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June 16, 2019
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Hotstar, Disney’s Indian streaming service, sets new global record for live viewership

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Indian video streaming giant Hotstar, owned by Disney, today set a new global benchmark for the number of people an OTT service can draw to a live event.

Some 18.6 million users simultaneously tuned into Hotstar’s website and app to watch the deciding game of the 12th edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament. The streaming giant, which competes with Netflix and Amazon in India, broke its own “global best” 10.3 million concurrent views milestone that it had set last year.

Hotstar topped the 10 million concurrent viewership mark a number of times during this year’s 51-day IPL season. More than 12.7 million viewers huddled to watch an earlier game in the tournament (between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians), a spokesperson for the four-year-old service said. In mid-April, Hotstar said that the cricket series had already garnered 267 million overall viewership, creating a new record for the streamer. (Last year’s IPL had clocked 202 million over viewership.)

Fans of Mumbai Indians celebrate their team’s victory against Chennai Super Kings in IPL cricket tournament in India.

These figures coming out of India, the fastest growing internet market, are astounding, to say the least. In comparison, a 2012 live-stream of skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumping from near-space to the Earth’s surface, remains the most concurrently viewed video on YouTube. It amassed about 8 million concurrent viewers. The live viewership of the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was also a blip in comparison.

As Netflix and Amazon scramble to find the right content strategy to lure Indians, Hotstar and its local parent firm Star India have aggressively focused on securing broadcast and streaming rights to various cricket series. Cricket is almost followed like a religion in India.

In 2017, Star India, then owned by 21st Century Fox, secured rights to broadcast and stream IPL cricket tournament for five years for a sum of roughly $2.5 billion. Facebook had also participated in the bidding, offering north of $600 million for streaming. (Star India was part of 21st Century Fox’s business that Disney acquired for $71.3 billion earlier this year.)

That bet has largely paid off. Hotstar said last month that its service has amassed 300 million monthly active users, up from 150 million it had reported last year. In comparison, both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have less than 30 million subscribers in India, according to industry estimates.

In the last two years, Hotstar has expanded to three international markets — the U.S., Canada, and most recently, the UK — to chase new audiences. The streaming service is hoping to attract Indians living overseas and anyone else who is interested in Bollywood movies and cricket, Ipsita Dasgupta, president of Hotstar’s international operations, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The streaming service plans to enter Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Middle East, Australia, and New Zealand in the next few quarters, Dasgupta said.

That’s not to say that Hotstar has a clear path ahead. According to several estimates, the streaming service typically sees a sharp decline in its user base after the conclusion of an IPL season. Despite the massive engagement it generates, it remains operationally unprofitable, people familiar with Hotstar’s finances said.

The ad-supported streaming service offers about 80 percent of its content catalog — which includes titles produced by Star India, and shows and movies syndicated from international partners HBO, ABC, and Showtime among others — for no cost to users. One of the most watched international shows on the platform, “Game of Thrones,” will be ending soon, too.

The upcoming World Cup cricket tournament, which Hotstar will stream in India, should help it avoid the major headache for sometime. In the meanwhile, the service is aggressively expanding its original shows slate in the nation. One of the shows is a remake of BBC/NBC’s popular “The Office.”

Where top VCs are investing in media, entertainment & gaming

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Most of the strategy discussions and news coverage in the media & entertainment industry is concerned with the unfolding corporate mega-mergers and the political implications of social media platforms.

These are important conversations, but they’re largely a story of twentieth-century media (and broader society) finally responding to the dominance Web 2.0 companies have achieved.

To entrepreneurs and VCs, the more pressing focus is on what the next generation of companies to transform entertainment will look like. Like other sectors, the underlying force is advances in artificial intelligence and computer power.

In this context, that results in a merging of gaming and linear storytelling into new interactive media. To highlight the opportunities here, I asked nine top VCs to share where they are putting their money.

Here are the media investment theses of: Cyan Banister (Founders Fund), Alex Taussig (Lightspeed), Matt Hartman (betaworks), Stephanie Zhan (Sequoia), Jordan Fudge (Sinai), Christian Dorffer (Sweet Capital), Charles Hudson (Precursor), MG Siegler (GV), and Eric Hippeau (Lerer Hippeau).

Cyan Banister, Partner at Founders Fund

In 2018 I was obsessed with the idea of how you can bring AI and entertainment together. Having made early investments in Brud, A.I. Foundation, Artie and Fable, it became clear that the missing piece behind most AR experiences was a lack of memory.

AKQA says it used AI to invent a new sport called Speedgate

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At TechCrunch, we write about AI all the time, whether the technology is being used to write books, make films or create a better McDonald’s drive-thru. But we here’s one we haven’t heard before: Using AI to invent a new sport.

The sport in question is Speedgate, and it was developed by AKQA. Creative Director Whitney Jenkins explained that the digital agency wanted to do something “really ambitious” for Portland Design Week, and given the team’s work with Nike (and its general “love of sports or athleticism”), it made sense to ask: “What if we invented the next basketball, the next football?”

To do that, AKQA says it used an existing recurrent neural network architecture, feeding it data about 400 sports, which were then used to generate sports concepts and rules.

Many of those ideas, Jenkins said, were simply not feasible. The AI was good at coming up with descriptions for sports like “underwater parkour,” an exploding frisbee game and one where players pass a ball back-and-forth while in hot air balloons and on a tightrope. But it took a back-and-forth process with the human team at AKQA to narrow the list down to the final three for playtesting, and then to refine the rules into something people might actually want to play.

“We know we can’t dangle 30 feet in the air, we understand the confines of what makes sense as a sport,” Jenkins said. Still, he insisted that Speedgate could never have been created by humans alone: “Using AI as a member of a creative team takes us to a new place, that we never could have gotten to without it.”

Speedgate logo

In addition to generating ideas and rules, AKQA also used AI to generate different logos for the sport. The agency’s AI Lead Kathryn Webb said they fed more than 10,400 sports logos into a deep convolutional generative adversarial network, getting 6,400 possible logos back.

“A team looked through those and took a lot of inspiration from them in terms of the shape of the logo and the color scheme,” Webb said. “It’s a nice example of going beyond the very text-focused stuff that you see quite a lot of.”

And going back to text, AI was even responsible for the sport’s motto, which has apparently been embraced by the initial players: “Face the ball to be the ball to be above the ball.”

The result of all that work is a sport where teams of six play on a field with large gates, passing and kicking the ball through the gates (but avoiding the center gate) to score. Jenkins said that while Speedgate isn’t meant to be derivative of any particular sport, “If I was talking to my buddy walking down the street, I would say that we used AI to create a new sport that pulls the best of rugby, soccer, ultimate frisbee and croquet.”

AKQA will be demonstrating and discussing Speedgate at an event in Portland at 6pm tonight. Jenkins said the team has hopes for Speedgate beyond Design Week, including discussions with the Oregon Sports Authority and a possible intramural league this summer.

The Super Bowl gets voice-enabled

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Amazon, Dish, Comcast and others are hoping to turn Super Bowl 2019 into a way to show off the potential for their voice technologies and TV integrations. The companies this week have been touting new features and a variety of voice commands that will allow viewers to get prepared for the big game, learn about players and teams, tune into NFL news and highlights, set their recordings and more.

In some cases, this may be as simple as asking your TV to tune to the Super Bowl, record the event or get more information about the game, as is the case with Dish. Customers can press the button on their Dish voice remote, then say “Super Bowl” or “Super Bowl 53” to watch, find information or record the game, the company says.

Comcast and Amazon are taking things further, however.

Comcast’s Xfinity X1 customers can now use their voice remote to get the latest stats, get pre-game news and post-game highlights or even turn on an app that tracks real-time stats on the screen during the big game.

For example, X1 customers can say “Tom Brady vs. Jared Goff,” “The Patriots vs. the Rams,” “Show me Julian Edelman,” “Show me Rams leaders” and other sorts of commands to get stats on teams or to learn about the players. They also can say “Super Bowl” or “NFL” to be taken to news and highlights, or say “X1 Sports app” to launch the stat-tracking feature on their TV screen.

Smart home users with Xfinity Home can even turn their lighting to their favorite team’s colors by saying”Xfinity Home, go Patriots!” or “go Rams!,” as desired.

Alexa’s Super Bowl feature set is more robust, offering the ability to ask for trivia and quizzes, background on the players and teams, stats, jokes and burns, track the odds, get historical data and more.

These sorts of questions can range from the basic — like, “where is the Super Bowl this year?” — to the more complex, like “what is the Patriots yards per carry this season?” or “how many times has Tom Brady been to the Super Bowl?”

You can also ask Alexa for a Super Bowl quiz, fact or past game recaps, in addition to more informational questions. Alexa can give you football jokes and “burns,” too.

What was surprising was that some of the stat-related questions Alexa could answer herself weren’t answered on Google Home, when asked the same way — for example, the above yards per carry question, and number of Super Bowls that Tom Brady has been to.

Both Alexa and Google Assistant will give you their own opinion on who they want to win, however. Google says it’s cheering for the underdog, the Rams. Alexa says as much as she wants to cheer for the Rams, she thinks the Patriots will win.

Twitter and NBA game streaming deal is about connecting with cord-cutters and younger fans

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Twitter is already working with the NBA to stream video of pre-game warm-ups, in-game and post-game highlights and post-game behind-the-scenes content. Now, the company will for the first time ever stream live NBA action — with a twist. In partnership with the NBA, Twitter will introduce an alternate camera angle view during the second half of the live game, one that’s focused on a single player.

That’s right: NBA fans on Twitter won’t get to hear commentary, or watch the full game — the stream will only go live in the second half.

And they’re not watching the full game action — the stream will be focused on a single player in an isolated camera view.

That may sound like those watching Twitter are getting short-changed, but that is not the full story, according to Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA who spoke about the deal today onstage at CES in Las Vegas alongside Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

A key goal with this deal is to make the experience less like tuning into a live sporting event and more like a social activity, tapping into more platforms where younger users are spending time in a moment where, by many accounts, traditional TV is dying.

“There are a lot of people out there who may not be accessing our games,” said Silver.

“Many of them don’t subscribe to cable TV and that is the transition,” he added. The deal, he said, aims at “cord cutters who aren’t subscribing to pay TV… but still consume massive amounts of NBA content. This gives them the opportunity to see live video” in another place, in complement to the other places such as live streams online. “The best position we can be in is to say here is our content, go at it.”

Dorsey highlighted how basketball was a fitting first-go for this kind of sports content on Twitter, given some of Twitter’s own DNA.

`The NBA fits so well because of the quick pace and how fast things can change,” he said. “The real-time aspect has been a core to almost everything we do.”

There will also be, of course, a social element to how the content is utilized.

The NBA will hold a vote on Twitter to ask fans which player the camera will focus on during the second half.

The way this will work is that fans will be given choices of players for the camera to follow in the second half. They’ll have through halftime to place their votes.

And then, while the camera follows the player during the second half, there will be additional NBA commentary from talent who will provide Twitter commentary.

“Twitter conversation has always been a complement to live action on TV. This groundbreaking partnership makes that complementary experience even richer, bringing additional views fans want to see, and the conversation around the game all together in one place,” said Laura Froelich, senior director, head of U.S. Content Partnerships at Twitter, speaking at CES.

It sounds like this could be laying the groundwork for how Twitter might potentially offer a credible alternative to broadcasting a full game of basketball, or other sports, for that matter. At a time when getting full-game streaming (not broadcast) rights comes with a multi-billion-dollar price tag, any way that Twitter can find to bypass that but still capture some of that audience, while helping sports organizations figure out how to grow their own audiences, is worth exploring.

Twitter will license the streams from the NBA and Turner, which holds the rights to the full, live games. It’s not disclosing the price it’s paying to do this, but it will try to recoup and profit on whatever the value is: Twitter will also attempt to sell advertising around them, on a revenue-share basis with the organizations.

The deal makes Twitter the first social platform to live-stream games in the U.S. — even if it’s only the second half.

“For us, [Twitter has been] an amazing innovation partner. And I also think, just given the fact that it’s such a real-time platform, it’s where the crux of all our conversations are happening. It just makes too much sense,” said Sam Farber, VP, Digital Media at the NBA.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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