Disney-Star announced on Friday through the release of its new RIO document that it would launch a number of new channels and discontinue some existing ones in December 2021. One of the genres most affected by this is the struggling English GEC genre, which has been badly battered by the onslaught of OTT platforms. After being rumoured for over a year now, the broadcaster will finally pull the plug on its moribund English GECs Star World and Star World Premiere HD, leaving Disney International HD — which shows Disney Channel’s teen live-action series — as its only presence in the genre. But in the English movie genre, Disney-Star will launch an SD version of its premium Hollywood movie channel Star Movies Select, six years after the HD version was launched. This brings it in line with its other Select-branded channels, namely Star Gold Select and Star Sports Select 1/2, which launched SD feeds shortly after the HD versions.
Meanwhile, in the Hindi movie genre, it will discontinue the UTV brand altogether, as its movie channels UTV Movies, UTV Action and UTV HD will be replaced by Star Gold Romance, Star Gold Thrills and Star Gold 2 HD. All these changes take place on 1 December 2021. With Bindass also shutting down on that day, this marks the end of all the channels that had the once-iconic UTV brand.
Note: GEC = general entertainment channel.
Long-suffering English GECs Star World and Star World Premiere HD finally killed off; Disney International HD lives on
Nowhere has the rise of OTT platforms been as devastating for Indian TV channels as in the English GEC sector. Urban English-speaking Indians almost certainly subscribe to at least one out of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, SonyLIV or another OTT service to get their fix of English TV shows (as well as shows in other languages, which explains the worldwide popularity of a Money Heist or a Squid Game — something that could not be achieved had they aired solely on domestic Spanish or Korean TV channels). As a consequence, with the sheer vastness of English TV shows on offer on OTT platforms, English GECs in India have struggled to stay relevant and keep engaging their audience with fresh content. But this is becoming an increasingly Herculean task, and Sony Pictures Networks threw in the towel in June 2020 by pulling the plug on its English GECs AXN and AXN HD after 20 years on air.
Every other broadcaster in the English GEC sector has been fighting tooth and nail for survival. After AXN’s exit, the remaining players are Star World, Star World Premiere HD and Disney International HD from Disney-Star, Colors Infinity and Comedy Central from Viacom18, and Zee Café from Zee. Of these, Comedy Central is the only one to be truly successful in the OTT era, and to some extent its sister channel Colors Infinity. Comedy Central has found tremendous success in airing all-time popular American sitcoms such as Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon and The Middle, which have excellent repeat value and make for ‘comfort binge-watching’. Meanwhile Colors Infinity has a greater variety of American series, ranging from the superhero series Batwoman to the medical drama Chicago Med to the sitcom 2 Broke Girls. It also occasionally shows the Indian original reality show The Stage. Driven by these shows, Viacom18 has held firm and steady in the English GEC sector despite its competitors falling around it.
As for the others, it is a tale of despair and desperation. Zee Café manages to somehow stay afloat with a motley selection of mostly American shows, plus a couple of K-dramas, namely Descendants of the Sun and Boys Over Flowers. But as far as Disney-Star is concerned, it has made it resoundingly clear that it would much rather drive its English-watching viewers to pay for Disney+ Hotstar Premium than struggle to keep its English entertainment cluster alive. Star World, best known for the Karan Johar-hosted celebrity talk show Koffee With Karan, does not even have that leverage now, as the only show that keeps it alive nowadays is MasterChef Australia — in fact, that is the only thing to be found on its social media handles lately. Other than that, it mostly shows the sitcoms Modern Family and How I Met Your Mother. Indeed, sitcoms are the common thread keeping English GECs alive, because of their repeat value and comfort.
This is a steep fall for India’s first and formerly largest English GEC, which has always tried to be relevant to ordinary people’s conversations, if only because of the controversial Koffee With Karan, which has sparked as many controversies over its guests as it has led to discussions on empty materialism and glamour. It is with this vigour and enthusiasm to bring the best Western shows to a discerning Indian audience that it launched Star World Premiere HD in 2013, a premium, (initially) ad-free, HD-only channel with the slogan of ‘You see it first’. It boasted of some of the latest American premieres, but at the steep price of ₹60 per month — though DTH operators did their best to reduce its price through offers and promotions. (This was before Colors Infinity, launched in July 2015, turned ‘instant premieres, first before the US’ into a buzzword. For that matter, this was well before Netflix launched Indian operations in 2016.)
It has been rumoured for years now that Star World and Star World Premiere HD might not survive for much longer. Tata Sky planned to remove the latter channel in January 2020, but backtracked, though Sun Direct finally succeeded in doing so in August 2021. With the pressure on its English GEC cluster being too much for it to continue operations viably, Disney-Star has finally decided to call it a day for Star World and Star World Premiere HD. These channels will disappear on 1 December 2021, as many other Fox-branded channels around the world have done — most recently in Southeast Asia, where channels such as FX, Fox Crime, Fox Life and Fox Movies called it quits on 1 October. Sadly, these are not even the first English GECs to have been shuttered by Star: its English GEC portfolio was much bigger several years ago, as it also had Indian versions of Fox Crime and FX (the latter also in HD), but those were killed off in 2015 and mid-2017 respectively.
It may also be noted that Star World in India has had the same logo since 2008, unlike its Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern namesakes, which underwent several rebrands until the former’s renaming to Fox Life and eventual shutdown (Star World remains alive in the Middle East). For many years now, Star has ignored updating the graphics packaging of its English GEC and movie channels, and while Star World — despite its outdated logo — at least has a modern look, the same cannot be said for Star World Premiere HD or the English movie channel Star Movies, which has kept its look and logo completely unchanged for a whopping 12 years since 2009. The shutdowns of Star World and Star World Premiere HD will put them out of their misery, in terms of not only their flagging fortunes but also their aging graphics.
The only solace here for Disney-Star is Disney International HD, which will be its solitary presence in the English GEC sector once its sister channels disappear. Few would have imagined that a channel that exclusively airs series starring, and targeted at, teenagers (and other kids) would be so popular among a segment of urban Indian youth where others have failed. But since its launch in October 2017, when it replaced the Hindi music channel Bindass Play, Disney International HD has proven its detractors wrong and managed to stand out as a bright spot in the broadcaster’s English cluster. Disney-Star’s commitment to ensuring that young Indians get to watch alternative content on TV — in this case Disney Channel’s original teen shows such as Liv and Maddie, Hannah Montana, Lab Rats and Austin and Ally — is excellent news for the niche demographics that it targets, and the fact that Disney-Star is not shutting it down like its other English GECs is welcome news.
Unlike the English GEC sector, the English movie genre on Indian TV has not been as badly affected by the onslaught of OTT platforms, simply because there are still large swathes of viewers in second- and third-tier markets who want to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters but do not know English, or do not want to subscribe to OTT platforms at a high price. For this purpose, English movie channels have been showing premieres with multiple Indian language feeds — namely Hindi, Tamil and Telugu — for many years now. Moreover, there are also a number of Hindi movie channels that show Hollywood movies dubbed in Hindi on occasion, and some even do so full-time, such as Disney-Star’s UTV Action and UTV HD (but not for much longer, as mentioned later). The same goes for South Indian channels, especially those from Disney-Star which often show Hollywood movies dubbed in the local language. For this reason, English movie channels such as Star Movies from Disney-Star, Sony Pix from SPN, &flix from Zee and Movies Now and MNX from Times Network are an important part of broadcaster bouquets.
That said, there have still been a handful of channel shutdowns in the English movie genre in recent years. Most notably, in December 2020, WarnerMedia India brought down the curtains on its English movie channel HBO after 20 years on air, along with HBO HD and WB. This left that broadcaster’s Indian portfolio at a great disadvantage, as it was left with only four channels: Pogo, Cartoon Network and CN HD+ in the kids’ genre, and CNN for international news. Also, Sony Pictures Networks has been shutting down many channels of late, among them the English premium movie channel Sony Le Plex HD in December 2018, which had been launched with great fanfare just two years prior. Other niche, premium HD-only English movie channels such as MN+ HD from Times Network, &privé HD from Zee and Star Movies Select HD have so far managed to avoid closure, even if at a loss to their respective broadcasters. &privé HD in particular has tried to show a number of foreign-language productions to further cement its reputation as a home of offbeat cinema from the world over.
Now none of these niche Hollywood channels — including the erstwhile Sony Le Plex HD — have so far been available in SD, as they were very clear with their premium marketing and positioning towards an urban audience who have the wherewithal to pay for HD channels. However, this will change in December 2021, as Disney-Star will launch an SD feed of Star Movies Select on 1 December. This is in a similar fashion as its other Select-branded channels, which initially had only HD feeds but SD feeds were launched later: the Hindi premium movie channel Star Gold Select, and the sports channels Star Sports Select 1 and 2. The two Star Sports Select channels were launched only in HD in 2016, initially to show Premier League football matches, but after fans complained that they could not watch it in the more easily accessible SD format, the broadcaster relented and launched SD feeds for them in 2017. Similarly Star Gold Select HD was launched in March 2017, and the SD feed followed in June of that year. In those cases, the SD versions were launched fairly quickly enough — but for Star Movies Select HD, the SD feed comes more than six years after the HD version, which was launched in July 2015. This gap would have been shorter if not for Disney-Star delaying its plans to launch it because of the pandemic, back in April 2020.
It remains to be seen whether Star Movies Select will be able to gain a larger audience with its SD version, as it does not usually show the kind of blockbusters that Star Movies is known for, especially superhero movies from Marvel and kids’ animation features from Disney and Pixar, all of which are studios that are owned by Disney. However, it will still provide an option for critically acclaimed and lesser-known Hollywood cinema for a larger audience and at a lower price, much like Star Gold Select does in Hindi.
New Hindi movie channels are a result of termination of the UTV brand, but Star Utsav Movies won’t become Star Gold Family for now
The Hindi movie genre has been ruled by Disney-Star for quite some time now, with the flagship Star Gold in particular airing a broad mix of popular Bollywood, South Indian and Hollywood movies with little repetition, far better by miles than its competitors Zee Cinema, Sony Max and Colors Cineplex. Its supporting channels such as Star Gold 2, Star Utsav Movies and Star Gold Select have ably been able to do justice to Disney-Star’s vast Bollywood movie library. With such a wide range of movie channels, combined with excellent scheduling and aggressive acquisition of new movies, it is no wonder that Disney-Star has managed to stay far ahead in this genre, and show its commitment to Bollywood movies of all eras where most other Hindi movie channels — and Sony Max in particular — are overrun by South Indian dubbed movies.
However, the genre also has remnants of an old brand from the 2000s that was somehow dragged into Disney’s March 2019 acquisition of Star. That brand is UTV, which has somehow managed to live on in the form of three Hindi movie channels, UTV Movies, UTV Action and UTV HD — though the latter two are almost entirely dedicated to dubbed Hollywood movies. Come 1 December, the UTV brand will be killed off for good as the three UTV-branded channels are replaced by Star Gold-branded channels: Star Gold Romance, Star Gold Thrills and Star Gold 2 HD respectively. Another channel that originally had the UTV branding is the youth channel Bindass, which will also shut down on that day.
To be honest, the UTV brand was necessary at a time when Disney was hardly an important player in the Hindi movie genre. At the time (for most of the 2010s), Star was owned by 21st Century Fox and had a large presence in the Hindi movie sector in addition to other genres. Disney India, meanwhile, was the owner of UTV Software Communications and operated the Hindi movie channels UTV Movies (known as UMP Movies in the UK) and UTV Action, which were at best also-ran channels, without the means or muscle to compete with a Zee Cinema or a Star Gold. Somehow UTV continued to acquire new Hindi movies such as Ek Paheli Leela, Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon and Jagga Jasoos, but neither did the channels reach the top of the ratings chart (despite being present on most TV platforms) nor were they available in HD. The latter problem was remedied in October 2018, when Disney India launched UTV HD to show the Bollywood films in its library in HD as well as some Hollywood titles. Also, Disney/UTV showed plenty of cooperation with Viacom18, as UTV films were often shown on the latter’s Colors-branded channels and vice-versa. Moreover, certain movies produced by Walt Disney Pictures whose satellite rights were owned by other broadcasters — such as Dangal, the highest-grossing Hindi movie of all time, whose satellite rights are with Zee — also aired on UTV Movies, but never on Star-branded channels.
But the acquisition of Star by Disney in March 2019 changed everything. From being a fringe broadcaster known mostly for its kids’ portfolio and a handful of Hindi movie channels, Disney suddenly became the largest and most important broadcaster in India, benefiting from Star’s wide reach and brand recognition across multiple genres like Hindi GEC, Hindi movies, sports, regional and even infotainment/lifestyle. Now that Disney had the power of the Star brand in the Hindi movie genre, the UTV brand became redundant. So far UTV Movies has still managed to stay relevant by airing a mix of old and new Hindi movies, including classics. But UTV Action and UTV HD have pretty much lost focus of their main objective and show nothing but dubbed Hollywood movies at random. Therefore, not much will be lost when the UTV brand dies off, other than the end of a long legacy that had lasted for nearly two decades — including the closure of Bindass.
The new channel names — Star Gold Romance and Star Gold Thrills — are fairly reflective of the kind of content that they will show, though interestingly the latter channel does not use the easily-understood word action, even though UTV Action did (and so do other channels such as Zee Action and the now-defunct Star Movies Action and UTV Action Telugu). These trademarks had been registered with the Government of India’s Intellectual Property Office all the way back in September 2018, and it has been three long years before we have finally come to know of their launch. Also, Star Gold 2 will finally be getting an HD feed — something that had been planned since the rebrand of Star Gold in February 2020, as well as the simultaneous renaming of Movies OK to Star Gold 2, but did not materialise so far. Disney-Star will continue to have three Hindi movie channels in HD: Star Gold HD, Star Gold Select HD and now Star Gold 2 HD, replacing UTV HD.
What is more intriguing, however, is that Disney-Star had also planned to rename its rural-focused movie channel Star Utsav Movies, which is present on DD Free Dish, to Star Gold Family, even procuring a licence from the MIB for the same. However, it seems that plan is off the table for now, and SUM will continue with its existing brand for the time being — especially since the Utsav name is familiar to rural viewers through the broadcaster’s Hindi rerun GEC Star Utsav, which is among the top 10 most popular TV channels in India, thanks largely to DD Free Dish. Nevertheless, one cannot rule out the possibility of SUM being replaced by Star Gold Family at a later point, especially since this is reflected in the MIB list of permitted satellite TV channels, and how Disney-Star will communicate this change to its rural viewers on DD Free Dish is a question best reserved for that time.