Netflix was a DVD distribution company. But it seemed too early to work, so iStream began as a content acquirer and digitiser for third parties such as MSN, Yahoo, Rediff, Sify and France-based Dailymotion. In 2008, it started working with YouTube. By the end of the year, it broke even.

But while iStream was growing into one of YouTube’s largest regional partners in India, things were changing. Hulu and Netflix had grown into multi-billion dollar brands and household names in the United States.

“We could see that others were living our dream,” Radha said. iStream.com relaunched in December with $5 million in funding from SAIF Partners.

While the website hopes to become India’s answer to YouTube, there is one major difference: piracy, or rather the lack of it. iStream.com doesn’t have user-generated content.

It is devoting lots of attention to smartphones and tablets. Its Windows 8 app had almost 25,000 downloads within 15 to 20 days of its launch, Radha said. Its app for the Apple store is awaiting approval.

Marketing has been by word of mouth and through Facebook. The iStream Video Viewer app on Facebook had 45,609 users, while its Facebook page had 10,425 likes.

While returns on investment are still “very difficult to predict,” Radha says the company is moving in the right direction. He cited the example of “Why This Kolaveri Di,” a song sung by Tamil actor Dhanush which went viral on the Internet since its debut in November 2011, garnering more than 80 million YouTube views and making the word “kolaveri,” meaning murderous rage, a nagging earworm for millions of people in India and beyond. “The ‘Kolaveri’ thing proved that regional content can really rock.”

Making India iStream’s focus region comes with its own challenges, including the number of languages that Indians speak. If there is a Malayalam or Tamil speaker who also wants to look at English programming, iStream has to make sure that they don’t get lost in the site, Radha said.

Still, that diversity is also a boon. “Even if some big media houses don’t work with us, we are not perturbed. There are 400 channels out there, 400 seeking approval, and there is constant churn of content. There’ll never be any dearth of content.”

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