With Fox Deal, Comcast and Disney Wish Upon a Star in India

MUMBAI:  As Walt Disney Company and Comcast Corporation gear up for a possible bidding war over a big chunk of 21st Century Fox, both companies are interested in Fox?s Hollywood franchises The Simpsons, Avatar and X-Men.

But it is learnt that among the most desired asset is Indian media conglomerate Star India, which is fully owned by Fox.

While neither Comcast or Disney have a big presence in India, each view Star India as an important piece in their plans to challenge Netflix and tap growth in emerging markets. 

Star India reaches 700 million customers a month in India, with 60 channels in nine different languages and owns rights to broadcast popular cricket tournaments along with a stake in a production company that makes Bollywood movies. Perhaps its biggest selling point now is Hotstar that has around 150 million active monthly users.

Star India CEO Uday Shankar thinks that with this, Hotstar is setting the agenda for the future.

Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson estimated Star will make EBITDA of $826 million by 2020, which will be a 91per cent jump from this fiscal year. Fox, which had $7.17 billion in adjusted operating income on $28.5 billion in revenue in its most recent fiscal year, has said it believes Star will earn $1 billion in EBITDA by 2020.

Cable giant Comcast said last month that it is in the advanced stages of preparing a rival, all-cash bid.

The assets for sale include the 20th Century Fox film and television studio, various cable networks and Fox?s stake in the streaming service Hulu. But among the most compelling assets?especially for Comcast?are the international ones, Star India and Fox?s interest in European pay-TV operator.

Buying Star would come with some risks. Sports rights deals, if they follow the course of the U.S. and Europe, could become much more expensive upon renewal. And there could be new competition from the telecom companies driving India?s wireless data boom, including Jio, as they start offering their users content.

Edelweiss Capital Ltd. senior vice president of research at Mumbai-based Abneesh Roy said that while user cancellations of cable and satellite TV service are plaguing the U.S. pay-TV industry, ?in India, cord-cutting is absolutely a nonissue? and pay-TV is still expanding, he added.

Over the past 10 years, Shankar has expanded Star?s distribution. It now reaches nine out of 10 Indian homes. Star?s programming includes everything from prime-time soaps to dance competitions and highlights of international sports events. It has worked to add content in languages other than Hindi and English. As the economy grew, people who spoke regional dialects had more purchasing power and more appeal for advertisers. ?Not plugging into that change would have been a loss of opportunity,? Shankar said.

It agreed last year to acquire the global TV and digital rights to India?s wildly popular annual cricket competition, the Indian Premier League, in a deal valued at $2.42 billion at current conversion rates. Star fended off a bid by Facebook Inc. for the digital rights.

Last month, 160 million people watched the final on Star TV networks and 51 million watched it on Hotstar, up from 121 million on TV and 21.6 million on Hotstar a year before.

Hotstar is geared to run on mobile devices, targeting the many people who rely on cellphones for entertainment.  ?In this country, for many people, their first experience of screen is with a mobile screen,? Shankar said.

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