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The Importance of India In the Streaming Wars

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Disney Plus had a launch for the ages, adding over 73 million subscribers in its first year, but not all of those subscribers were in the US. In fact, approximately 25% of subscribers were in India. India has emerged as a key battleground in the streaming wars with Netflix(NFLX), Amazon(AMZN), Disney(DIS), ViacomCBS(VIAC), and others, who are pouring resources to try to capture scale in this large and valuable market.

In India the number one streaming service is Hotstar (owned by Disney) accounting for 41% of the market and consisting of over 400 million users of their free with ads platform. For paid streaming, Hotstar had a total of 6 million users split between their VIP and Premium subscription plans when they were acquired by Disney. This number is growing now that they have been purchased by Disney(now almost 19 million about 25% of Disney+ users). Hotstar now offers all of the Disney+ content(called Disney+ Hotstar) as well as the streaming rights to the Indian Premier League (IPL) Cricket. To give you an idea of the popularity of cricket viewership in India, 411 million people watched the IPL championship in 2019.

In addition to IPL, Disney+ Hotstar has the rights to many popular shows in India including those from other US competitor networks such Game of Thrones, Friends, Modern Family as well as tons of Disney and Fox’s own movie content and 61 channels that are in 9 local languages. While this is more premium content than the American Disney+, Indian viewers pay the equivalent of around $5 for the VIP plan and $14 for the Premium plan for the full year as opposed to the US’s $6.99 per month plan or $69.99 per year, so the huge subscriber market is offset in part by the lower prices points. Similar to their approaches in the US, Disney has targeted a lower price point initially to quickly scoop up market share.

Why International Growth and India Matters

Streaming services are looking for scale beyond their home markets. As Netflix recognized in 2016, the next waves of growth for streamers are likely to come from international markets beyond the US. This makes larger international markets such as India and its 1.4 billion-member population compelling.

With the recent Covid pandemic many users of Indian ad-powered streaming services ventured to paid subscription streaming services in an attempt to find new content. This accounted for a large increase in paid subscriptions to streaming services in India and because of this an increase in profitability for the streaming companies. Disney+ Hotstar launched from just over 5 million users to just under 19 million users, Amazon Prime went from 4 million users to just under 6 million users, and Netflix up over a million users to get them just over the 3 million user mark. There is the potential that this caused the start of an evolution in India to paid subscriptions as opposed to free with ads plans.

Regional Differences

In India, the primary consumption of streaming services happens on mobile devices that do not have access to broadband internet. This means that for providers to fully capitalize on the Indian market they need to create mobile apps that can run on lower bandwidth internet. Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Disney+ built mobile apps that allow users to download content to watch offline. However, if they can allow users to stream content on a lower quality internet connection then, they can open up new parts of the market in India. Content is integrated in sometimes surprising ways, for example, food delivery services like Zomato use streaming as a way to make their service more sticky. This would be the equivalent of DoorDash or UberEats offering streaming video.

Streaming companies are not immune to the common problem of applicability that appears when expanding to international markets. Many Indian viewers want TV shows in Hindi or other regional languages, not just English. When Netflix put together the hit Indian crime series “Sacred Games”, the first question that director Vikramaditya Motwane asked was whether Netflix was comfortable using a language other than English. Netflix went forward with filming with authentic local languages and the series has been a hit. Additionally, Netflix is investing many resources to dub popular content for as broad an audience as possible. These challenges will be present for all streamers. Disney+ may have tons of great content for the US but will have to adapt it to the Indian market.

One thing is for sure, in India, the streaming players have to offer unique and different ways to reach their customers. Netflix, Amazon, Disney, and the other major players in the Indian streaming wars are pursuing different business strategies to gain share and increase subscriber numbers.

Indian Streaming Strategies

Amazon’s approach to the Indian market entails making new shows specific to the country. These tend to be high-level and only really applicable to a small percentage of India’s market. This explains why they only have 4-5 million users in a country with a population in the billions. There has also been backlash against some of the content which some considered to be making fun of or dishonoring Indian tradition. The start has not been panning out well for a company whose founder and now chairman Jeff Bezos has been quoted calling the 21st century “the India century”.

Disney+’s aggressive and focused approach to capturing the Indian market has proved to be the most successful with over 18 million users in India. They were so successful because when they bought Sky Sports India from 21st Century Fox, they acquired the rights to cricket which is easily the most popular sport in India (for Americans think about a more popular sport than football in the US). Streaming cricket has been far more effective than Amazon’s strategy of only working for content specific to India.

Netflix on the other hand has tried a different strategy. They have dubbed their current TV shows in over 30 languages. This is far more cost-effective than creating India-specific content. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, has said that they want Netflix to be an international TV network. Their goal is to have 100 million users in India. However, to achieve this Netflix will have to shift away from its core of TV shows and movies only if they want to attract the masses of India who also want sports and news.


Now we see ViacomCBS coming out with Paramount+ as their streaming network, however, a predecessor of this in India specifically is Voot. Voot is an India-specific free with ads video-on-demand service. They house over 40,000 hours of video content across 6 different local languages. This includes channels like MTV, Nickelodeon, and Colors.


India is a huge and important market. For providers, it is crucial to having a powerful international footprint. However, the strategies and even the hardware/devices that have historically worked in the US and Europe have not worked the same in India. More viewers in India use mobile phones to stream and have lower-quality internet connections. Also, the government regulates outside entrants which makes the prices for subscriptions much lower. However, most streaming service users in India are still utilizing free with ads systems as opposed to paying for a subscription. This is seemingly starting to change-making India even more important. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues because that would make India not only the largest by population but also far more profitable, potentially drawing in more competition.

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Disclaimer: I do hold a position ViacomCBS. I do not have a position in any of the other mentioned companies and I do not plan on initiating a position in the next 72 hours. I am not being compensated for this post. I am not in a relationship with any of the companies mentioned outside of my ViacomCBS position. This is not financial advice, always do your own research.




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