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On June 13, The Walt Disney Company passed on the opportunity to renew its streaming rights to Indian Premier League cricket. Investors and analysts largely cheered that decision, deeming the rights to the most popular sport in the world’s second-most populous nation, which ultimately sold at auction for over $3 billion for a period of five years, simply too pricey given the relatively low revenues per user in the Indian marketplace.
But as Disney let the cricket rights go, a formidable new competitor stepped in to snap them up — Viacom18, a joint venture entertainment firm formed between Reliance Industries, operator of India’s largest telecom company, Jio; Paramount Global; and Bodhi Tree Systems, an investment vehicle backed by media industry veterans James Murdoch and Uday Shankar. (Reliance Industries has a 51 percent stake in the venture, while Bodhi Tree Systems has 40 percent and Paramount Global has 9 percent.)
As Michael Nathanson, analyst at MoffettNathanson, wrote in a post-auction note: “The Indian landscape has indeed become much more competitive than ever before with the creation of a new streaming giant that has the means and assets to become a great disruptive force in Indian media.”
Viacom18 operates a suite of 38 TV channels in India, produces and distributes hit Bollywood films and runs Voot, a popular AVOD and SVOD streaming service. Paramount Global provides its Hollywood TV and film content to Viacom18’s platforms and is expected to soon launch Paramount+ atop the company’s streaming offerings. Bodhi Tree Systems, which in February 2022 raised $1.5 billion from the Qatar Investment Authority, invested $1.8 billion for a large minority stake in Viacom18 in late April. Majority shareholder Reliance Industries also injected $219 million into the venture as part of the same transaction, while transferring its popular Jio Cinema app from its telecom arm to join Viacom18’s suite of streaming channels.
Bodhi Tree partner Uday Shankar also happens to be Disney’s former CEO of the Asia-Pacific region (he left the company at the end of 2020), as well as the chief architect of the leading position that Disney+ Hotstar currently enjoys in the India streaming landscape. Now, Shankar will become a hands-on, deeply engaged strategic investor in the company that is Disney’s biggest competitive threat in that same marketplace.
The pickup of the IPL digital rights — considered the crown jewel of sports properties in cricket-mad India — will be a powerful accelerator to Viacom18’s streaming ambitions, one that could shake up the entire sector. Regional consultancy and research firm Media Partners Asia expects Disney+ Hotstar to shed over 15 million of its 42 million subscribers once the cricket season begins.
Viacom18’s strengthened position has the potential to shake up the whole sector, perhaps even for premium SVOD players like Netflix, which counts about 5 million Indian subscribers (far short of the 100 million subs Reed Hastings once forecasted the service would eventually have in India).
But in the same way that free streamers and the AVOD play are generating renewed interest in the U.S., analysts in the region are most bullish on Viacom18’s advertising sales potential. “The Viacom18 opportunity could become really significant due to the injection of Jio Cinema and the partnership with Reliance Jio,” notes Media Partners Asia’s executive director, Vivek Couto, who points out that Reliance Jio has 400 million monthly active users of its broadband services.
Couto adds: “That’s a powerful partnership for a startup streaming play like Viacom18 — one that advertisers will find incredibly attractive. They can say, we have the IPL and our video app is on hundreds of millions of phones, and on nearly every connected TV in the country. Only YouTube, which dominates online advertising in India today, has enjoyed that kind of monetizable reach.”
This story appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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