Tiny streaks circled the dark triangular play-shaped icon within the yellow Urdu letter Daal over and over again, buffering but not delivering, the first set of images from Deikho’s recent original series The Dark Roads.

I waited, rechecked the internet connection, shifted from laptop to desktop, to the app in my cellphone, eventually moving out of the house to get the full 4G signal from my carrier (a strategic partner of Deikho) … and still … nada. The triangle kept buffering, until I traded away some quality for entertainment.

It was one busy Sunday for servers of the barely four-month-old streaming platform — though it’s not like the service has teething problems. That is, I assume it shouldn’t. It’s the traffic.

Deikho (Watch) — with a subtitle of Aur Deikhtay Jao (and Keep on Watching) — is the brainchild of Waqas Zahid Abbasi, an ex-Telecom and IT executive whose previous Over-The-Top (OTT) streaming platform, Binjee, was covered by Icon last year.

“Binjee is still around, but it isn’t as big a deal as Deikho,” Abbasi tells me over the phone from the OTT’s corporate headquarters in Islamabad. “Binjee is, comparatively, a smaller platform with a 150,000 subscriber base. Deikho, barely four months old, has nearly half-a-million, and we’re estimating the numbers to grow to over a million before the end of the year.”

Deikho, an alternate portal for short content creators, could very well be the next big thing for new narrative voices, unencumbered by storytelling conventions from television

Although technically similar (both being OTT’s with similar core business strategies), there are minor differences between the two. “With Binjee, our cry was: Pakistan’s first original content platform. With Deikho, it’s: Pakistan’s biggest original content platform.”

Who knows, a year from now it could very well be.

Originally, Ideation, Abbasi’s company behind the platform, had been subcontracting concepts and productions to its partners (one can see a visible difference is quality). With Ideation Play, the company is diversifying into in-house productions. The aforementioned series The Dark Room, starring Javed Sheikh, Adnan Jaffar and Rashid Farooqi, is an oven-fresh example that’s just one episode old.

There is a catch, however. Deikho is only entertaining short-form webisodes at the moment. Over 15 minutes and the audience loses interest, I’m told.

“The major difference between this and any other platform is that we showcase original short-form Pakistani content. No one watches long-form content on their mobiles.

“Our aim is to deliver attention-grabbing content between messages and calls, which is primarily what cell phones are about,” Abbasi says. Bit-sized content is already consumed at an alarming degree from Facebook and YouTube, he affirms with detailed facts.

“People who go to ARY, or watch Netflix are a niche, small base when considering the actual potential of the medium. These facts come from worldwide studies — and besides, would you rather watch Pakistani series or content from Netflix on the phone, or on your television? One would never prefer watching content from these platforms on their cell phones — unless travelling.”

Consumers, I argue from personal experience, do stream local dramas on YouTube and Facebook — one can just look at the millions of hits at TV channels’ respective YouTube pages to verify the point. However, one can agree that people often skip to the juicy parts of the episode, or just increase the playing speed in a bid to improve any drama’s protracted pace.

There isn’t actually much competition in his particular niche at the moment, Abbasi tells me. Despite the ever-increasing number of people affixing their gazes on their cell phones, most OTT services have yet to make a significant breakthrough to the masses, he explains.

“We know that Netflix tried to penetrate, but they were not successful. Likewise, StarzPlay is still underperforming. We knew that if we were to go into a model where we could crack the wallets, and at the same time produce local content appealable to the masses, we would be able to do what no one else could.”

The wallets Abbasi is referring to are payment methods. People paying for digital content is still unheard of in Pakistan. To combat this predicament, Ideation has strategically associated itself with telecom companies — like the aforementioned carrier — who can help consumers pay for content by deducting subscription charges from their cell phone balance.

The charges aren’t that expensive in the first place, with a basic tier of six rupees per day, 30 rupees per week, and 90 rupees per month. In comparison with cinema, where ticket prices are 700 rupees onwards, Deikho’s maximum subscription cost almost seems next to nothing.

Also, the market reach is significant if one factors in any OTT’s partnership with telecom companies. Almost 60 percent of Pakistanis have cell phones, I’m told.

The rough business potential — judging from their current subscriber base — is eye-opening. At six rupees per day, Deikho’s monthly business could very well be 90 million rupees per month. At 30 rupees per week, it comes down to 60 million rupees and, at 90 rupees a month, it would, again, drop to 45 million per month.

Most of the cost rolls over for production and acquisition.

Abbasi, however, affirms that Deikho amounts to less than one percent of his actual business (their primary business is in the IT sector).

Still, the income gives the platform enough leverage to bring a measure of star power to their content.

Of the more notable content there is Dastak Na Do, a Covid-19 awareness comedy series starring Adnan Siddiqui, Arjumand Rahim and Saba Hameed, produced by Nadeem Baig, conceived and directed by Faysal Quraishi; Parinday, a cop action-thriller starring Yasra Rizvi and Saleem Mairaj, which can pass off for a movie because of the way it’s produced; Pillow Talk, directed by Yasra Rizvi, sees three couples — Khaled Anum and Shamim Hilali, Azeem Sajjad and Kanwal Nazar, and Syed Arez and Srha Asghar — at different yet similar stages of their lives; Corporate Snakes and Ladders, again directed by Rizvi, is, as the name suggests, a comedy series on office politics starring Khawaja Saleem, Waqar Ali Godhra and Rizvi; Arpita is a horror drama directed by Zahid Iqbal, starring Sarwat Gilani, Khalid Nizami, Zain Afzal and (again) Rizvi; the already mentioned The Dark Room, and 14 Days, a drama series starring Alamdar Khan, where an workaholic CEO is confined to his office after contracting Covid-19.

Non-narrative genres include Batana Hi Parrega — a court proceeding-styled cricket talk show featuring Javed Miandad, Waseem Akram, Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Akhtar, Moin Khan and other noted cricketers as guests; Begum Returns (Ali Saleem stepping into his oft-seen avatar); the candid interview series To Be Honest and The Viral Show, a topical-minded send-up of current affairs shows with ‘experts’ Saqib Sumeer and Syed Atif. Some of these shows are already non-exclusives, available to stream on YouTube and Binjee.

There are a string of exclusive productions on the way however, including a series on child trafficking, and a comedy series titled Mr. and Mrs.

The fluctuating quality of the shows clearly shows the difference between past and present productions. Apart from a few, most need subtle and dramatic rewrites, and strong directorial voices. Still, there is some allure in seeing well-known actors in original content other than dramas for a change.

Big names, though, aren’t a prerequisite. “Not necessarily, not at all,” Abbasi adds. “Big names add only celebrity value and, at times, productions don’t require that,” Abbasi tells me.

The platform is an alternate portal for content creators — a marketplace that’s open for YouTubers and new producers alike, he tells me. Deikho, then, could very well be the next big thing for new narrative voices that are unencumbered by storytelling constrictions from television.

The bigger challenge is getting the platform through to the common man. It is a substantial undertaking that’s not ruffling Abbasi’s feathers in the least. He sees a bigger picture, he tells me. Digital is an eventuality, so what better time than now to give it all you’ve got?

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 26th, 2020