IPL 2021: Star-Disney mounts formidable broadcast plan, lines up new tech innovations

Sanjog Gupta, Star-Disney India Head-Sports, shares how the network is using tech innovations to get fans closer to IPL and bring alive facets of the game that are not even looked at

e4m by Javed Farooqui
Updated: Apr 9, 2021 5:58 PM
sanjog gupta

Media conglomerate Star Disney has put in place an ambitious broadcast plan for its crown jewel, Indian Premier League (IPL) 2021. Besides formulating the perfect broadcast plan, the network has lined up a slew of tech innovations that are aimed at engaging the audience who is following the tournament from home.

For starters, Star-Disney has sold 93-94% of the ad inventory and has roped in 18 sponsors. The list has Dream11, Byju’s, Phone Pe and Just Dial Just Dial, and Upstox as co-presenting sponsors besides Bingo, Kamla Pasand, AMFI, Frooti, Asian Paints, Thums Up, Vodafone-Idea, Mondelez, Amazon Prime, Groww, Cred, Garnier Men, Havells Fans and Upstox as associate sponsors.

Since the tournament is happening at a time when the Covid cases have spiked, the broadcaster has put in place a stringent and unprecedented bio-secure bubble to ensure a safe and secure broadcast. It has set up bio-secure bubbles in Chennai, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, and Delhi. 

The production team of 700+ crew and 90 commentators will operate under Covid-related standard operating procedures (SOPs) for 60-75 days. Bio-secure bubble in Mumbai will accommodate 400 staffers across six floors of the production facility. The broadcaster has implemented rigorous testing protocols for all crew entailing pre-screening, testing before entry, during isolation, and periodic testing during the stay.

It has also deployed stringent sanitisation and social distancing protocols at production facilities. Further, multiple zones have been set up to keep teams separated. Strict access and contact tracing protocols will be implemented to ensure that the sanctity of the bubble is maintained.

In an interaction with exchange4media, Star and Disney India Head-Sports Sanjog Gupta said the broadcast operation is split into three parts. The first part is to ensure that only those crew members who are not infected by Covid-19 have access to the bio-secure bubble. The second part is ensuring that once everyone is inside, the bio-secure bubble is safe and the sanctity of the bubble is maintained at all times. The third part is testing all members of the crew at a regular frequency to ensure that there is no chance of infection going untested or undetected.

"We are taking every step possible to ensure the safety of the operation as well as safety of each and every individual involved in the operation," Gupta noted. It is pertinent to note that Star Disney produces the global IPL feed for the BCCI, therefore, it is important for the broadcaster to ensure a flawless transmission of the event.

On the programming front, the broadcaster will have nine fully customised broadcast feeds for IPL 2021. There will be regional feeds in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bangla, Marathi, and Malayalam along with World Feed, Select Dugout, and Hotstar (English).

The broadcaster will have 2.5 hours of daily live programming in the form of Cricket Live. Besides Cricket Live, it will also have 15 hours of highlights and special programming every week. Due to the pandemic-related restrictions, live Bangla, Marathi, and Malayalam feeds are being produced entirely from home by 50 staffers on WFH production protocols. These staffers will support live operations while minimising the strength of staff at venues & production facilities.

Further, IPL shows such as Game Plan & Cricket Countdown will be produced from home. A crew including producers, editors, directors, and sound engineers will log on to the virtualised production grid from home.

The production talent comes from diverse backgrounds with crew and talent sourced from 10 countries. Technology services and innovations providers from UK, India, Singapore, UAE, Europe, and the US are supporting Star Disney's production efforts. Besides, virtualised commentary enables commentators from across the world to be a part of the live broadcast without leaving their homes.

Talking about the language feeds, Gupta said that the plan is to continue with the feeds that have the potential to deliver significant growth. "Our key priority markets are Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh/Telangana. These are our one P1 markets. We are also focussing on Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, and Delhi. This really forms the cluster of markets that we are targetting. We believe that the current portfolio of feeds that we have adequately serviced these regions. We are actively adding a Malayalam feed on certain days of the tournament and we are also launching a Marathi feed on Disney+ Hotstar for every match."

On the programming front, Gupta said that the approach especially for pre-show and surround programming is to be as inclusive as possible since IPL also attracts sizeable women and kids audiences apart from the core male TG.

"You will see a lot of segments that will cater to non-core audiences and that principal cuts across all feeds. It’s in different measures, so the English feed may choose to cater more to fantasy users who may be more interested in knowing game-related information but the Hindi feed may have a higher dose of entertainment with segments such as Bollywood Presents, which is a segment over the weekend where celebrity Cricket fans from Bollywood join us in the studio. It is pretty much a principle across all feeds to cater to as wide an audience base as possible," he explained.

"Specifically, on the regional front, we actually design those feeds for those regions. There are a lot of cultural nuances that are built into these feeds including the shows. It is not just a language variant of the English or Hindi feeds. They will borrow heavily from the culture and language of cricket in that state. The feeds will also borrow heavily from popular culture in that state, say movies or stand-up comedy. So, we will have humour-laced programming for a feed that caters to a state where comedy is a fan favourite. Each feed is designed from scratch for viewers of that region. It’s not a translation exercise."


Tech innovations 2.0

Star Disney is going the whole hog on tech innovations to ensure that the IPL 2021 remains high on audience engagement. In the absence of any on-ground engagement due to Covid-related restrictions, TV and digital become the only touchpoints for consumers to engage with the tournament.

Some of the tech innovations planned by Star Disney include Cheer@home 2.0, AI-Based Super Motion Replays, Automated Highlights, Mixed Reality cricket analysis, Gesture-based interactive games, and The Fan Wall 2.0.

Cheer@home 2.0 is the definitive Star/Disney+ Hotstar audience engagement platform that delivers curated, interactive audio giving a voice on air to millions at home. This year brings a chance for audiences to vote for new chants for their favourite players and rising stars. A vast bank of non-generic samples was built to ensure every nuance is captured for optimum realism.

Through AI-Based Super Motion Replays, the broadcaster can play replays from any camera angle thereby exposing the viewer to never seen before enhanced storytelling. The broadcaster said that this is revolutionary as previously replays could only happen using a limited number of fixed hyper-motion cameras.

Star Disney's Hindi and English feeds have been enhanced to turn around fully automated, customised, creatively curated highlights for the full match and key moments. An algorithm-led event ranking system allows for consistent output, ensuring all critical events affecting the result of the match are covered eliminating manual human intervention.

The broadcaster has also expanded its VR tool for experts to deliver next-level analysis. Experts can now not only replay balls just after they have happened based on precise physics but do so in mixed reality. This is the first time an MR view of a VR application has been used on the broadcast. Deliveries can be viewed from impossible angles recreated by virtual cameras allowing for a deeper analysis. Different fielding configurations, strategy and bowling techniques can be explored along with pitch conditions.

Star Disney has also created a series of fun and visually exciting AR games based on gesture sensing tech. Viewers can cheer for their favourite presenter as they participate in ‘cricket runner,’ an action-filled game inspired by ‘Temple Run’ with a cricketing twist.

As part of The Fan Wall 2.0, Star Disney has exponentially increased the number of fans who will be able to connect by extending the fanwall to be available for regional feeds, and added the ability for fans to be able to interact directly with each other and producers, building a sense of community that transcends distance.

The broadcaster has also built Touch to AR, an in-house proprietary technology, which will allow viewers to see realistic player 3D characters move around a 3D AR pitch with realistic animations and changing jerseys.

Further, real-time graphic interactions have been enabled for presenters, producing a dynamic mixed reality experience where graphics on LED screens can be ‘pulled out’ and manifest as 3D AR graphics in the studio. Hand-worn bands are given to presenters to enable gesture control of AR graphics.

With commentary box being the second most visible space on air during the game, Star Disney has brought in additional camera angles to support narratives and better visibility of tactics on the field. The AR graphics provide a rich content output for audiences and allows for more in-depth and relevant analysis not previously possible.

The broadcaster is also introducing a new tool called CRICKO which has the ability to recall the most detailed info on player performance.

Speaking about the innovations, Gupta said that the focus continues to be on the fan at home who is watching the game on the screen. The idea is to ensure that the viewing experience is better than the past.

"The focus of the viewing experience is to get fans closer to the game and use technology to bring alive facets of the game that are not even looked at. This is achieved through enhanced camerawork, enhanced use of ultra-motion and super slow-motion replays and increased exposure of motion-based cameras such as Spidercam, Drones etc," Gupta said.

He noted that Star will also explore unexplored facets of the game. For example, running between the wickets has been talked about a lot but hasn’t really been looked at as a skill. "We are planning to measure the speed at which players run between the wickets and have a fair sense of who is actually the fastest runner between the wickets. It’s innovations like these which take you through the game and adds to the broadcast experience."


Demand for IPL ad inventory

Gupta said that the demand for IPL ad inventory is higher in 2021 since the economy is showing signs of a strong recovery and advertisers want to cash in on it. He also noted that the IPL has seen strong traction from categories like EdTech, FinTech, fantasy sports besides traditional advertising segments like telecom, auto, beverages, and consumer durables among others.

"At last count, we were at 18 sponsors for IPL 2021 and we have already signed up more than 100 advertisers. About 93-94% of our total inventory has already been sold out with one week still to go," he said.

According to Gupta, three factors have played a key role in IPL's evolution as pre-eminent media property. 1) IPL provides scale and intensity that is unmatchable. It cuts across barriers like age, gender, language, and socio-economic demographics. 2) IPL is no longer limited to one broadcast, thanks to its association with Star Disney. IPL now is truly a ‘megacast’ with multiple feeds spread across languages and genres. 3) The presence of multiple feeds has not only expanded the audience base for IPL but also provided advertisers multiple opportunities to target specific audiences.

"So, the association of Star with IPL has also unlocked value for advertisers that did not exist before. It has become very easy for major advertisers, especially the ones that have multiple brands in their portfolio, to cater to different brands and different feeds through a single association," Gupta said.


Widening of audience base

Gupta also highlighted that IPL has a wider audience base which cuts across traditional barriers. The tournament gets a significant chunk of its viewership from women and kids viewers. "The profile of viewers on cricket and IPL wasn't very different until a few years back. What has happened in the past couple of years is that viewership amongst both women and kids has grown significantly. In fact, last year we saw viewership for both segments grow by more than 20%."

He further stated that there are three big factors that have contributed to this phenomenon. First, the IPL marketing campaign is designed to invite the maximum possible number of viewers to the property. In fact, the advertising campaign is designed to attract new viewers or viewers who are not spending enough time on watching the tournament.

The presence of multiple feeds has also played a key role in expanding the viewership base. "In fact, 2019 saw the introduction of a feed called Super Funday which was catering to kids. That feed allowed 8-12 years olds to engage with IPL in a way that they had never engaged before. Unfortunately, the Covid situation doesn’t allow us to put that feed together but it will return as soon as it is safe for us to involve kids on the broadcast. Regionalisation and customisation of IPL, by way of multiple feeds, has led to the expansion of IPL audiences."

In order to allow maximum number of viewers to sample the tournament, the broadcaster is airing opening matches across its broadcast network. "This is to ensure sampling of the IPL by viewers who may not tune in to Star Sports or may not have access to Star Sports."


IPL and growth in Star Sports' penetration

Gupta mentioned that Star Sports is now available in more than 80% of all pay-tv homes. In fact, in certain states like Tamil Nadu, the penetration is 90% of pay-TV homes. This could be attributed to the fact that the broadcaster has a dedicated Tamil sports channel called Star Sports 1 Tamil. The penetration figure sees a significant jump during the IPL.

"We have a base line penetration and as the tournament nears, we see the penetration going up. Typically, a week before the event and a week into the event is when we see maximum sign ups where viewers subscribe to the network. We are currently hovering at around 80% and the idea is to continue pushing that as we will see a massive uptake in the week leading up to the IPL and in the first week of the tournament. In IPL 2020, we had seen 10% increase in penetration from the time IPL started to three months later," he stated.

The broadcaster sees massive growth opportunities in the Pay TV market as there are millions of free TV homes that can be brought into the Pay TV fold through a unique acquisition strategy. "We believe that there is enough headroom for growth in the Pay TV market itself. Given that the Pay TV ecosystem is growing, we believe that we are far from saturating the true potential of this market both in terms of making IPL as widely available as possible and deepening engagement amongst pay TV viewers. Our fundamental focus is to go from subscriptions in 80 million homes to 90 million homes to 100 million homes and also get those homes to watch more of the tournament. Those two vectors of growth promise immense potential,” said Gupta.

HD is another key focus area for Star Disney as the ARPU is high and the ad monetisation is also better than SD channels since HD homes are more affluent. "HD continues to grow. The challenge in the HD ecosystem is getting viewers who already have HD TVs to get HD subscriptions and buy HD set top boxes (STBs). That is a big part of our initiative this year. We have launched a campaign to encourage HD adoption. We believe that IPL and cricket in general is a big platform for us to push the agenda on HD and drive a better viewing experience. Once a viewer watches sports on HD, it is impossible for him or her to go back to SD."


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