Bodhi Tree Systems co-founder and former Disney APAC chief Uday Shankar outlined how his new venture – along with Reliance’s JioCinema – is building an alternative to legacy media in one of the world’s fastest-growing markets, on the first day of Media Partners Asia’s APOS conference in Bali, Indonesia.
Talking to MPA executive director Vivek Couto, Shankar recounted how Reliance Jio created a “fundamental digital revolution” in India with the introduction of low-cost data plans in 2016.
“I was created by and love television, but its limitations have been exposed for a long time,” said Shankar, who headed Star India before serving as president of The Walt Disney Co APAC until 2020.
He is now invested in the next stage of India’s media evolution through his partnership with James Murdoch in Bodhi Tree Systems – part of a consortium of investors that are building out the JioCinema streaming service.
Over the past few years, the platform has made a series of splashy content deals including the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket and programming from Warner Bros Discovery and NBCUniversal. The service has also folded in the streaming channels of Viacom18 (jointly owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Paramount Global).
“We were able to see that opportunity very clearly. When you have a population of 1.4 billion, and leaving aside the top segment of the population, the rest have been completely bypassed – most of them have only looked at video on their mobile phones. The appetite has always been there but it’s been limited by access and affordability of the content,” Shankar said.
“What we believe is that you can create an alternative to television, and I’m not talking about just one streaming service or channel, but delivering the whole range and diversity of content. We think the time is right in India to create an alternative through an app – and that is JioCinema.”
JioCinema delivers multiple channels, sourced from businesses within the Reliance Industries/Viacom18 stable, as well as outside partners, but Shankar swatted aside the term “aggregation” as being associated with legacy media.
He said only a broad, centralised service with multiple channels can deliver content to the massive “social and linguistic diversity of India”. He called out India’s SVOD segment for being too focused on the top end of the market with programming that is too expensive to realistically recoup.
“We commission these $250,000 per episode shows – but I struggle to understand why those shows need to be made, unless you want to get invited to celebrity parties, because it does not get you traction,” Shankar said.
“It may make sense for global platforms to make that content, because they have a global monetization model, but if your primary market is India and you’re limiting yourself to 5% of the population, why are you even doing that?”
He added that is why JioCinema was “willing to pay top dollar” for the IPL, as that is “super premium” content that is “relevant to a large majority” of the Indian population. Reliance has so far invested more than $4BN in IPL and other cricket rights for India, which Shankar said would be a profitable investment. “It’s not a business if it’s not profitable,” he said to laughs from the room.
Shankar also said he’s bullish on AVOD, and respectful of India’s AVOD viewers, criticising “the kind of caste system” that doesn’t value consumers who don’t pay. “Anyone who is willing to consume the content is our customer and we just have to innovate in the ways in which we can reach them and create value – and that’s the model,” he said.
However, he added that JioCinema is also providing content for that “top 5% of the market” that is interested in Hollywood movies and premium content: “We are looking at different consumer segments and creating a proposition for all of them.”