Disney to debut India streaming without fanfare in lockdown

MUMBAI: Walt Disney Co will start its streaming service in India later this week, after a coronavirus lockdown upended its previous plans in one of the world’s biggest emerging markets for online video.

The US entertainment giant planned to kick off Disney+ in India at the start of the wildly popular Indian Premier League cricket season on March 29.

That big-bang event has been put off for two weeks due to the pandemic. Disney said Tuesday the service will launch on April 3.

Disney joins rivals such as Netflix Inc and Amazon.com Inc’s Prime Video in trying to tap a potential surge in users at a time when millions of Indians – stuck at home – browse for entertainment.

Being one of the largest open markets in Asia, India has become a battleground for major streaming companies as well as domestic players.

Boston Consulting Group estimates the Indian video-streaming market could grow to US$5 billion by 2023 from US$500 million in 2018.

The new streaming platform is crucial for Disney to advance its position in the south Asian country, where Hotstar – an asset the firm acquired along with 21st Century Fox – is already a leader thanks to the popularity of cricket.

Streaming live matches to avid fans of the English sport, Hotstar says it has 300 million monthly users, though not all are paying subscribers.

Disney Chairman Bob Iger told investors in February that Hotstar’s premium services in India would be rebranded as Disney+ Hotstar, and that the Indian Premier League would be an “opportune moment”.

But Disney, which was looking to the sports tie-in to make a big splash, is now entering the market without all the eyeballs it would otherwise get through its Hotstar platform.

As the Covid-19 health crisis rages around the world, there’s no certainty the IPL tournament will start on April 15.

“If the IPL is not happening, the selling point for Hotstar goes away,” said Bhupendra Tiwary, an analyst at ICICIdirect in Mumbai.

Had the IPL run on schedule, “It would’ve been two months of launch extravaganza”, he said.

“Imagine the traction they would’ve gained.”

The IPL cricket tournament features a shorter version of the game, played in stadiums brimming with as many as 40,000 fans per match.

The events feature merchandise and a carnival atmosphere, unlike the traditional, more staid affair where players break for tea.

About 462 million viewers watched the tournament in 2019, and the league’s valuation was estimated at US$6.7 billion by consultants Duff & Phelps.

The Disney+ debut follows launches in the US and Europe. It includes original programming, such as the hit Star Wars spinoff “The Mandalorian”, and films ranging from “Frozen II” to “The Avengers”.

Hotstar is also continuing to offer its free tier of programming, which includes shows in eight Indian languages and a library of Bollywood films.

With the coronavirus limiting gatherings, Disney said it plans India’s largest “virtual red carpet premiere” on April 2 for “The Lion King”, followed by a screening of “The Mandalorian”.

Disney has aggressively priced its premium pack for India at 1,499 rupees (US$20) per year, compared with about 799 rupees a year for Netflix’s top offering.

In a sign the three-week lockdown may be driving streaming demand, the Cellular Operators Association of India said services like Disney+ must manage traffic to reduce the strain on networks.

India is among the countries where Netflix is reducing its video quality, a person familiar with the matter said last week.

Amazon is advancing some of its content releases, analyst Tiwary said.

In a statement, the streaming service said it is offering a selection of free kids and family content for customers in India.

Netflix hasn’t started any new offers during the lockdown, and its subscription plans remain the same, a spokesman said in an email. The companies declined to provide data on their traffic since last week.

“Disney has to see how it can have a wider reach in India,” Tiwary said.

“It is not about depending on cricket, but it’s about leveraging the existing viewership base on Hotstar.”