The superpower of OTT platforms

Same Language Subtitling on all Indian language content is an opportunity to make meaningful contributions to reading literacy and language learning

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On August 8, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan launched the ‘State of Elementary Education in Rural India’ report which shows that schoolchildren spend most of their screen time playing games, watching movies or listening to songs. Accessing study materials and online tutorials featured way down the order. Chart 1 shows the findings from the survey. Of the 49.3% of parents whose children used gadgets, 76.7% said that their children mainly used mobile phones to play video games, over 56% said that their children used phones to watch movies, 35% said they used phones to access online materials, and only 19% said they used phones to attend online tutorials.

Instead of seeing this trend as a cause for concern, it can be viewed as a promising opportunity where education meets entertainment. Traditional media consumption has increasingly transitioned to OTT platforms, which have the ability to make meaningful contributions to reading literacy and language learning.

Captions were invented in the U.S. in the early 1970s to make television accessible to people with various degrees of hearing impairments. Viewers without hearing disabilities also came to appreciate the value of captions and same language subtitling (SLS) as it helped them follow the dialogues better. Caption and SLS are now available in around 40-50 countries. But a major benefit of SLS — improving mass reading literacy — has not been leveraged by any country yet.

The PlanetRead survey estimates that of the billion “literate” people in the country, 600 million are weak readers. The survey, conducted in four Hindi-speaking States, measured literacy using two methods — the census method which relies on self-reporting and another which required people to read a Grade 2-level text.

An Ormax OTT audience report showed that India’s OTT base in 2022 was 424 million people, with a nearly 80% penetration in metros. Future OTT growth will predominantly come from rural areas where the preference tilts toward Indian language content.

SLS on all Indian language content is, therefore, a massive opportunity. Universalisation of SLS may act as an automatic reading practice in the viewer’s language. The Billion Readers initiative of the PlanetRead organisation is scaling SLS on TV and streaming platforms to achieve that. Moreover, under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, all OTT platforms are required to offer SLS with their content. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting framed the Accessibility Standards, 2019 mandating SLS on half the content on TV by 2025.

PlanetRead conducted a survey of 2,673 movies/shows produced in 2022-23 that are on India’s top five OTT platforms – Hotstar, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Zee5, and Sony Liv. Almost all English language content on OTTs is available with English subtitles. In contrast, SLS is missing from most Indian language content (Chart 2).

Netflix leads SLS implementation in Indian languages with one-third of the content having SLS (Chart 3). Amazon Prime is a distant second (10.1%), while the other big OTT platforms have barely made a start.

SLS penetration is higher on content produced by the platforms themselves. Of the original Indian language content produced by Netflix and Amazon Prime, SLS is on 92.3% and 81.8% of content, respectively (Chart 4). However, Hotstar, Sony Liv, and Zee5 are yet to implement SLS in their original Indian language content. This suggests that if content producers were to include SLS and caption files, OTT platforms may include these features.