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Market turmoil hits Casbaa TV convention

Asian financial troubles shift annual event's tone

Attending last week’s annual Casbaa pay TV convention was reminiscent of London under the Blitz, when folk hid underground in cellars and subways to escape enemy bombing.

The Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Assn. of Asia’s confab, held in a new tented venue Oct. 28-30, was isolated and stuffy, with conversations partially drowned by the siren howl of ranks of auxiliary air-conditioners. And with moderators regularly delivering the latest bad news from the stock markets, it was clear attendees’ minds were elsewhere.

The theme was “All Eyes on Asia,” but if there was a discernable throughline to this year’s discussions, it was one in which the biz is trying to see beyond the immediate financial crisis. Talk was generally optimistic, but much of it was seemingly done through clenched teeth.

Reasons for the skepticism may reflect how Asian markets and currencies have been even more impacted by the market volatility than those in the U.S. and Europe, although the region’s growth prospects look relatively better. (With the exception of South Korea, Asian consumers have relatively little debt. And many Asian governments have built huge currency reserves and sovereign wealth funds.)

“If you take the top 5% off European economies, you’re in negative territory, but if you take 5% off most Asian economies there’s still growth,” Disney’s Rob Gilby said.

Agreed Chris Halpin of private equity fund manager Providence Equity, “Asia’s fundamentals are far superior to those of Europe and North America.”

Jeanette Chan, partner of U.S. law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, said she was confident investment will take place where appropriate, and will be made at better values.

And Oct. 29, IAC boss Barry Diller weighed in to say he was going on an acquisition hunt in China, Japan and South Korea.

The financial market turmoil may have other side benefits for Asian media. Chan said the downturn could spur government deregulation, and pointed to South Korea, where cross-media ownership rules are loosening, and Taiwan, which could follow. Consolidation among advertisers could mean fewer small clients for Chinese media to keep up with, Halpin said.

Away from the financials, talk largely concerned more traditional TV confab stuff about keeping up with technology and changing audience habits. But Turner Broadcasting Systems’ Asia Pacific head Steve Marcopoto put on a dramatic display of why every exec in the room was ill-equipped to be running a media biz.

He quizzed four Hong Kong junior high school students about their entertainment and news consumption habits. Of the four, none said they watch TV shows on a set. Instead they view practically everything online, without paying, and they find the content through peer-to-peer servers, rather than branded websites. Mobile phones are used for talk, text, music and short-form Internet video, notably YouTube — though they found screen size a negative for long-format drama. Only one of the quartet acknowledged having ever bought a newspaper and one grudgingly owned up to having actually paid for “a few songs.”

Microsoft’s Paul Mitchell neatly summed up the (non-financial) issues facing TV when he said the role of distributors is being redefined; the nature of customer relations is changing, which in turn affects ads, sales and so on; and traditional geographical and rights-based models are being challenged.

Casbaa’s spiritual leader and PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ global media chief Marcel Fenez said demographics and changing lifestyles mean that Asian economies will continue to grow and that media growth will outstrip GDP. But taking the financial chaos together with the shifting tech and consumption paradigms, “the assets will still be there, but they could all be in different places (and different hands).”

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