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India Media Impressions: Social Networks, Movie Studios

I just got back from a ten day trip to northern India; I was on vacation but the media stories there were inescapable. Billboards, TV ads, and magazine covers reminded me that this is a massive new market for U.S. media giants and social networks.

Bollywood dancers doing routine on set.
DreamPictures | Taxi | Getty Images
Bollywood dancers doing routine on set.

Bollywood has been a robust and fast-growing industry for years, but with a fast-growing Indian middle class, U.S. media giants are stepping up their presence.

Mobile phone ads were everywhere, but instead of promoting free minutes or service quality, they were all about the handsets' web capability.

Delhi was plastered with billboards for India Aircell's new INQ mobile models that integrate Facebook, Twitter, and Orkut (Google'ssocial networking site that's popular in India) that launched earlier this month.

Facebook and Twitter's familiar logos are the key selling points of the new phones. Twitter won't reveal how many people in India use its SMS service; Facebook's mobile users in India grew more than five times last year.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone often points out that a lot more people own cell phones than computers, noting the power of that fast-growing mobile market. This is certainly true in India, played out in all sorts of phone-based new services. Reliance mobile is promoting a new e-mail on SMS system.

Reliance Mobile is also selling mobile access to movies, news, and even job classifieds. Airtel, which was the first India company to allow Twitter SMS, is selling a slew of mobile games, I didn't see a single iPhone—some locals explained that Apple products were the most expensive and Sony Ericsson, and Nokia are the most popular brands. And though mobile web access is clearly huge, that's not to say people don't own laptops—all the mobile operators also offer wifi cards (unlimited wireless runs about $50 US per month).

Meanwhile U.S. companies are stepping up their investment in local Indian movie productions. Every time I turned on the TV to flip through dozens of channels dedicated to Indian telenovelas, music videos and colorful Bollywood films, I caught an ad for "Lahore," a co-production between Warner Bros. and an Indian company.

Studios are hoping to get a bigger piece of India's moviegoing audience -- around three billion tickets sold in India last year compared to just 1.5 billion in the US -- with these local language productions as well as traditional U.S. fare.

Hollywood accounts for less than ten percent of India's total theatrical business -- I didn't see a single poster with Hollywood stars as I did in a recent trip to Vietnam. Hollywood is slowly growing its presence: when Sony's "2012" hit $19.5 million at the box office it became India's highest grossing foreign film ever. Fox's "Avatar" handily beat that -- it's brought in $24.2 million so far.

Earlier this month Disney announced it's expanding its Indian presence. Next year the studio plans to release a film in the language of Telugu, also dubbing it into Tamil -- going after these two markets because Bollywood hasn't planted a flag there.

Disney already has a significant presence in the country with the "Disney Channel." And I was struck by the prevalence of Mickey Mouse -- the media giant has sponsored the kids play areas in the domestic airline terminal in Delhi. Package deals its theme parks in Asia are promoted on domestic airline flights and in magazines.

Warner Brothers has also made a significant investment in the country beyond its local-language productions. In December Turner acquired an Indian company that owns a leading Hindi entertainment channel, among other things. And back in March of last year Warner Bros. and Turner launched WB, a new Warner-branded channel in India.

The demand for entertainment content is clearly huge -- it'll be interesting to see how the U.S. giants navigate this landscape in which they're just tiny players.

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