Sajith Sivanandan, head of Disney+Hotstar India.

Streaming app to focus equally on original web content, and sports events like Wimbledon

‘Disney+ Hotstar is here to serve many Indias, not one’

New Delhi: Video streaming service Disney+Hotstar is shifting gears to adapt to changing subscriber dynamics in the Indian market, following a drop in its paid subscriber base from over 61.3 million to 40.4 million over the past nine months, after it failed to secure the digital rights of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Sajith Sivanandan, head of Disney+Hotstar India, said all businesses go through periods of ups and downs, and the company is prepared to address the dip in subscriber numbers. “We grew on the back of a lot of sports properties with the peak around the T20 World Cup. Since then, we’ve been going through our next phase of evolution. Yes, IPL played a crucial role in our journey and brought in a certain set and type of subscribers to us. Now that IPL is not with us, we understand those subscribers won’t continue to engage with us. And we are prepared for those changes as a result of it,” he added.

Over-the-top platforms are witnessing a very critical pivot, and looking at long-term sustainable businesses, said Sivanandan. “By the long term, I don’t mean like a year, two or three. It is what we are building over the next decade. What would that be? We were predominantly known as a sports-driven service. Now, we are trying to find the right balance between sports and entertainment. Because the beauty of India is that there is a vast audience who enjoy not just sports, but entertainment. I genuinely believe we’re in a great place with the portfolio we have, and we can address those needs.”

The platform still holds the rights to ICC tournaments, Wimbledon, Cricket Australia, Pro Kabaddi League, and the Premier League (EPL). However, it will focus equally on original web content, Sivanandan added. “What does not get talked about enough is our incredible set of assets on the entertainment side. We built a great set of franchises under Hotstar Specials. A lot of people look forward to franchises like Arya, Criminal Justice, Night Manager, etc. This may be debatable, and I may be biased, but I don’t think there’s any other provider that has as rich a depth of regional content as we do across Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.”

Disney+Hotstar also draws strength from the Disney library, that has iconic brands such as Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars. Sivanandan said these franchises have the potential to appeal to a wider spectrum of audiences.

On Disney+Hotstar’s ambitions to become a comprehensive content provider, Sivanandan said: “We are getting into a phase, where it’s not just oriented around cricket, but a wide set of assets.” Its business model is also evolving, focusing on inclusivity. “We genuinely believe we are here to serve many Indias, not just one India.”

On whether Disney’s global strategy to reduce content acquisition costs affected its Indian business, Sivanandan said: “The foundational construct of any business ought to be to build a sustainable business. Nobody gets into business to lose money. So, we’re all aligned on it. And it’s important to look at things like unit economics, what does it take to profit, what’s the path to profitability. So, we are trying to build a hybrid model here. (That said), this is not some newfound model that we have invented. We were a very intensively-driven SVOD (subscription video on demand) business. Now, under a hybrid model, we will have a robust ad-driven offering, combined with a very premium, subscription offering.”

The firm is committed to democratizing access to content, respecting and serving the needs of both ad-supported and subscription audiences. “Our strengths in bringing the best of a diverse set of content plus tech, give us the right to, and the opportunity to serve and win many Indias,” he said. “We are in this for the long term. And, if we serve users well, we’ll make money.”