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Astro Malaysia Holdings CEO Talks Content Strategy and Importance of Corporate Diversity

An affinity for numbers and technology, as well as an ability to dazzle, make Astro Malaysia Holdings CEO Dato’ Rohana Rozhan an impressive leader.

With her guidance, Astro has diversified its satellite and pay television channel packages, pushing high-end content, and growing subscriber bases to reach 75% of households in Malaysia. The company produces thousands of hours of original content in the region.

In a multicultural world, Rozhan also believes that workplace diversity makes business sense and has strived to see her company reflect the marketplace of Astro’s consumers.

Ahead of receiving Variety’s 2018 Achievement in Intl. Television Award, presented at MIPTV April 9, Rozhan talks about her career trajectory, content strategy and the importance of corporate diversity.

Where did your Astro journey begin?
I joined in 1996, when we were just a spreadsheet. I was in corporate finance and was part of the team that built the business model of Astro. In 2006 I became CEO of the Astro TV part. In 2012 or 2013 I became CEO of the Astro Malaysia Group.

What are the key accomplishments, as you see them?
I take a lot of pride in that we were a start-up that looked at the opportunities that technology then brought to Malaysia via DTH satellite. We were able to pull together a plan that saw the gap in the marketplace and translated it into business opportunity, by solving customers’ problems of time, using technology. Tech was an enabler and we chose the best technology, given the lay of the land. Consumers in Malaysia primarily had little choice. The free-to-air channels were all regulated and 80% of their content had to be in Malay language. We saw an opportunity to address the more premium segment. Astro started off by being an extremely expensive service, because the STB [set-top box] was unsubsidized at 1,500 ringgit ($395). Consumers got 20 channels for that, some Hollywood channels and Chinese through the relationship with [Hong Kong’s] TVB, and one Indian channel. After we started growing, we realized that we had to invest in vernacular content. Unlike the Chinese and Indian content, we would have to produce and originate Malay content ourselves. People on TV need to look like the people watching them, and speak their language. Over time, the journey has been about us fine tuning and getting deeper in terms of our understanding the three core tenets: technology, customers and content.

Is that what you meant in a 2008 interview when you said that Astro had pretty much achieved full penetration among Chinese and Indian households, but was still playing catch-up with the Malay population?
If you look at Malaysia’s demographics, 70% of our population are Malay. Astro has always been about playing the premium game. So from a technology and consumer experience perspective we have to be global best in class. But at the same time, we need to find scale. Once you’ve invested in the toolkit that provides the premium customer experience you have all the tools you need to enable you to deal with the mass as well. You not only get access to the customer wallet in terms of subscription, but also access to advertisers.

Is that why free TV service NJOI is now Astro’s biggest growth vector?
It is more than that. Astro today is a comprehensive ecosystem. We no longer look at ourselves in terms of pay-TV and free TV, we are a consumer company. We are about content, products, services and talent. Our job is understanding our customers better than anyone else. And personalizing a solution for each one, so they can each have an individual playlist across our media assets. We are video, audio, ground, talent engagement and so on.

What informs your content production and acquisition strategy?
We have a Malaysian play, which is about deepening engagement with each customer. It is ours to lose. We have the opportunity, the first-mover advantage, the content capabilities and we produce 13,000 hours of content that each household engages with on average five hours per day. For the premium segment, we have the best of Hollywood, and we have the best of sports. We work with all our partners to identify the content that we bring on an exclusive or at least first-window basis. And we make sure that our premium content is deemed [by audiences] to be premium. We are also seeing a lot of premium customers transiting to on-demand, which is a completely different viewing habit. There is a certain amount of day/date content, but more and more it is about box sets and binge viewing. And portability of content. All good stuff!

Dato’ Rohana Rozhan has served as Astro Malaysia Holdings’ chief executive officer for the better part of a decade.
Sikarin Thanachaiary

What kind of Malay content are you delivering?
The whole works. From movies to big signature “Game of Thrones”-like shows, to comedies, reality TV, magazine shows, lifestyle and news. We are very committed to making ourselves THE Malay content player. At the end of last year we signed a deal with Karangkraf, the No. 1 content creator and IP owner for Malays. We have a joint venture with them, where will use their IP. The first Karangkraf content will be coming on soon.

Is that the same as your regional thinking?
We used to think that we produce so much in Malaysia, and that there are commonalities across the region which would make for exportability. The reality is different. So we are building a Nusantara content/IP franchise, as well. Nusantara for us means Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. Malaysia is 30 million people. Nusantara is more like 600 million people. We are the hole in the ring donut, where the opportunities are. We understand that we cannot do it alone. So a lot of our content aspirations in Nusantara will be collaborations with other people, within the creative ecosystem. There are several shows in Indonesia, with one already on air called “Do[s]a.” We also have “3 a.m. Bangkok Ghost Stories,” with Thailand’s Five Star Production, and are producing two horror series and a movie, around a uniting theme of supernatural things happening at the darkest hour. We can exploit IP on our existing platform in Malaysia, and then exploit it over Tribe, which already has 3 million downloads and 500,000 simultaneous users. We don’t rule out selling some of those content windows and rights to other, more global, users. One of our kids shows, “Cam & Leon,” is sold to Amazon.

Your “Astro First” activity gives Astro privileged position in Malay-language feature films and cuts theatrical windows to a couple of weeks. Doesn’t that damage the theatrical market in Malaysia, of which Astro is also a part?
We believe that it is complementary. Astro First opens up a different market and customer persona to local movies. I don’t think the people who watch [Malay films] on TV don’t also watch in cinemas. But, combined, it gives a better reach. We see that from our own movies

You have won multiple leadership and management awards. What does leadership mean in this business?
I always thought that the pinnacle of my career would be as a CFO, which I became in 2003. I’m an accidental CEO. And I know it is not a popular viewpoint, but I’ve often said that a good CFO makes the best CEO as well. In today’s world there is no running away from being entrepreneurial, seeing opportunity to create new value, and the appreciation of technology, maths and the best processes. I was able to look at the building blocks that make for value creation of a long-term business. I am able to translate that into how the pieces of the puzzle fit.

“People on TV need to look like the people watching them, and speak their language.”
Dato’ Rohana Rozhan

How have you handled being a woman in a man’s world?
I’ve never seen a real gender gap. But it is probably a choice I made a long time ago, without knowing that I’d made it. I grew up with two brothers and from Day 1 had to compete. I had to earn my right to play with them and their friends. Throughout my working career, it has been that way as well. I chose not to focus on what I can’t do, and instead focus on what I can do, then do it really well. When you come from a place where the odds are against you — globally there are 95 [male] CEOs to five women — you have to keep your head down and overdeliver at every turn. When you do that people stop looking at you as a woman and instead start looking at you as someone who can make them look good.

How important in Malaysia, where race is the dominant theme of political life, is your early embrace of corporate diversity?
At Astro we have always fundamentally believed that we have to reflect our marketplace within our workforce. The Malaysian marketplace is multicultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic and quite young. We are not just an aggregator and distributor of content, we are also a creator. The best way to succeed is fundamentally to get the workplace to reflect the aspirations and dreams of our consumers. That’s always been our formula, and we do it as a matter of course. Our workforce is 52% women. I’m not particularly happy with the number of senior women in management, at about 40%, but we probably beat the average nationally and globally.

What is your message to people trying to break glass ceilings?
It is good for business, whether stakeholders or shareholders, board members or management, to reflect diversity within your workforce. For women, trying to break the glass ceiling, you have to commit, you have to turn up every day, to earn your seat at the table, and the best way of doing that is if the person sitting next to you sees the value that you bring. There are no shortcuts.

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