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FilMart: HBO Asia CEO Jonathan Spink Praises Local Content Strategy

CEO of HBO Asia since 2003, Jonathan Spink has seen the growth of pay-TV in Asia, the moves towards content localization and original production, and has faced up to the challenge of internet-based streaming services. He joins Variety on Monday in a keynote presentation at Hong Kong’s FilMart, and is expected to unveil an expanded slate of local productions.

How does a legacy pay-TV channels group respond to the digital transformation?
Spink: The pay-TV business has been transforming digitally for many years. The issue now is the ease of access and the ability for customers to access your content anywhere. HBO, like other services and other companies, has been working hard on developing the ability to do this. In our instance, that means the development of HBO GO and the ability to roll out content to a greater audience, and for it to be accessible pretty much anywhere by anybody. We have been working on getting all the necessary rights to be able to deliver that content across different platforms.

When localization has been the trend for the past five to 10 years, is a 23-territory Asia footprint a realistic business model?
Asian audiences are very happy to watch content produced in different countries. Localization has been a trend for many years and we recognize the significance and importance of locally produced programs. In HBO Asia’s 23-territory footprint, it is a bit of a misnomer to say we have to please and deliver something to each territory. We have always been known as an English-language channel, providing quality HBO original content and the best Hollywood has to offer.

What has happened in the last seven years has been our involvement in local production across Asia. Customers and viewers across Asia are used to watching programming with subtitles. And whether that is from America, Europe or other countries in Asia, it has been perfectly acceptable. People like good content. Our shows produced in one country have worked very well in other countries, so we would expect that to continue.

Is the recent unbundling/re-bundling, downloadable HBO GO app, and price cut strategy in Singapore to be followed elsewhere?

Singapore has been an interesting case for us. We have been exclusive with StarHub for many years, but with their new strategy, they did not wish to continue on an exclusive basis.

We are still very pleased to be able to continue our relationship with StarHub and allow our existing customers at StarHub to benefit from all our HBO platforms, including HBO GO. But it also now means that we are able to offer our services to a wider public in Singapore. We are working with Singtel (another pay-TV operator), and Toggle (part of MediaCorp), which has great access to the Singapore market. The millions of people who have downloaded the Toggle app can now access HBO GO. HBO GO is now also in the Apple and Google Play stores.

This essentially means that anybody in Singapore can access HBO GO any time that they want and pay for the service. We think that is positive. We have also gone to a realistic price, which we have always wished to do, and have reached a level we think is comparative against the market. We are rolling out HBO GO across the region and we will be making more announcements soon.

How does original content work at HBO Asia?
It took us a few years before we started getting into original content in HBO Asia because we were nervous about language and how it all works. We started producing principally in English originally with our first couple of series. But then we did a couple of things in other languages and we discovered they have worked for us as well, if not better.

We have been enormously pleased with how the content has travelled. Producing shows in Taiwan that have worked in the Philippines and Malaysia, and producing shows in Indonesia that worked in Singapore and Thailand, has been very gratifying. We wish to produce more original content, as there are great opportunities and a lot of great stories in Asia.

What Asian shows are currently working? 
The recent shows we’ve produced, like “The Teenage Psychic,” worked exceptionally well ratings-wise. This coming-of-age Chinese-language series worked well across all our markets. More recently, “Folklore” has generated hugely good reviews across different countries. The anthology horror series was in six different languages, with six different directors, about six different stories from across the region. It was carried in the U.S., where it generated a lot of interest. And it has also been screened at various film festivals around the world. We are taking this concept slightly further, as we will announce at FilMart.

Is Mandarin-language production in Taiwan an ersatz Mainland China strategy?
We are producing in Taiwan because the language of Taiwan is largely Mandarin. “The Teenage Psychic” is a series that did not get carried in China, which has some restrictions on supernatural shows. The series was produced because we thought it was a great show — and it really is. It is an absolute benefit to us if our shows work in China. China is one of our markets. But we are not available to domestic households, so it is part of the China hotel strategy.

We are producing shows because Taiwan has a great history of television production and there are some great stories there. Same as in Indonesia. We are now talking about producing shows in Hong Kong. It just happens that these two or three shows have all come around at the same time, and it is just more coincidence rather than anything else.

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