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Disney+ postpones India launch as coronavirus delays a major cricket event

The launch was earlier scheduled on March 29, when Indian Premier Leauge, the country’s biggest cricketing tournament was supposed to kick off.

Photo by Jayme McColgan on Unsplash

As millions of Indians stay home amid the ongoing lockdown in major cities due to the coronavirus outbreak in the country, streaming players like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney-owned Hotstar have been seeing a surge in demand for the past two weeks. Now Netflix and Amazon Prime have got another piece of good news.

Their arch-rival Disney’s impending launch of its latest OTT (over-the-top) service, Disney+, which it unveiled in the US last November, has been postponed in India.

The launch was earlier scheduled for March 29, to coincide with the beginning of India’s biggest cricketing tournament, Indian Premier Leauge. However, with the rapid spread of COVID-19 cases in the country, the sporting event has been delayed until April 15. And so is the Disney+ launch.

“We recently announced that Disney+ would launch in India through the Hotstar service in conjunction with the beginning of the Indian Premier League cricket season,” Uday Shankar, president of The Walt Disney Company  APAC and chairman of Star & Disney India, said in a statement on Friday. “Given the delay of the season, we have made the decision to briefly pause the roll-out of Disney+ and will announce a new revised premiere date for the service soon.”

Netflix and Amazon may have lost some traffic to Hotstar where Disney+ will be made available at a time when the demand for OTT services is highest in the country. Now that the launch has been delayed, they don’t have to worry about it until mid-April.

Disney had been pretty excited about the launch until recently. In fact, it launched the service for a small group of customers on March 11 to test it but rolled it back within 24 hours.

“A limited release of the beta version of the Disney+ Hotstar app is currently being tested with a small number of consumers, in preparation for the full-fledged app launch on 29th March,” a Hotstar spokesperson told local media Hindustan Times.

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However, the coronavirus outbreak has forced the world’s second-most-populous country to go under lockdown till March 31, shutting down effectively all but the essential services like groceries in major cities. Consequently, all the events including IPL have been canceled to prevent the virus spread.

The IPL cricket tournament–which usually consists of 60 games and lasts for seven to eight weeks–has been a crucial element of Hotstar’s India strategy.

When Hotstar launched its subscription service back in April 2016, it used IPL along with season six of hit American series Game of Thrones as a bait to lure users to come to the platform and was able to lock them in for a year with its annual subscription. Over the years, IPL has made Hotstar the number one player in the South Asian nation. Last year, Hotstar said the cricket series had 300 million-plus viewership overall for the IPL as compared to 202 million overall viewership in 2018. According to data-driven research platform Oddup, as of October 2019, Hotstar enjoyed a 29% market share, followed by Amazon Prime’s 10%, while Netflix had about 5% market share.

Disney’s Indian streaming platform is expected to gain an edge over its competitors as and when Disney+ rolls out in the country. During the earnings call in February this year, current executive chairman Bob Iger said Disney+ had amassed  28.6 million subscribers within three months of its launch in the US and a few other countries like Canada, Netherlands, and Australia.

With more than half a billion smartphone users, India is an important market for the US streaming giants. As the Indian urban population stays at home in tier 1 cities, which accounts for a lion’s share of subscribers for OTT players, the current period is most critical for them to gain market share.

While streaming services are seeing a surge in traffic, there is a flip side too.

With businesses implementing ‘work from home’ policy, schools conducting online classes, and digital payments going up, among other things, telecom service providers are facing increasing pressure on the network infrastructure. Local media recently reported that Indian telecom operators have reached out to at least 12 OTT video streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar, and Youtube to undertake measures like switching the streaming quality from HD to SD to ease the pressure on their network infrastructures.

The industry body, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) that represents Airtel, Vodafone Idea, Reliance Jio, and telecom gear makers in India has also requested the government to issue a communication to streaming platforms.

Just last week these global giants were asked to lower streaming quality in Europe. Netflix said it would reduce traffic on European networks by around 25%, while Google-owned YouTube said it would switch all traffic in the EU to standard definition by default for 30 days.