Entertainment: Disney+ Faces Challenges to Maintain Early Growth Surge in Asia: Study

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Disney reported in early March that Disney+ topped 100 million subscribers for the first time, crossing that milestone just 16 months after its late-2019 launch. That speedy growth trajectory has made the company a formidable competitor to long-time streaming incumbent Netflix (NFLX), which boasted more than 208 million worldwide subscribers as of the end of its first quarter. But the surge in online grocery sales during the pandemic made grocers even less enamored of sharing their revenue with Instacart, say industry analysts, putting pressure on the company to find a better way.

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The Walt Disney Co.’s flagship direct-to-consumer streaming services Disney+ and Hotstar had amassed an estimated 36.9 million subscribers across the Asia-Pacific region by the end of the first quarter, according to a new study released Friday by consultancy Media Partners Asia. With the services launching in several additional Asian territories in the months ahead, MPA forecasts Disney+ subscribers could climb to 56.5 million, generating $800 million of revenue, by the end of this year.

The projections are the main takeaways from a 30-page analysis of Disney’s streaming business across the region, titled “Disney+ in the Asia Pacific.” Although Disney+’s overall growth trend in the region looks strong, the study presents a more nuanced picture on an individual territory basis amid mixed recoveries from the Covid-19 pandemic and diverging consumer responses to the streaming platform’s content offerings and local carrier partnerships. Disney+ and Hotstar totaled 32.4 million at the end of 2020, with the MPA’s estimates seeing an uptick of 4.5 million in the first three months of this year.

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Direct, organic subscriber growth is evident in the markets where Disney+ or Hotstar have been present longest — in India, where Fox began building the Hotstar streaming brand around exclusive cricket rights years ago, and in Australia, where Disney+ first switched on 19 months ago and the studio’s marquee film and TV titles attract a strong and ready following.

“In most other markets, Disney’s OTT services have acquired customers and generated revenues based on large scale, exclusive partnerships with telecom and pay-TV operators, anchored to various bundles,” MPA explained.

The research group sees the bulk of Asian subscribers by the end of 2021, some 87 percent, coming from the population centers of India (73 percent of total APAC subs) and Southeast Asia (14 percent). Disney+ isn’t expected to launch in the high-value, more mature markets of Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan until at least the fourth quarter of this year. Meanwhile, in the valuable Japan market, which recently became Netflix’s largest venue contributor in APAC, MPA sees subscription and revenue growth getting a bump in the fourth quarter when Star entertainment content is added to the local content mix.

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In India, the MPA, like other analysts, has sharply reduced its forecast for Disney+ Hotstar growth due to the devastating recent wave of COVID-19 infection, which caused a sharp curtailment of the professional cricket play, which remains the brand’s core draw. The company has reduced its estimate of total India sub by year end from a prior 51 million to 41 million.

In India, Disney+ Hotstar offers a widely used advertising VOD service, but “monetization on AVOD remains challenging,” MPA wrote, adding: “Indian Premiere League cricket continues to drive revenues and yields but inventory utilization on entertainment is low. AVOD revenue is expected to pick up towards the third quarter as vaccine deployment accelerates ahead of the festive season with upside in the fourth quarter, which will remain cricket heavy.”

On a more granular level in Southeast Asia, the report’s authors said that in Indonesia Disney+ Hotstar consumption has become heavily concentrated on Marvel films and series, “with local movie consumption tapering off and Star content failing to scale after a decent start.” The report cautioned that the service requires a stronger local content offering there or it risks becoming simply a “franchise super fan platform.”

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In Malaysia, where Disney+ launched in May, early consumption indicates “binge-viewing of Marvel films and new series, with users also sampling local movies.” In nearby Thailand, where the service switched announced a June 30 launch with a local telecom, preorders have been “exceptional.”

Citing future challenges, the MPA said “much of Disney’s future [in APAC], ex-India, will be anchored to growing direct customer relationships in key markets while also maintaining third-party partnerships and limiting subscriber churn.” The company also highlighted that scaling investment and execution of originals production that resonates across the region — particularly in content centers like South Korea and Japan — will be vital to continued healthy growth.

“The biggest challenge will be to create and acquire recurring local and exclusive entertainment franchises (including anime) similar to Disney’s U.S. tentpoles that sustain customer acquisition lifecycles,” the authors said.

On a global basis, the roll-out of Disney+ got off to a phenomenal start but has recently hit a somewhat unsteady patch, as the service reached 103.6 million subscribers at the end of the last quarter, well below the 110 million that had been anticipated. Analysts and executives have posited three pandemic-driven theories for the slowdown, which also has hit competitors like Netflix: the subscriber pull-forward, the content squeeze, and the reopening.

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