In a Boney M-esque set-up, a young woman is gleefully objectifying a Tamil Brahmin man’s grade point average and attractive body. The object of desire isn’t Munni or Sheila, for a change, but Subbu. The ironic takedown by Sofia Ashraf is intended for the liberated female audience targetted by Blush, one of over 75 YouTube channels run by Culture Machine.
Culture Machine’s brands consistently rake in views in the millions. While the company name may not be instantly familiar, its channels, such as Being Indian, Blush and Put Chutney, are part of every insistent Indian YouTuber’s search engines.
The company was founded by Sameer Pitalwalla and Venkat Prasad. Having formerly worked with Disney and YouTube respectively, Pitalwalla and Prasad are gunning for Culture Machine to be India’s digital media powerhouse. Their strategy is to create engaging digital channels that cater to many subcultures at once. “We want to be the company that creates great media brands across cultural cohorts be it Tamilians, Telugus, female or male, and use YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter as the places where these brands can be built and consumed,” Pitalwalla explained.
Culture Machine aims to be for digital media what a Dish TV is for televised entertainment. Take, for instance, Being Indian, Culture Machine’s most popular channel. Being Indian has content that’s topical and sometimes borderline silly and about a million subscribers. Put Chutney and Viva cater to a Tamil and Telugu audience respectively. While Blush is a channel for the modern Indian woman, Epified chronicles Indian history for enthusiasts.
Culture Machine operates out of a hipster coffee shop-meets-open office space in Mumbai with a team of over 250 employees. Debunking the idea that creative YouTube videos come from small-time filmmakers, the company’s technological, creative, legal and marketing teams join hands to push content with remarkable regularity, Pitalwalla said, “There are three layers to our work – content which we fully own, content which we co-own and content which we don’t own,” he said. “We merely handle the marketing and distribution for the content we don’t own. The content we co-own, is where the creator and we produce and work together. And content which we fully own, is where which in-house talent and resources comes together at every step of the creation.”
What prompts Culture Machine to partner with a creator? “A clear and distinct voice,” Pitalwalla said. “Does the brand have enough of a gravitas for it to be able to branch out into other platforms? Is it the kind of programming advertisers would like to partner with in the future? Those are the sort of filters we use – content, market and monetisation – on the basis of which we make a decision. The last thing is its dependence on faces. While talent does fundamentally matter to the content business, we want to build media brands which do not necessarily depend on one or two key names.”
This clear demarcation does not always offer the fledgling Culture Machine a clean cut. A recent article in the Mint newspaper criticised the multiple channel network that it described Culture Machine to be. Karan Talwar, a member of the popular comedy group SNG Comedy, a brand formerly produced by Culture Machine, lambasted the company’s model and accused it of ripping off artists and being a “conveyer belt”.
“We have originated on YouTube but that doesn’t make us a MCN,” Prasad countered. “Just because Wipro originated as a vegetable oil company doesn’t mean it’s that anymore; it’s a legitimate software powerhouse. MCN is an aggregation and talent management business. We’re building media brands, monetisation partnerships. More like a Star Plus and News Corp.”
As for the existing competition in the digital ecosystem, Pitalwalla is more than specific of what Culture Machine is all about. “The focus has been on us building our own media brands,” Pitalwalla explained. “That is not something you can achieve with generic brands which can appear and disappear depending on seasons, since a lot of these folks get busy with live shows and shoots and that isn’t necessarily conducive to building consistent content. We build media brands and we’re not a talent company. We’re not the middleman.”
Content at Culture Machine is regularly churned out with mechanisms that obsessively track viewership patterns. “The Culture Machine technology has three verticals – one is the video analytics platform, which helps us by improving the odds of success,” Prasad said. “The second technology, what we call video machine, helps us by creating smaller scale videos on topical issues so the engagement can remain consistent. These videos are not 100% high quality like the ones we shoot, but are good enough for a platform like a Facebook or YouTube, where they manage to secure 2 to 3 million views. The third technology is business machine, which calculates and curates all the payouts, the syndication, the contract per channel, claims, rights management, the library.”
Pitalwalla and Prasad are all business when talking about the IP-based consumption model of the internet. “When the Doordarshan to cable shift happened, the MTVs and the CNNs were the startups,” Prasad explained. “Today they’re media powerhouses. Similarly, we’re in the initial stage of the IP based consumption model, and in that digital world we want to be the largest media company.”