In the crowded Indian streaming space, Disney Plus Hotstar is already the market leader with approximately 34 million paid subscribers, but going forward, a series of ambitious strategies will see the company look to expand its base even further.
One key power play will involve betting on the sticky wicket of sports rights — particularly for cricket. “We are invested in sports, and we will continue to invest in sports,” Sunil Rayan, president and head of Disney Plus Hotstar tells Variety. “Competition is going to be intense. But we’re ready for it.”
India is a nation in thrall to the game of cricket and, in 2017, Star India, then part of Fox, had bid a mighty $2.55 billion for rights to the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament for 2018-2022, outbidding Sony Pictures Network, Facebook and Sky, among others. Star India is a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company and Disney Plus Hotstar is part of the conglomerate.
The IPL is a massive audience draw for Disney Plus Hotstar and the streamer plans to bid again when the rights come up for renewal next year.
“It’s done well for us, and we’ve got a lot of learnings on what it does to our platform,” Rayan notes.
Another play for the streamer is continuing its push into broad-based mainstream programming designed to appeal to an audience from the “heart of India” as Gaurav Banerjee, president and head of Hindi and English entertainment for Star India, describes it. The streamer’s star-studded lineup revealed on Tuesday also underlines this approach.
Banerjee cites the success of Hotstar originals like “Aarya” and “Special Ops” and direct-to-streaming Bollywood acquisitions like “Lakshmi” and “Khuda Haafiz,” all featuring well-known stars.
“We believe that if our content is mass, and is relevant to a very large cross-section of this country, we can truly build a streaming habit at scale in India,” says Banerjee. “And I think our content choices, our marketing efforts, all of it is geared to make that reality come alive.”
Rayan, formerly a top executive at Google in California, took charge at Disney Plus Hotstar in June 2020, when India was reeling under the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. He says that one of the key learnings from the audience during the pandemic era was that India, which is traditionally a mobile-first market for content consumption, moved slowly towards living room devices for longer-form content like movies. The executive is now focused on enhancing the content discovery experience on the platform with not just the aim of gaining new subscribers, but also increasing the watch time per user.
L-R: Sunil Rayan and Gaurav Banerjee
(Courtesy of Disney Plus Hotstar)
“Not just how it shows up in the user interface, but what shows up in the user interface is equally important — and that’s something that we’ve constantly improved,” says Rayan. “And I was just reviewing recently how it’s done. And it has improved on how people adopt what we recommend.”
Like their competitors, Disney Plus Hotstar is also moving deeper into the vast swathes of the country that do not speak or understand the dominant language — Hindi — and has programming in the Tamil and Telugu languages in the works, with Bengali, Marathi and Malayalam likely to be next. The streamer is also big on dubbing. Banerjee cites Tamil-language murder mystery commission “November Story” which did extremely well in its dubbed versions, including in Hindi.
“So what we believe we can create across languages now, for the first time in this country, is a level playing field,” says Banerjee. “A show made in Tamil could become the most watched show in India with a lot of people watching dubs of it in Telugu and Hindi and vice versa. It’s creatively very exciting, and massively important and inspiring, hopefully, for creative talent sitting in the regional markets of excellence that are definitely there in our country.”
Though Rayan declined to reveal production budgets, shows where the subjects demand it, like period epic “The Empire,” which charts the growth of the Moghul dynasty, and “Luther” adaptation “Rudra,” have large spends, including on VFX.
The Disney Plus Hotstar originals are currently available only to South Asian audiences, but this could well change with the cream of them likely to make it to Hulu in the U.S. and to the streamer’s Star-branded tile in the rest of the world.
“It is an objective for us that we want creators out of India to have a global platform. Because if we feel like we can provide a global platform, more creators will actually come to us and we want to see more Indian creators be accessible throughout the globe,” says Rayan.
Rayan is also bullish about the wealth of library and new Disney titles, which will become available to subscribers across all tiers from Sept. 1, instead of just the premium packages. However, Disney Plus Premier Access titles such as “Black Widow” are not currently available in India, as it is a very nascent market for pay-per-view.
“We have unparalleled content when it comes to Disney IP,” says Rayan. “One of the things that we’re trying to do is [figure out] how we can take our Disney IP and share it with as many people as possible in terms of consumers. So hopefully, that combined with all the technology improvements that we’re doing at the platform, we feel we will continue to lead in this space,” notes Rayan.
“But last and not to forget, we also have a very strong sport portfolio, I don’t think there’s anybody in the market that currently has a portfolio of sports, digitally native local content, as well as digitally native Hollywood content,” Rayan adds. “So, as long as we stay focused in serving the consumer, I feel like we’ll continue to be in the lead.”
Variety's Naman Ramachandran contributed to this post.