May 8, 2021

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Want to push towards a proposition of being an entertainment all-rounder: Sunil Rayan, President, Disney+ Hotstar


The Indian Premier League (IPL) is one of the biggest drivers for subscriber acquisition for Disney+Hotstar, the video streaming service of Star & Disney India. The league not just brings new viewers, but also lots of money in sponsorships and revenues. In an interview with ET, Sunil Rayan, President & Head, Disney+ Hotstar, talked about the importance of IPL and what the OTT platform is doing this season.

How was the experience last season when IPL was put completely behind a paywall?

While we started primarily as an advertising led IPL viewing platform, we did put IPL behind the paywall entirely in the last season. But that was a journey that we followed from a long time ago because even in the IPL 2019, it wasn’t ad free for everybody, but only for the Jio users and all the other telcos users still had to pay.

It was also last year when Hotstar was rechristened as Disney+Hotstar. Did that help?
Yes, the value proposition that we had last year, compared to the previous years, was a lot more. We had exclusive content specifically with Hotstar Specials, Disney became part of the solution, and we also got some time to dub some of the Disney+ content. The timing was perfect in terms of evolving into a business model that is moving from advertising-led to subscription- led, but we just cannot do it on a whim, like flip the switch. So, we were very thoughtful.

So, the whole theme right now is that we want to push towards a proposition of being an entertainment all-rounder, if you take an analogy from cricket and entertainment.

We are the platform that provides a holistic cricket live-sports experience combined with the video-on-demand entertainment experience. If you break that down further, we’ve got entertainment that is broken down as binge watching Specials exclusively on Hotstar, direct to digital movies, and before-TV content.

So, all that combined in a nutshell, we put the user and the consumer at the centre to drive an experience that is very personalised to them, because not everybody likes one type of content but everybody wants a personalised one.

What was your go-to-market strategy for the subscription model?
As I said, during IPL 2019, we were free only for Jio subscribers, and all the other telcos users needed to buy the subscription. Last IPL, we had both Jio and Airtel then we bundled the value proposition as part of their data deals.

This time we plan to cover all the population. As you know, India is a mobile first market. The biggest use case for us has always been a mobile use case and that’s why we feel the strength of our partnership with telcos need to be very prominent. So, now we have Jio, Airtel and VI as part of our partnerships going to this IPL.

Also, given the lockdown, we have been pleasantly surprised to see not just the mobile users coming in, but even our watch time on living room devices has more than doubled. We actually saw that increase in the last IPL compared to the previous IPLs, whether free or paid, which is for living room devices being a much bigger portion than they were in the past and that’s continued to increase.

So, we feel like the value proposition is working, the trends are being shaped by the consumers, people used to watch on mobiles now people are getting fire sticks and devices like smart TVs etc. and we’re seeing that shift and we want to be prepared for both.

I would say the value proposition has evolved to a richer entertainment plus cricket. For the go-to market, the mission is, for us is to get to as many people as possible and make it as frictionless as possible, which is why we went to all the telcos.

Cricket as a sport is like tailor made for advertisers. But do you also get feedback about too many ads?

We are thinking deeply about it. But if you look at it, because there are so many breaks that are part of cricket, it’s a very native integration. The other thing is that rights are expensive. We are also in a place where we want to keep the consumer happy and want to make sure the business progresses.

Also, I don’t feel ads are artificial, I think people are used to it. As long as the ads are targeted to the right users, are engaging and the integration is seamless, they aren’t a problem.

Moreover, we are always testing to make the experience better. But, I wouldn’t put it out of the question that it doesn’t evolve in the next few years.

What is the expectation this year in terms of both viewership as well as ad revenues?
Well, before the last two weeks when all these COVID cases kept growing in India, we were pretty confident about where we were going. From an advertising perspective, we see a lot more demand right now than even what we saw in IPL 2020. So, that’s a good reflection of the market. The second thing is, because people were being locked up at home during the last IPL, multiple people would see it on one screen. But before the Covid hitting again, when things were getting back to normal we thought mobile use cases meant a lot more people would be outside. We clearly saw that trend. Like if you look at the trend for us looking at just the India- England T-20s, we were pleasantly surprised with that. But you don’t know what’s happening right now, with the Mumbai cases going up everyday.

If nothing had happened in the last two weeks, in terms of cases going up, I would be more confident. But there’s a little bit of variable, we want to be careful, like, for example, we had planned a lot more stuff for this IPL. But we are taking a little bit of a step back because we have the bio-bubble, we don’t want to add more people to the bio-bubble.

So we’ve been careful with the safety. We don’t want too many existing operations to be disrupted. So we’re trying to take the leanest approach. But fundamentally, I also feel like from a tech perspective, we want to make sure that uninterrupted coverage… that’s a big focus for us. All the other things are additional.

So in terms of ad sales, what are your targets this year and how are you faring?
From an ad perspective, I’m very happy with what I’m seeing right now. If we can repeat the success of last year, it would be great. I feel like we’re trending in the right direction. In fact, we’ve signed up 14 sponsors versus I think 10 sponsors last year and we might sign more sponsors. And we have got more marquee names. I cannot give you the numbers, I wish I could.

How important is IPL in terms of subscriber acquisitions?
Overall, I would say cricket is a big driver for our subscriptions and when we think about cricket, we think about a portfolio strategy. What’s the right portfolio to have and we have the, we have all the IPL, BCCI, ICC as well Asia Cup.

IPL is definitely, given the length of the tournament and the interest in India, is a big driver within the cricket portfolio. It’s a very important property for us in Disney+ Hotstar. What we’re also trying to do is we’re trying to focus on this aspect of the juxtaposition of both entertainment as well as cricket, we are calling it cricketainment. It gives us an opportunity to expose a lot of people to watch other content on the platform.

We see the IPL as a great opportunity for us to showcase what other things that we have. So people get exposed to other entertainment assets that they didn’t know about, so it’s a great content discovery experience during IPL.

On the marketing side, what are you doing on Disney+ Hotstar for IPL?
We want to create a social buzz in terms of what is actually happening. So, part of what we are going to launch is an IPL anthem. And you know dance is pretty critical for India, so we’ve got the jigs for each of the specific teams.

We’ve created the IPL anthem, just to drive a little bit more rivalry, or else how will people celebrate with each other and we can bring a little bit of fan community. We feel that dance anthem will be very critical in creating that buzz and people feeling more connected and associated with brands.

We also want to drive more social engagement. That’s to me, the critical aspect of digital versus TV. TV is more of a one way experience. The theme this year is, ‘India Ka Vibe Alag Hai’.