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Disney and Mukesh Ambani create new India media giant with 750 million viewers

By Diksha Madhok and Hanna Ziady, CNN

New Delhi/London (CNN) — Disney is joining forces with Asia’s richest man to create a new media giant in India that says it will reach a domestic audience of more than 750 million people.

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Disney have combined their digital streaming platforms and 100 TV channels in the country in a joint venture worth about $8.5 billion, the companies said in a statement Wednesday.

Talk of a potential deal has been swirling for some time, as Disney has struggled to take advantage of the opportunity presented by a nation of more than 1 billion people where English is widely spoken. The company is also facing a multitude of problems back home.

Disney (DIS) made a major push into the country in 2019, when it acquired most of 21st Century Fox, including its vast Star India network.

Reliance will own just over 63% of the new entity, mostly through its Viacom18 subsidiary, with Disney holding the rest.

“This is a landmark agreement that heralds a new era in the Indian entertainment industry,” said Mukesh Ambani, whose sprawling business empire is worth more than $236 billion and spans retail, technology and renewable energy.

Ambani’s wife Nita M. Ambani will be the chairperson of the joint venture, which combines Disney’s “acclaimed films and shows” with Viacom18’s “renowned productions and sports offerings,” the companies said, adding that the venture would also cater to the Indian diaspora across the world.

“India is the world’s most populous market, and we are excited for the opportunities that this joint venture will provide to create long-term value for the company,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger.

Disney salvaging its Indian dream

Disney has faced multiple challenges in India, which boasts a vibrant media and entertainment sector.

The House of Mouse was hit particularly hard in 2022 after it lost the digital rights to stream the hugely popular Indian Premier League cricket matches to Ambani’s conglomerate.

Disney’s streaming app in India, Hotstar, has shed millions of subscribers since then and suffered another blow last March when it stopped streaming HBO content.

Weeks later, Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), the parent company of both HBO and CNN, moved its content to Ambani’s JioCinema, taking Indian viewers of hit shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “Succession” along with them.

In its latest financial year ending in September, Disney earned revenue of just 66 cents on average per Hotstar subscriber — down from 88 cents in 2022 and compared with $5.93 for a non-US subscriber to Disney+, its main streaming service, according to its annual report.

Hotstar subscriber numbers plunged 39% to 37.6 million over the latest financial year.

On an earnings call in November, Iger said Disney’s TV business was doing well in India but that other parts of its business in the country were struggling. “We have an opportunity to strengthen our hand,” he said at the time. “We’d like to stay in the (Indian) market.”

The deal with one of India’s richest conglomerates allows Disney to achieve those goals, according to analysts.

“The merger … creates a powerful entity poised to enhance scale, profitability, and competitiveness in a converged TV and streaming video landscape,” said Mihir Shah, vice president of research firm Media Partners Asia.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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