In the world's most populous country, a new class of competition is upending legacy media, resulting in the second change in ownership of a popular business in four years. Rupert Murdoch was the first to recognise the danger. It's now Bob Iger's time.
Bloomberg News claimed this week that Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger is close to a multibillion-dollar deal to sell his Indian operations. Iger was the buyer in 2019, and Murdoch was the seller. Disney acquired the Star India division as part of a $71 billion global acquisition of 21st Century Fox Inc.'s entertainment holdings. Even that transaction was heavily influenced by India.
Murdoch was given a warning shot when an upstart, Facebook Inc., won $600 million for streaming rights at an Indian cricket league auction in 2017. Star fended off the threat by spending $2.55 billion for five years of television and web, but the writing was on the wall: the internet was coming for sports content, the crown jewel of appointment viewing. Three months later, the Australian-born media tycoon reached an agreement with Iger. After nearly 15 months, the purchase was completed.
This time, the challenger is Mukesh Ambani, not Mark Zuckerberg. The Indian tycoon's fledgling 4G carrier was just getting started in 2017, disrupting the wireless market with free phone calls and cheap internet. Six years later, he has over 400 million clients and a growing consumer empire that blurs the borders between carriage, content, and commerce. The country's digital market has grown rapidly, yet it has effectively shrunk to a duopoly. Legacy television will not survive in this new context for long.
That is why, in his second stint as CEO of Disney, Iger is selling the company. He believes Star India, or Disney Star as it is now known, is worth $10 billion. According to Bloomberg News, Ambani believes the assets are worth between $7 billion and $8 billion. A successful purchase will fulfil Iger's commitment to bring the giant closer to its core products of theme parks, Hulu and Disney+, and ESPN.
It will also be a significant affirmation for Ambani. Foreign participation in Indian television began in the early 1990s with the lease of a satellite transponder from Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing. Murdoch entered the market by purchasing Star from Li in 1993. Things are going to change now. Sony Group Corp. of Japan will retain control of the country's largest television network once its long-awaited merger with Zed Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. of India is completed. However, Ambani will most certainly control a larger portion of consumers' money and advertising spending.