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Ambani and James Murdoch bring HBO content to India

Warner Bros. Discovery has partnered with Mukesh Ambani-backed Viacom18 to bring HBO and other movies and shows from the WB catalog to India in a major win for the Reliance joint venture's service that is aggressively winning mindshare from rivals including Disney's Hotstar, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

HBO Original, Max Original and a selection of Warner Bros. television series will debut on Reliance's JioCinema next month, with streaming occurring simultaneously with the U.S., according to a joint statement from Warner Bros. and Viacom18.

JioCinema's "exclusive" content agreement comes as the platform has attracted tens of millions of users in recent weeks, driven by free streaming of the IPL cricket tournament for anyone with internet access. In 2022, Viacom18 outbid Disney to secure five years of IPL streaming rights for the Indian subcontinent, at a cost of $3 billion.

Viacom18, a joint venture between Reliance and Paramount Global, also counts former Star executives Uday Shankar and James Murdoch's Bodhi Tree among its backers. Earlier this month, Bodhi Tree reduced its planned investment in Viacom18 to $528 million, a 70% decrease from the initial commitment of $1.78 billion. Bodhi Tree plans to increase its stake in Viacom18, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Reliance, which holds a majority stake in Viacom18, announced earlier this month that it would contribute $1.32 billion to the joint venture, a significant increase from the originally planned $216 million.

Thursday's announcement deals a blow to Disney, as its Hotstar app gained traction through cricket's popularity and premium content from HBO. The platform has since lost both the offerings.

The licensing agreement with Warner Bros., estimated to cost Viacom18 over $15 million annually, highlights Ambani's growing efforts to establish JioCinema as a dominant streamer platform in India's otherwise crowded market. Despite being included at no additional charge for all Jio subscribers, JioCinema, part of telecom behemoth Jio Platform's content offerings, had previously struggled to attract customers.

In addition to the major investments, JioCinema has poached aggressively from Hotstar in recent months. The firm recently also appointed former Disney executive Kevin Vaz as Viacom18 CEO.

“JioCinema has become the biggest platform for live sports. We are now on a mission to build the most magnetic destination for entertainment for all Indians," said Ferzad Palia, Head – SVOD & International Business, Viacom18, in a statement.

"The strategic partnership with Warner Bros. Discovery is a big milestone in our journey to offer the best of Hollywood content to our elite consumers. We believe that Warner Bros. Discovery sets the global standards for premium content and this partnership allows us to create the best and the most comprehensive destination for our users."

Industry analysts were widely expecting Amazon, which offers a number of on-demand video streaming services in India, to tie-up with Warner Bros. for HBO content in the South Asian market. Amazon is also currently in advanced stages of deliberations to acquire MX Player, a popular video streaming service in India, TechCrunch reported earlier.

With the new content deal in place, JioCinema is gradually positioning itself to potentially introduce a paid model for accessing select premium content.

In Viacom18, Warner Bros. has also found a deeply-pocketed partner in India. The New York-headquartered media giant has scaled back many of its operations in South Asia in recent years, including discontinuing HBO and WB TV channels in India, Pakistan, Maldives and Bangladesh.