Original content commissioning and localization no longer sound like particularly inspired strategies for an Asian streaming service. Everyone from global giants to regional specialists appear to expound similar mantras. But the twin tracks, employed for over three years now, have turned Viu into an operation that is admired by its competitors. The company is now daring to publicly talk about a path towards profitability.
Like most other companies in the streaming sector, Viu is currently in a growth phase that means it is burning cash and living on the indulgence of its shareholders.
Viu is backed by Hong Kong’s PCCW, a former telecoms monopoly which now also owns Hong Kong’s leading pay-TV platform Now TV, mobile video service VuClip and music streamer Moov. Viu brought in $110 million in August 2017 in a funding round with new investors including Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek, media investor Hony Capital, and Foxconn Ventures.
But given its 17-country footprint, Viu’s EBITDA loss of $40 million last year on revenues of $100 million does not seem out of line. One analyst last week estimated that South East Asian streaming firms together lost $600 million last year – with $400 million of that going into the pockets of content creators.
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Launched in 2016, Viu started with a focus on Korean-language content. While that may appear odd for a Hong Kong company, it has proved insightful, as the Asian public’s clamor for Korean dramas seems to have no limit. Viu now claims over 30 million monthly average users.
The company’s CEO Janice Lee, says the lineup was never wholly Korean, but that Viu has anyway now evolved into an organization producing and commissioning across much of the Asia region.
At last week’s APOS conference in Bali, she unveiled eight new shows, a fraction of the 80 scripted and non-scripted series that Viu hopes to start this year. They hail from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, India, the Philippines and the Middle East.
“We’ve gone wider than Korean content. We have 30% of viewers who are new to our platform. That’s drawing in new subscribers. The other 70% watch Korean content, and also originals from their local market,” Lee told Variety. And Lee has little worry about dilution or loss of certain shows to competitors. “There is more Korean production than ever before. Korea has gone from three big broadcasters, to five. Producers want distribution. Nobody needs exclusive these days.”
Viu’s recent slate includes a version of European drama format “The Bridge” – co produced with HBO Asia – and experimental regional format, “No Sleep, No FOMO,” which Viu developed from a short form YouTube format into a premium show.
New shows include “Kopitiam,” from Malaysia, and “Baha Don,” the story of a chef who discovers that his father is a mobster, directed Kye Syed Fariz, who has a significant local following. Three from Hong Kong include: “Till Death Do Us Part” starring Sheren Tang; “The Gutter,” with Hanjin Tan, Michelle Wai and Catherine Chau; and “Psycho Detective 2” reuniting local legendary actor Adam Cheng with TV icon Michael Tao after 26 years.
For the other 70, Viu will lean on multiple producer partnerships, its own development team, a pitching forum, and even events with high school students.
The South East Asian market streaming industry is becoming increasingly competitive – and may become more so if China’s iQIYI is serious about operating in the region. Like others, Lee is targeting Thailand and Indonesia as priority markets.
Lee attributes Viu’s success to date to two or three factors, of which the Asian content lead is one. “We had a different proposition with the Asian content, a lot more Viu originals. Now others are catching up… We don’t know where the Hollywood content is going to go in terms of distribution,” she said.
Other companies are also adopting variations on the dual income model. “We were the only ones who had AVoD and SVoD from the get-go. Last year we fired-up the ad engine, now we get 50% of revenue from subs and 50% from advertising,” Lee said. Subscription pricing is tailored to different Asian markets, $2-6 per month, not the $9.99 of Netflix. Viu also offers a limited amount of so-called sachet pricing in some territories.
A third factor may be having country managers in each market. “They work with the telcos. They also provide a direct-to-consumer relationship. And they have teams for advertising. We have discovered that ad spend is very local, even if it is coming from the giant brands,” said Lee.
When the inevitable sector consolidation happens, Viu aims to be right in the middle of it. “There are opportunities for consolidation both ways, (meaning as a buyer or a seller),” says Lee.
“We did one funding round, and have four shareholders from this business. We might consider a strategic partner, but we are not currently raising a round. Fund raising is not a daily activity, fortunately.”
“PCCW sees this as a long-term growth business. How we get there is by continuing to build Viu into a leading platform. We are there in many of the markets, but don’t want to be complacent.”