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Netflix Faces Challenges as It Plans a Global Launch, Particularly in Asia

Netflix’s announcement this month that it is planning a global launch suddenly puts the U.S. streaming video giant on the map across the Asia-Pacific region, but along with a host of local rivals, it faces challenges over content, pricing and regulation. What’s more, one of the biggest obstacles for Netflix in Asia is the sheer size of the region — and the economic and developmental gradients it must negotiate.

Wealthy and westernized, Australia and Japan (where Netflix debuted in 2015) are worlds apart from India, which boasts a huge English-speaking population and a fanatical film culture, but has poor broadband connectability and a host of formidable local players. In other high-income territories such as Hong Kong and South Korea, audiences have strong preferences for local-language programming.

Netflix will either have to dedicate a great deal of management time to Asia or accept that progress will be modest. Leaving out China, where Netflix is not yet launching, analysis firm Media Partners Asia estimates the company will have  9 million subscribers by 2020 in a region that stretches from Japan to Australia and India.

The streaming giant has decided on a pricing strategy comparable to its existing plans in North America and Europe. That makes it more expensive than many local competitors, and leaves piracy an attractive option. On its Jan. 19 earnings call, Netflix admitted the approach may limit its uptake to the affluent middle-class, rather than winning over the masses.

New Markets
Netflix will make an instant mark in Asia
$9m Estimated Asian subs by 2020
130 New countries with Netflix
$7.50 Basic monthly charge in India

Competition from local and regional services is significant and growing. Hong Kong-based PCCW’s Vue is now in Singapore as well; Singapore-based SingTel’s Hooq serves India, Thailand and the Philippines; HBO Go is in Hong Kong and the Philippines; and Iflix, which includes MGM as an investor, is operational in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Chinese video platforms are also beginning to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia, even as China blocks access to foreign media groups. China-based LeEco (formerly LeTV) is in the vanguard of expansion into Hong Kong.

Among the strengths of the existing ventures in Asia are their lineups of local content. Hollywood movies are niche programming in several Asian markets, and local platforms are involved not just in producing movies and TV shows, but in developing talent and user-generated Web content. In India, Bollywood (and regional-language) movies are a must-have that pay-TV and satellite groups Star VideoCon (Fox), Sony and Tata Sky have already locked in. While Netflix’s own content is a strength in North America, much of it has been licensed to existing platforms, and will not be available for the company’s use in Asia for at least three years.

Regulatory risk is a challenge Netflix appears to have sidelined for now, brazenly adopting the strategy of launch now, face the consequences later. Clashes appear inevitable: Indonesia’s censorship agency noted that Netflix is unlicensed in the nation, and that much of its content cannot be shown in cinemas and is unsuitable for local audiences; Vietnamese regulators have spoken of banning the company on similar grounds; and Muslim Malaysia is likely to require that Netflix follow its content controls. In Singapore, local video-on-demand rivals complain that the U.S. newcomer isn’t subject to the same censorship laws they face.

Region-wide, there is the sense that the playing field is uneven. “They sit in Silicon Valley, open the gusher, and the sweet crude flows all through the global network, just like that?” says John Medeiros, chief policy officer at the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Assn. of Asia. “Maybe that happens (for a while) in a technical sense, but in a commercial sense, you still need access to customers and to their payments, and the governments that you’re flipping off might have something to say about that.”

Yet some feel that the arrival of Netflix could be a positive. Vivek Couto, exec director of Media Partners Asia, reckons it will stimulate the subscription VOD industry. “It is going to help establish the value (point) for SVOD,” he notes, adding that could be a catalyst for evolution in business models, content production, industry alliances and regulation.

Rivals in Japan — Amazon, Avex, Hulu (bought by Nippon TV in 2014), Gyao and Rakuten — have all scaled up their SVOD offerings, and become more aggressive with acquisitions and first-window terms. Japanese producers also recently launched their own platform, Bonobo.

If Netflix’s first few years in Asia are certain to be peppered with regulatory disputes and content tussles, one of the most interesting sideshows will be the reaction of Hollywood studios and global content groups. Will they sell everything to Netflix or favor regional services in order to stimulate competition? Or will they launch their own OTT services in Asia, as they are doing in the U.S.?

HBO has a head start, with HBO Go. Fox, one of the biggest channel integrators in the region, has been talking about its own platform for years. Observers will just have to wait and see.

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