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A Star no more: How Disney’s relationship with India soured

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Sohini Mitter

37 reads
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Sohini Mitter

37 reads

Bob Iger’s return as Disney CEO coupled with rising competition in the streaming market sounded the death knell for the media giant’s India ops. Disney’s decision to put Star on the block was a culmination of many developments over the last one year, starting with the loss of IPL's digital rights.

July 26, 2023

9 MINS READ

Key Takeaways

  • Disney's interference in India's local operations steadily grew post the return of Bob Iger as CEO in 2022
  • Letting go of IPL's digital rights whilst retaining the TV rights was Disney Global's decision, which has proven costly
  • Top Star executives, including Kevin Vaz, have left the company to join rival Viacom 18. The former is seeing high attrition across departments and functions
  • Disney could very well dump Hotstar (which is bleeding subscribers) in a distress sale, whilst retaining control of the profitable TV business in India

Look east, and there’s trouble in Disney-land.

After four years of running Star India—rebranded as Disney Star post the media giant’s $71.3 billion buyout of 21st Century Fox in 2019—the ‘House of Mouse’ might be done here. And justifiably so. Like most Big Tech companies, Disney, too, discovered the hard way that even though India can bump up your global user numbers handsomely, generating cashflows and breaking even in this painfully price-sensitive market remains a Herculean task. Especially, when the global macros aren’t favourable either.

The result: Disney wants to exit India, either partially or fully, before all is lost.

This comes soon after returning CEO Bob Iger announced a $5.5 billion global cost-cutting exercise at The Walt Disney Co, which has seen its market cap halved since March 2021. As linear TV growth remains stagnant in the West and Disney’s streaming unit (which includes Disney+, ESPN+, Hulu, and Hotstar) continues to bleed to the tune of $659 million in the quarter ended March 31, 2023 (Disney follows an October-to-September fiscal), Iger’s monetisation strategy now involves cutting out non-performing assets and reducing focus in low-revenue markets.

THE UPSHOT

The latter includes India, where the payoff Disney was expecting didn’t quite materialise. After spending billions of dollars acquiring content, customers, and talent, Disney thinks it’s time to rationalise.

Without mentioning India specifically, Iger said in May's Q2 earnings call, “We launched Disney+ in many, many markets around the world, including many very low ARPU (average revenue per user) markets. And not only did we launch in those markets, we spent a lot of money on marketing and on local content. As we rationalise the business and head in the direction of profitability, clearly, we're looking at opportunities to reduce expenses in those markets where the revenue potential just isn't there.”

Put simply, Disney’s expectations from India are at an all-time low. Its streaming business, particularly, has been a drag on its bottom line.

And when it was time to monetise the Hotstar user base that it had nurtured for four years, Disney found itself on shaky ground after committing the cardinal sin of letting the coveted Indian Premier League (IPL) rights go to a rival (more on that later). The company’s lack of interest has also been noted in its earning calls, with Disney executives avoiding any mention of India in the past year.

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