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Disney Plus won India’s streaming war years before launch

What if Disney also gave you free access to sports, news, and HBO?

Disney Plus Hotstar logo in India Image: Disney Plus Hotstar

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Unlike in North America, the anticipated April 3 arrival of Disney Plus in India was more of a rebranding than a launch. Of the nation’s 560 million internet users, 8 million are now paid subscribers to “Disney Plus Hotstar,” as Disney recently boasted, thanks in large part to the acquisition of Hotstar. Most of those 8 million subscribers were already signed up to the 21st Century Fox-owned film and TV streaming service before it merged with Disney Plus to become an even bigger streaming behemoth.

What separates Disney Plus Hotstar from regular old Disney Plus? Besides a mostly white UI now streaked by hints of Disney blue, the platform’s content runs far beyond the familiar. For 1,499 rupees ($19.59) per year, Hotstar’s Premium tier grants you access to not only the Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar libraries — most of which were already available before it was Disney Plus — but also to HBO, Showtime, news broadcasts, live cricket matches (also available through a free tier), and a whole host of not just Bollywood movies, but regional-language Indian films. It even has the entire filmography of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, whose socially minded art films were made under house arrest and are banned by the Iranian government — a far cry from Disney’s sanitized, family-friendly image.

In the U.S., Disney Plus costs three and a half times as much, and hosts a fraction of the content. But the economics of streaming are wildly different in South Asia. Hotstar is technically available in North America, but costs $49.99 per year, and only features Indian sports and entertainment for the targeted South Asian diaspora audience. What a dollar gets you in the States isn’t really comparable to what a dollar gets you in India; according to the Big Mac Index, an informal index comparing the purchasing power of currencies based on how much a Big Mac costs by country, the U.S. stands at $5.67 while India (what up, Maharaja Mac?) clocks in at $2.65. But that’s still only twice as much, and it doesn’t account for the complete cultural picture when it comes to India’s streaming habits.

Tanhaji and Avengers Endgame on Disney Hotstar Image: Disney Plus Hotstar

Until the early 2015 launch of Hotstar — and, quite significantly, the service’s late 2015 acquisition of the rights to Game of Thrones — there was no legal way to watch major American TV shows anywhere near their original broadcast dates. In fact, there was barely an online rental market for movies or shows in general, and the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime were still a year away. More than just standard-of-living costs, the biggest competition for streaming companies breaking into India was the ubiquity of piracy. The price point they’d compete with was, effectively, zero.

Five years later, Hotstar leads the Indian streaming pack by a significant margin. Between its Premium and 399 rupee ($5.22) VIP tiers — the latter grants access to all Indian content, and Disney Plus in a variety of Indian languages, though not English — the site’s 8 million paid users dwarf Amazon Prime’s 4.4 million, many of whom pay the 999 rupee yearly fee ($13.06) for delivery benefits. The much higher-priced Netflix, at 649 rupees ($8.48) per month, trails even further behind, with less than 2 million subscribers.

The likes of Netflix have slowly been adapting to the Indian market — the price point proved a significant enough barrier that the company recently introduced a 199 rupee ($2.60) mobile-only tier. In the meantime, other Indian streaming giants have cropped up, like Eros Now and ATL Balaji, which carry and produce mostly Indian works, and have over 25 million and 5 million subscribers, respectively (though many of them signed up indirectly through cable subscriptions; their direct paid subscribers still pale in comparison to Hotstar’s). Language is a big reason Netflix has struggled to keep up; while it’s a go-to for English-language content, and even hosts new weekly episodes of American shows like Riverdale and Better Call Saul, it’s severely lacking in both regional Indian programming and local dubbing for American films.

Disney Plus Hotstar screencap with indian news and sopranos Image: Disney Plus Hotstar

Netflix, which launched in India in 2016, has since teamed up with local Indian production houses to create high-quality Hindi shows like Sacred Games, featuring major Bollywood stars. However, Hotstar had the advantage of a stronger regional foothold. The service was launched by Indian media conglomerate Star India, a subsidiary of Chinese company Star TV, the first regional satellite broadcaster in Asia. In 1993, Star TV was purchased by News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch; today, it’s known as Fox Networks Group Asia Pacific. Until India’s economic liberalization in 1991, all telecommunications were handled by the government, so when Star entered the market a few years later, it became one of the first private broadcasters to bring foreign and local programming to Indian homes. Since its arrival in India, Star has launched a number of nationwide channels that have become commonplace — for everything from cricket on Star Sports, to Hindi soap operas on Star Plus, to Friends on Star World — but it also acquired a number of regional-language stations as well, languages spoken by hundreds of millions of people across the country. Before streaming even existed, Fox essentially built the roadmap into the Indian household.

While Hindi and English are India’s most widely spoken languages — by 692 million and 129 million people, respectively, according to the 2011 census — they still account for only about half the population, and are just two of the country’s 22 official languages. Hotstar, therefore, offers big releases like Avengers: Endgame in Tamil and Telugu, while the site’s “Movies” tab leads to a drop-down menu where you can browse films by language, including Bengali, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, and more (although, since the rebranding, Disney movies dubbed in those languages tend to show up before locally produced films).

Localization is also one of the reasons for Disney’s success in Indian cinemas. Last year, Endgame became the sixth highest-grossing film of all time at the Indian box office. The only other foreign films to crack the top 50 are also Disney productions: Avengers: Infinity War, The Jungle Book, and The Lion King, each of which had wide releases in a multitude of languages (the latter two even brought in major Bollywood stars for their Hindi versions). Applying that same localization mentality to streaming has been a major factor in helping Hotstar, and now Disney, stay ahead.

A near-monopoly on scripted entertainment has its downsides. For one thing, Disney’s increased market share and bargaining power mean there are fewer non-Disney films even on Indian screens. There’s also the issue of censorship: Hotstar has every episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight since 2019, except a recent one where John Oliver criticized the Indian government. In the episodes it does have, it opts to edit out jokes at the expense of Disney characters. (See also: Disney Plus in all regions digitally covering up Daryl Hannah’s butt in the 1984 film Splash).

Disney Plus Hotstar screencap of children’s programming Image: Disney Plus Hotstar

Then again, recorded programming isn’t the only reason for Hotstar’s success. Unlike Disney Plus elsewhere, Disney Plus Hotstar also has a livestream component. It’s how I watched the Oscars this year, and how many people access news channels, especially on the go. But the jewel in Disney’s Hotstar crown is undoubtedly its live cricket broadcasts, via the website’s free tier. The site was first launched to coincide with the 2015 Cricket World Cup, an event watched by 1.5 billion people; in fact, the Disney rebranding was originally meant to line up with the March 29 premiere of the (now-delayed) 2020 Indian Premier League.

Cricket is a big deal in India. By the end of 2017, Hotstar had amassed 75 million monthly active users between its free and paid tiers. Today, that figure has grown to over 300 million — almost as much as the entire population of the United States.

As an influx of new streaming services splinters viewing in the U.S. — who’s ready to watch The Office on Peacock for an additional $9.99? — it’s nice to see a cheap, one-stop platform for everything from sports to The Sopranos to a smorgasbord of Indian fare. It’s one of the few global examples of streaming actually outdoing traditional media by evolving with the market, rather than mutating into Expensive Cable Bundling 2.0. Wary as one ought to be of the ever-growing Disney empire, you do, under this circumstance, gotta hand it to them.