Original Content Lights Up TV Market in Asia Region

Joint production in Asia The Bridge
Courtesy of HBO Asia

“If you have a good idea and can execute well, these days you will definitely find a buyer. That’s a healthy market,” says a source at a one of the major channel operators in Asia, after looking with barely disguised jealously at the Netflix upfronts held in Singapore in mid-November. “This is a golden time to be a producer in Asia.”

As attendees of the Singapore Media Festival, which runs Nov. 28-Dec. 9, know, the definitions of what original content is vs. what is acquired but then relabeled, and what shows would simply have been considered as old-fashioned commissions, are blurred. But there is little doubt that the streaming video era has juiced up the market in Asia for new video and TV content. Much of it is local content that is now crossing borders.

Forecasts by Media Partners Asia suggest that total content investment in TV and online video in Asia will expand from $23.1 billion in 2017 to $30.1 billion by 2023. Online video platforms will account for 17%. For traditional TV players, increased content investment is mainly focused on sports rights, as the last refuge of conventional linear TV. Streaming platforms, both local and global, are encroaching on and dominating other formats such as drama, unscripted — game shows, comedy, variety — miniseries and even the telenovela/soap segments.

China’s online platforms have become particularly adept at using original content to drive conversion of viewers from casual users of the advertising-supported tiers to paying subscribers. In some cases, viewers are offered rewards and membership tiers with more privileges. In other instances, free users can only watch episodes of a show in a conventional staggered release pattern, while subscribers can indulge their binge-watching habits and have immediate access to an entire season. Tencent Video this month announced that it has 82 million paying subscribers — up from essentially zero five years ago.

While the explosive growth of streaming in China has been made possible by a series of special conditions — its censorship controls, the ubiquity of electronic payment systems and the way that foreign streaming companies are barred from operating — the rest of Asia is experiencing a similar revolution.

While streaming is ballooning, pay TV is now retreating in the most developed territories and growing only slowly in the developing markets, while free TV may be retreating. Along with bundling and — telco-provided — carrier billing systems that are especially important in developing markets where cellular delivery is dominant, new video content is a key battleground.

Curt Marvis, the former Lionsgate exec who founded digital group QYOU four years ago, and who is set as a keynote speaker at Singapore’s Asian Television Forum, running Nov. 28-Dec. 9, says local is crucial. That applies for his company’s short-form content, as well as for long-form and movies.

“We’ve had to change our strategy. Four years ago, we started aggregating and packaging for a global audience. But what we needed to do was to deliver Indian content to India, something that Amazon, Netflix and Hooq are all now discovering,” says Marvis. “Similarly, it is fundamentally important to have a hit Indonesian movie in any Indonesian package.”

The ability to understand local content needs in a massively diverse region has allowed Asia’s home-grown streaming companies to hold off the global giants Netflix and Amazon, and without using Chinese-style legal restrictions.

Hong Kong-based Viu (itself part of the PCCW telco group) started by exploiting the almost pan-Asian mania for Korean content. Operating on a freemium model, it now commissions original content in South Korea (“Song Ji-ho’s Beauty Views”), India (“Gehraiyaan” from Phantom Films) and is in production on a Malaysia-Singapore-localized version of Endemol Shine’s Nordic detective series “The Bridge.”

Produced by Malaysia’s Double Vision, “The Bridge” is made jointly with pay-TV leader HBO Asia, which itself has stepped up development of a slate of regional originals. These range from Southeast Asian horror (“Halfworlds”) and Taiwanese detective series “Miss Sherlock,” to a roster of mainland Chinese-made martial arts telemovies.

Regional pay-TV outfit Fox Networks Group is similarly building a slate of original Chinese-language content under its Star TV brand. After series “Trading Floor” and “Stained” were released recently, in November it began production on “Memory Eclipse,” a six-parter based on the life of Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng.

Iflix, an OTT streamer that has a footprint covering Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and an additional 28 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East (but deliberately avoids India), has targeted its Southeast Asian core. It began airing its first Malaysian drama series, “KL Gangster,” in August, and is now readying a 20-30 film slate in Indonesia, in partnership with social storytelling platform Wattpad. “With traditional distribution and platform requirements no longer a constraint, and deep data and analytics available to measure performance and engagement, [we are able to] create exciting original productions from hugely popular, local stories,” says Iflix chief content officer Sean Carey.

Rival Hooq, which claims the backing of Singtel, Sony and Warnermedia, similarly has an array of local production relationships in Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, with the objective of market dominance through localization and adaptation. “There was nothing like [a local equivalent of] ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘The Sopranos’ — quality, binge-worthy content — so we set out to make it,” says CEO Peter Bithos.

In India, Hooq operates “an OTT channel strategy,” both curating and localizing 6,000 hours of Hollywood content.

For others, India is the potentially the most lucrative market and already Asia’s most contested battleground.

Market leadership belongs to Hotstar, a spinoff of Fox Star India, with well over 100 million users of its hybrid free/$3 subscription model. Many are initially drawn in by sports and then retained by other genres. “We have not felt the urge to chase the originals bandwagon just for the sake of doing so,” says Ajit Mohan, CEO of Hotstar. “We will invest in exclusive shows on Hotstar when we have the opportunity to tell a story that has not been told before or create a format that no one has explored before.” He cites “On Air With AIB,” which explores the news satire format, and “CinePlay,” which delivers stage theater shot in a cinematic fashion, as examples.

With Sony Liv and Viacom18’s Voot also leaders in the streaming business, Netflix and Amazon both see original content as keys to expanding market share beyond their current low single percentages.

When Amazon launched in India it went with 18 commissioned programs. It now has shows ranging from crime thriller “Mirzapur” to psychological thriller “Breathe,” and it has lots of comedy. By the summer it had 28 standup comedy shows.

“There are genres that film has popularized [in India]. One of those is comedy. There is a social phenomenon around comedy. Standup acts were filling up stadiums,” says Vijay Subramaniam, director and head of content at Amazon Prime Video, India. “We realized that we can give [audiences] a service where they can go from one to many and cut across geographies, and cultural differences as well. That is when we doubled down on comedy.”

Netflix was seemingly more circumspect, launching with a single original series from India before building up: In November it launched another series, ghostly “Typewriter” along with eight original movies. The company says that India is an unusual market in that movies and TV shows rank roughly equally in audience preferences, where in other markets viewership skews closer to 70% in favor of TV content.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings nevertheless uses an Indian series example — Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Saif Ali Khan-starring crime series “Sacred Games” — to tout the ability of his global streaming platform to distribute Asian original content across the planet.

“We’re seeing two out of three viewers for ‘Sacred Games’ come from outside India. And it is already doing well in India,” says Hastings.