Populous and rapidly growing India is a highly attractive market for mobile video streaming, spurring competition amongst big American firms.
As recently as 2016, mobile video streaming was only for wealthy Indians who could spare the data. Then Mumbai-based Reliance Jio, a mobile network operator owned by the Reliance Industries conglomerate, disrupted the Indian telecoms sector. Employing aggressive pricing strategies, the company brought cheap 4G mobile service to the masses. According to the Indian Express, Reliance Jio had the fastest ramp-up ever, acquiring 16 million subscribers within the first month.
The market was massive and more than ready, and remains so today. Hundreds of millions of Indians stream video on their phones rather than watching on TV, often free of charge. At 300 million, smartphones outnumber India’s 200 million TV-owning households. Now giant American streaming video providers and local rivals alike want to persuade Indian media consumers to pay for shows on a par with those produced in America and Europe.
Content quality is a key element, especially since India does not have an HBO or Showtime of its own to compete with. “We never made our ‘Sopranos’,” says Sameer Nair, CEO of Indian production company Applause Entertainment. Netflix, Amazon and Disney, which owns Hotstar, India’s leading streaming platform, are investing enthusiastically in programming – bringing in bigger production budgets, bigger stars, and consultants from Hollywood, Tel Aviv and the like.
The challenge lies in getting Indian media consumers to pay for streaming video content. Television is the most inexpensive viewing option, costing only about $3-4 a month for 300 channels versus roughly double that for Netflix, according to The Economist. Research firm Media Partners Asia says that Netflix has only 1 million subscribers in India out of its 139 million worldwide. To boost subscriptions, it recently introduced a half-price mobile-only service costing about the same as cable or satellite TV.
A price war is brewing between video streaming services, with Amazon charging just 999 rupees a year for its Prime subscription, which includes free shipping in addition to films and TV shows. Disney’s new service, Hotstar VIP, which bundles sports and TV series, costs just 365 rupees a year. Sanjay Gupta, Disney’s Country Manager of India, said he hopes to spend close to $300 million on original programming within a year. His company is aiming for 100 million or more subscribers.
Among the domestic players, Bharti Airtel is feverishly upgrading its mobile service, and specifically its mobile video streaming experience, to better compete with Reliance Jio. The stakes are high, and the outcomes could disrupt Indian media as well as the country’s thriving telecoms sector once again.