Barry Diller plans media property shopping spree

HONG KONG Barry Diller probably has it right when he says he is planning a shopping spree for Asian media properties. But it takes someone with Diller’s nerve and free cash resources to take the plunge.

Most Asian media companies are instead learning that they are very much part of an interlocked global economy, and one that is currently retreating.

InterActive Corp. boss Diller made his remarks last month at a Casbaa pay-TV convention that was dominated by folks desperately trying to look beyond the current global tsunami and concentrate on the fundamentals for TV in Asia. These no longer look so rosy, the argument goes, but they give more reasons for hope than conditions in many other regions.

“Global contagion has clearly hit Asia,” says Vivek Couto, executive director at consultancy Media Partners Asia. “We expect advertising to decline in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as in Australasia, next year. There will be a slowdown in China, India and Indonesia, though growth in these markets will remain relatively robust.”

But most analysts believe that Asian media will bounce back. Media Partners Asia expects China and Indie Asia’s two BRIC countries to maintain overall ad growth in 2009.

Reasons for the optimism are fourfold: technology, demographics, emerging markets and a bounce back from an overly steep downturn.

“There is no greater growth potential anywhere in the world than Asia,” says Peter Iacono, head of the U.K. commercial broadcaster ITV, which is now launching English-language entertainment channel Granada Intl. in Asia and the Middle East. “Demand for content is rising because of technology. There is nowhere in the world where technology is so widely embraced as in Asia, whether it is digital cable in Korea and China, or DTH satellite in India and Indonesia. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea lead the world in IPTV. For digital terrestrial TV look at Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.”

In the space of just three years, mobile TV has become a major media branch in Korea, while in China homegrown companies including Baidu and Sohu (search), NetEase and Tencent (portal, messaging), The9 (games) and Alibaba (auctions) have turned the Internet into a mainstream and fast evolving medium that operates in a different regulatory environment to traditional broadcast media.

Demographics, urbanization and gentrification throughout most of the region (with the exception of graying Japan) are giving ever more people disposable income and making them consumers of media.

“Growth today is fantastic and the upside is very big,” says Rudy Tanoesoedibjo, vice chairman of Indonesian paybox PT Global Mediacom. “The financial crisis is a blessing for pay-TV operators. People are staying at home and watching more TV.” From a base in the low hundreds of thousands, Tanoesoedibjo forecasts over a million subscribers by the end of 2009.

Others, too, see good coming out of the current downturn. Jeanette Chan, Hong Kong-based partner of U.S. law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, says recession could force governments to deregulate TV markets. She points to a loosening of cross-media ownership rules and easing of restrictions on what can be shown on IPTV channels in South Korea. And she says that Taiwan could ease price caps on cablers.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ global media chief Marcel Fenez says that a shortage of available assets drove prices for Asian media businesses too high, but now the declines may have gone too far. “There is growth in Asia and there will continue to be growth in this region,” he says.

“We are very, very confident that investments will happen where the fundamentals are there, but now they will be done at better values,” says Chan.

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