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Asian Pay-TV Leaders Learn to Deal With Industry Disruption

Two of the biggest personalities in Asian TV’s C-suite say they have stopped worrying and learned to love disruption.

After being described as “giants,” HBO Asia CEO Jonathan Spink and Turner’s celebrated Asia Pacific president Ricky Ow took the stage Tuesday in Singapore at the ATF Leaders’ Conference. There they interspersed a series of dire predictions with a cheery selection of home truths about managing change. At times the veterans appeared to laugh in the face of adversity.

“All the consolidation and transformation of 2018 will continue in 2019,” said Ow. He tempered that with the idea of growing opportunities for Asian content. “Asian story-telling is growing and increasingly accepted worldwide,” he said.

Similarly, Spink said that the pay-TV industry, where HBO has been a leading name for more than two decades, is facing difficulties as a consequence of expanding viewer choice. “Whether it is the number of devices, channels or the volume of content, we are involved in a battle for eyeballs,” he intoned. But he too was quick to talk up the opportunities for Asian productions. “It is false to say this is new – Asia has always had a lot of content – but now it travels more easily.” Even with sub-titles for English-speaking audiences.

“The response to (HBO Asia’s) originals has been magnificent. We will do a lot more,” said Spink.
Ow said that Asian content producers are making qualitative improvements. “The gap (between English-language and Asian original content) is narrowing. Chinese quality is increasing.”

Both executives suggested that their organizations had needed to experiment before finding their feet in an age increasingly dominated by streaming companies. “Where in the past we might have made (long-form) animation content and then spun off something shorter, now we may reverse the order and do short-form first. We can use it as an experiment, find the market. It works for younger audiences and certain devices,” he said.

Spink said that making original content in Asia involves risk and that there will be flops, but getting the balance right is key to pay-TV brands retaining loyalty, even as bundles get skinnier.

“We realized that we won’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can be pleasantly surprised when you do,” he said. He cited success with series in Bahasa, and Mandarin-language, Taiwanese series “Teenage Psychic.”

Ow suggested that the biggest threat to incumbent brand name companies is not getting localization right. “You must understand that Asia is not one size fits all. And that localization takes a lot of effort. You need to understand for instance that dubbing in China is different to dubbing in Taiwan,” Ow said.

Spink cautioned companies about a rush to SVoD. “It is not a license to print money. There will be more consolidation in the next months and years. You can live on dreams for a while but after a time it comes down to cold cash.”

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