The Walt Disney Company had an India-sized twinkle in its eyes as far back as 1993, when it first reached out to the country of now 1.4 billion potential media consumers. He started small and found a distributor to broadcast some of his content over airwaves that were just opening up to global capitalism.

Along with the Indian market, Disney’s ambitions grew. Last year, EY, the accounting and consulting firm, estimated that India’s media landscape would be worth $100 billion by 2030. And Disney is betting on attracting hundreds of millions of subscribers to its own streaming services.

Those ambitions have stopped. On Wednesday, Disney announced it would merge its Indian operations with those of Viacom18, part of Reliance Industries, India’s largest conglomerate. Reliance and Viacom18 will own 63 percent of the new total, with Disney in the passenger seat, on the left with 37 percent ownership of the joint venture. Reliance will spend more than $1.4 billion to consolidate its control.

Disney is one of the largest companies in the world (valued at $200 billion on the stock market), but in India it proved no match for the local hero.

Disney’s adventures in India reached a climax in 2019, when it bought 21st Century Fox from the Murdoch family’s News Corp. Among Fox’s assets, Disney won the television and broadcast rights to the popular Indian Premier League cricket matches.

Large numbers of subscribers followed, but at great cost. At its pandemic-driven peak, Disney+ had 162 million subscribers in India, but was losing nearly $500 million globally in pursuit of viewers. By summer 2022, its global operations had lost more than $11 billion since the purchase of Fox and the launch of Disney+.

That’s when Disney ran into trouble. He was blocked by an even bigger player with an even more resilient risk appetite. Reliance Industries, owned by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest person, outbid its rivals and snatched up the cricket rights for nearly $3 billion. Disney lost 11.5 million Indian subscribers in a short time, while in the rest of the world it gained 800,000 new ones.

Disney is big, but Ambani’s Reliance is even bigger: with $239 billion in market capitalization, it enters any bidding war well armed. Reliance knows how to play the Indian battlefield better than any other company, let alone any foreign company. Once Ambani decided to expand his reach into the media, it was hard to imagine that he wouldn’t sit at the top of the pack.

When Mr. Ambani’s father founded Reliance in 1958, it was a commercial store, mainly made of polyester fiber. He converted to petrochemistry and now runs the world’s largest oil refinery at the port of Jamnagar, in a remote area of ​​India’s west coast. Along the way, he ventured into telecommunications and other businesses, and in 2016 he started a free calls and cheap data mobile network, Jio, which quickly became the third largest in the world.

JioCinema, part of a growing family of Jio properties but a relatively small platform when the streaming wars began in India, looks likely to become the new home for Disney content in India. At one point, it seemed another rival was about to emerge, as Japanese media giant Sony sought to expand its operations in India by purchasing Zee Entertainment.

With Zee, India’s first private cable TV company, Sony would have been big enough to split the TV and digital market with Reliance-Disney. But Sony, foreign like Disney and prone to misjudge intrigues within Indian companies, backed out of its deal with Zee on Jan. 22, frustrated by the founding family’s insistence on maintaining control.

Sony’s breakup with Zee seems to have complicated things even more for Disney. Bloomberg reported that the estimated value of Disney’s India unit sank from $10 billion to $4.5 billion. For one thing, Zee still owes Disney for the cricket licenses. The failure of their merger also made the final deal look more attractive to Ambani: what would have been a landscape defined by two giants seems likely to be dominated by just one.

Karan Taurani, research analyst at Elara Capital, said Disney and Reliance already had a combined market share of around 40 to 45 percent in advertising and about the same fraction in streaming, giving them a big advantage over their competitors. .

“This will lead to better profitability because content costs could be reduced” in both television and streaming, Taurani said. Therefore, “we will see smaller players lose market share and some could even go out of business.”

As a sprawling conglomerate, Reliance has a slight advantage in battles for media dominance. You do not need the content to be paid for directly. When your subscribers enter your retail, telecommunications and credit operations, the cost of carrying programs seems small compared to the combined revenues.

Brooks Barnes contributed reporting from Los Angeles.