ZEE5 Global Plots U.S. Expansion With Local Productions, Grassroots Penetration (EXCLUSIVE)

South Asian focused streamer ZEE5 Global has ambitious growth plans for the U.S., where it has just completed a year of operations. It envisages local commissions, English- and Spanish-language dubbing and subtitling and reaching deep into the South Asian diaspora through grassroots promotions.

“We want to be the one that is at the forefront of creating the crossover for South Asian content — the one that makes South Asian content go mainstream,” Archana Anand, chief business officer, ZEE5 Global, told Variety. “We want for the global audiences sitting in the U.S. to now start watching ZEE5 Global, including the Spanish audiences. So when we dub or when we subtitle we want to start subtitling in English and Spanish, and have those stories cross over.”

To achieve this, Anand is planning a two-pronged approach — to identify the ZEE5 content that has the ability to crossover, and commission local productions, something that the streamer is “looking at in a very big way,” says Anand. She says that discussions are already happening with U.S. based creators. The idea is to create programming that deals with immigrant angst and making it in a brand new country.

“There is a brand new South Asian image now in the U.S. Back in the day there was the idiot brown guy, who was a bit of a caricature, bad accent, clumsy and loud — like Apu from ‘The Simpsons.’ And today we’re talking about a world that has a [Google CEO] Sundar Pichai and [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella and Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra Jonas,” said Anand. “And there’s a brand new sheen to the South Asian, the Indian having arrived in the U.S. We are some of the wealthiest cohorts, we are very well spoken and well-conducted and are being feted everywhere.”

ZEE5 Global has provided briefs to creators to come up with the “next big South Asian story that is about the American dream, but from an Indian perspective, cutting across generations,” says Anand. The greenlit project will “create a lot of FOMO” and help “accelerate the crossover” to mainstream American audiences, Anand says.

The move to capture a larger audience follows robust results for ZEE5 Global. For the 2021-22 financial year, the platform saw global monthly active users (MAUs) of 105 million, a 32.2 million year-on-year rise, and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $95 million, according to results declared by the company in May. In the U.S. specifically, according to data.ai (formerly known as App Annie), in May, ZEE5 Global had 379,000 MAUs, followed by Disney’s Hotstar with 200,000, SonyLIV with 62,800 and Eros Now with 60,200.

The U.S. drove 22%-25% of ZEE5’s total consumption minutes globally in June, 2022. Blockbuster films “RRR” and “The Kashmir Files” released on the service in May and helped to increase the viewer base by 44%, the streamer says.

Overall, the streamer offers 200,000 hours of on-demand content ranging from films, originals and TV series, music to lifestyle shows. It has content in Indian languages Hindi, English, Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Oriya, Bhojpuri, Gujarati, Punjabi and six international languages — Malay, Thai, Bahasa, Urdu, Bangla (Bangladeshi) and Arabic.

Besides India, ZEE5 Global currently produces originals in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The recent titles that have performed well in the U.S. market for the service are “The Kashmir Files,” “Mithya,” “Love Hostel,” and “The Broken News” in Hindi; “RRR,” “Valimai,” “Bangarraju” and “Varudu Kavaanelu” in Telugu; “Mudhal Nee Mudivum Ne,” “Anandham Vilayadum Veedu” and “Vilangu” in Tamil; and in Bengali/Bangla “Tonic,” “Switzerland,” “Jodi Kintu Tobuo,” “Contract” and “Ladies & Gentlemen.”

In addition to expanding into the mainstream U.S. market, ZEE5 is also actively growing its native audience in a vast country where the South Asian population is scattered and spoilt for choice. The strategy here for the streamer has been to promote the brand via grassroots means of South Asian associations, student associations and specialty grocery stores. The South Asian audience is also notorious for taking up short term subscriptions in order to consume a particular event film or series, which they can’t find anywhere else. A ZEE5 annual subscription currently costs $59.99 annually or $26.99 quarterly in the U.S.

“I have the challenge of keeping the consumer constantly engaged and giving him regular doses of content that keeps him engaged on our platform. And I’m cognizant of the fact that we don’t have sport and sport can so easily distract an audience,” says Anand.

The ZEE conglomerate was part of the bidding for the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament rights, which were ultimately carved up between Viacom18 and Disney for $6.2 billion. In the absence of these premium rights, during the IPL season ZEE5 steps up its marketing efforts and also tactically programs potentially popular content. It is no coincidence that the service’s biggest blockbusters this year — “RRR” and “The Kashmir Files” — released on ZEE5 during the final stages of the IPL.

Meanwhile, a game changing merger between Sony and Zee is currently in the works, which could potentially lead to synergies between ZEE5 and SonyLIV. Because the merger is in progress, Anand is not allowed to comment on it beyond saying: “In a very generic way, I can tell you that we’re very bullish, because we think it’s two very complementary entities that are coming together. And it’s on in full speed.”