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Fremantle’s Ganesh Rajaram Spotlights Content Trends in Post-COVID Asian Television

Ganesh Rajaram
Fremantle Media

Ganesh Rajaram is an old hand at the game of licensing TV shows in the Asia region. Executive VP of sales at FremantleMedia, he breaks down what content is working, and where it is working, and sheds some light from a seller’s perspective on the impact of the coronavirus.

Variety: It’s ATF this week. What is the new product you’ve got out there?
Rajaram: What we’re excited about at ATF would be our doing the seventh season of “China’s Got Talent” which we announced last week. We are very excited about it because in this COVID world it is difficult to get productions off the ground.

We’ve been very fortunate. This will be the second major production China in after “The Greatest Dancer China” with SMG. And that was done right in the middle of COVID. It was in March and April, and we did everything carefully, from having social distancing, few audiences and consulting via Zoom calls. The good news is that the show rated really well and we’re presently negotiating a season two right now.

Fremantle may be the only company to have two big deals in China this year. It is testament to the kind of shows we have and to the Fremantle brand. Clients keep coming back for more because brands have proof of concept.

By the end of the year we are going to have a raft of deals for some of our shows like “Game of Talent,” hopefully our first commission in Asia, and “Supermarket Sweep.”

In the past four to five months, we’ve seen a ramp up in activity in those countries that were able to control their COVID case numbers. The market is slowly opening up in China, Thailand and The Philippines, where clients are beginning to buy and produce again. It is looking really good for the first half of next year.

Aside from the correlation you are making between production and public health, what sort of meta trends are you seeing?
One of the trends I am seeing is that the SVOD platforms are becoming more aggressive in the region. In the past before COVID you would see linear channels wanting to have windows and this and that. Now because of COVID, if you’ve got a good show, channels don’t really mind having it while an SVOD platform has it as well. The windowing thing has gone out of the window.

A good example would be one of the big deals that we did in China was “My Brilliant Friend,” which debuted on HBO last year, and maybe was the first time that HBO had a non-English speaking drama on their U.S. service, and we have the distribution rights in the rest of the world. Based on the novels by Elena Ferrante, the drama was much sought after all over Asia. We had this unique situation where all three of the top (streaming) platforms in China (Alibaba, Tencent and iQIYI) bought the rights to seasons one and two. They agreed to share the rights and coexist. What it goes to show is that there’s a level of maturity among platforms. Now we’re working on the renewal of season three with all three of them.

Ten years ago, If I were to do a deal with a regional pay-TV channel, the minimum they would ask for is a six-month holdback before I could go free-to-air.

It can also work the other way round. We just did a package deal for “America’s Got Talent,” “Britain’s Got Talent” and “Got Talent Champion,” all finished programs, with the Fox group, a pay-TV operator, in Southeast Asia, even though many free-TV channels have already had those shows.

When you’ve got brands which are so treasured and loved, it doesn’t make a difference to them, as there are people who will watch.

COVID has obviously affected programming. But the good news for us is that the first kind of programming that the platforms and broadcasters are going after is branded entertainment. They are going to buy the shows that work for them.

One of the other strengths that we’re finding in Asia is the power of our scripted shows. In the last five to six years, we’ve developed a really strong scripted strand with massive shows like “American Gods,” “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Investigation.” We recently licensed both “The Salisbury Poisonings” and “The Luminaries” to Netflix for India. We sold “No Man’s Land” for India as well.

We have become a home for high-end scripted television and shows have been flying off the shelves, especially in India, Korea and China.

What about trends in terms of genre?
In terms of horror, audiences like their local horror. But internationally, what they’re looking for is high and unique storytelling. So when you have something like “My Brilliant Friend” it worked in China. It was a story that everybody could relate to. It was family-friendly, was about a friendship between two girls and how that friendship continued throughout to adulthood. It was a really pure and simple story and the story got relatable and production values are extremely high.

With people staying at home and not being able to work, they are able to binge watch shows or watch them again with friends. Because people are home for long periods of time, and you have series that go on and on, it’s a real opportunity for them to just sit back and watch over a couple of weeks ago.

That’s not to say that there is a waning of appetite for entertainment and lifestyle: we’re still telling Jamie Oliver, and Nigella Lawson across the region, because it’s easy daytime viewing.

Are you working with zippier new Chinese platforms?
Yes, we’ve done deals with Bilibili and some of the newer platforms, and Huanxi Media, which is run by a group of directors, for SVOD.

Bilibili’s focus has now shifted a little bit away from scripted to more factual programming. They want to do very high-end documentaries. For instance, one of the bigger factual titles we are bringing to the market is “Arctic Drift” about the melting of the ice caps.

Is China’s regulatory creep becoming a problem all over again? New regulations on real name identity. Platforms and user data, and there are new proposals for on live streaming. Is this going to crimp everything and push everything back again?
I honestly don’t think so. Maybe it’s because I live in Singapore and am Singaporean third generation, I kind of know what works and what doesn’t work in the market. There will be regulatory changes. But if you’re in their neck of the woods you have to play according to their rules.

In my 20 years, there’s never really been something in China that we couldn’t overcome or work together with the client on to get the shows on the road. Sometimes it is just a matter of changing the name of the show, or something equally easily done, that doesn’t take away from the show.

We are experienced enough, and our line producers are experienced enough, to go onto the ground and work with the client to create a show that keeps within the law. The key is to have a really good relationship.