Astro CEO Rohana Rozhan discusses how the Malaysian media group is investing in technology to improve the customer experience, ramping up original content creation and looking at ways to expand across Southeast Asia.
Across the globe, traditional pay-TV platforms are finding new ways to re-energize their businesses, and Astro in Malaysia is no exception. Delivering content packages to subscribers, made up of both local and international channel brands, is still a core proposition. But as Rozhan tells TV Asia, reinvention is key.
TV ASIA: In an evolving ecosystem, what are you focusing on at Astro?
ROZHAN: Our success over the last 23 years has been premised on primarily three things. The first has always been that we do not compromise on the fact that we are a premium service. We have all the tools within the premium service to serve the premium homes and premium customers and not be second to anyone else. That has always been our ambition, and that’s why we’ve always been the one who innovates in our market, introducing HD, VOD and so on.
The second has been, once we invested in the premium platform and the capabilities thereof, we had the tools to deal with the mass market. That’s where we’ve introduced NJOI [a free satellite platform]. If you have the infrastructure and technology, you can deploy it across the whole market and get scale.
And third is original content, primarily in vernacular. That has become our strong differentiator.
So going forward, it’s about looking at the market landscape and understanding what those three tenets mean and how we are going to deploy them within the new landscape. Our strategy from this year on will be to reinforce [our position]. We still feel like there are a lot of opportunities for growth. And the question is how you reinvest in order to deliver on that promise. All these three things are intertwined. We don’t talk about content as if it’s stand-alone. We feel like in the new world order we have to build an ecosystem with the consumers in mind that is enabling and seamless. Within that has to be the position for premium, the position for mass, which is scale, and the position for content, which for us means vernacular. So that’s where we’re going.
We also feel like we need to supplement and complement the skills that we have, so we’ve set up a fund that invests in organic growth opportunities. It is meant to make strategic investments. Our key focus is to build on a portfolio of investments that prioritizes ecosystem build-ups. We want to be present and have a seat at the table in new technologies that can gain traction with our customers and maybe overnight gain global scale. That’s required. There are so many little disruptors, so many new start-ups, and they give us real ideas in terms of how to complement and supplement our capabilities.
So these are our core strategies going forward. Our job is not only to defend where we are, but it’s also to use the digital capabilities to engage our customers better, to be more seamless in that, to get to know our customers better than anyone else. We have a real plan. You heard from us last year about how we tied up Amazon Web Services in a three-year transformation. So we’re starting to find our feet in the new world order. It takes time. Astro was built on the premise that we’re a tech company and we give best-in-class experiences to our customers. We lost some ground there. This year is going to be us going back to the market to reclaim that position. We will reclaim that position in the home based on a new tech platform for the set-top boxes. We will reclaim that ground by having all the content in its various forms: day and date, live, first window, box sets, portability, on-demand, all of that.
This is what happens when you’re an incumbent—when we started this business it was premised on a different landscape, a different problem that we had to solve for the customers. There was no multichannel TV. There were regulations for free to air that called for about 80 percent of the content to be in the Malay language. There were only three or four free-to-air channels then. The problem we had to solve for the customers back then was to bring choice—in international content, in vernacular content. We solved that. We brought a multichannel TV proposition, the best of international, the best of vernacular in Hokkien, Mandarin, Tamil and other dialects. That was the low hanging fruit then. Those are no longer problems. What are the problems of the customers today? Complexity. It’s such a crowded marketplace, there’s so much noise, and they have so many choices. We now have to use technology wisely to simplify, to be intuitive, to be personalized and to aptly address whatever aspirational lifestyle the customer has. That is what we’re doing in Malaysia.
TV ASIA: Tell us about your original IP strategy.
ROZHAN: Core to our business, first and foremost, is Malay content for the Malaysian market. Malays form about 70 percent of the population. So we have every intention of being a very significant content player among the Malay vernacular. And we already are. We’re going to reinforce that even further across the ecosystem. It’s not just dramas. It has to be all-encompassing. We are embracing a world where people want short form and clips and so on. So we’re strengthening and building on what we already have. The second track has to be Nusantara [Indonesia and wider Southeast Asia]. That is part of our growth engine for tomorrow. We used to think that if we build for Malaysia, we can take it for granted that it will be relevant for a bigger audience. But the reality is, it doesn’t work that way. We have to build for Nusantara, from the ideation of any stories. It has to be done in collaboration with others. For instance, last year, our production capabilities did things like the SEA Games. In today’s world, it’s about halving your costs but also addressing a bigger market. So in the SEA Games, our team went around to other broadcasters in the region—Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia—and said, let’s produce it once and share the costs, and each localize it for our own markets. There will be a lot more collaborations like that from our production capabilities. Nobody wants to go out there and just build for your own market. You need to deal with the cost structures as well. We also did The Voice, Asia’s Got Talent, that kind of thing, for this region. We have the ambition to build on our production capabilities and skills so we can address a bigger market. That gives us revenue opportunities. Equally important to us is that we start building our skillsets.
Back to the IP, we have a lot in the pipeline with Indonesia, with Thailand, as well as with China and India. For Indonesia, for instance, we have DOSA, which is a miniseries, Heist and Polis Evo2. We have 3 A.M. Bangkok Ghost Stories and Door with Thailand. And we have a remake of [the Chinese film] The Journey as well. You’ll see us out there a lot more.
TV ASIA: How is the OTT platform Tribe performing?
ROZHAN: We’re at 3.1 million users in the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. We’re not going out the way that other [OTTs] have gone out. We are targeting a different demographic, the younger segment. We look at content slightly differently for Tribe. And we’re not going to play this game where people are just land-grabbing and it is a cash burn. We’re trying to build communities of fans. It’s about building content IPs and building differentiators within them. A lot of our ambition with Tribe underpins our content IP story. A lot of it will be building an IP presence and a pipeline together with Astro Malaysia and the Nusantara ambition.
TV ASIA: How do you determine what those must-have brands are for your customers
ROZHAN: This is a debate even among ourselves. Clarity is a good thing, right? What we’ve landed on is that absolute clarity is going back to the drawing board and saying, by accident and by design, we are where we are. There is an Astro that is privileged to be in a very strong position in Malaysia. We play the premium, the mass and the vernacular games. We are in 75 percent of total households; it’s not an issue for us to be at 80 or 85 percent in a very short time. We’ve got 17 million [weekly] radio listeners. All Malaysians are touched by Astro because we have assets across digital, radio and TV. We touch people’s lives 10 to 12 hours a day! That’s well and good, but now we have the technologies to understand our consumers better by data sciences and by having the ability to pull together and personalize. So that’s what we’ve embarked on with Amazon Web Services. We will get to know our customers better. We will break down the 30 million people into more than 20 customer personas. And then we’ll individualize a playlist for each one of them. Once we know who the customer personas are, we size up the opportunity for each of them. What is the size of their collective wallet? What is the size of the ad expenditure opportunity for each segment? And then we try to match them against the media assets that we have. Maybe we’re doing too much to address someone who already has too much to watch. Where are the bubbles of opportunity or gaps that we can opportunistically address using our content IPs, our channel collaborations and other experiences? There is a science and an art to this. The whole idea is to rationalize our media investments, assets, channel collaborations and so on, to optimize the spend to the opportunity. That is something we are doing now, understanding that where we want to spend the most money, what we want to spend the most time on, is what differentiates us. What clearly differentiates us is the vernacular content, the Malay content, the Nusantara content. Let us solve the problems that we’re good at and that differentiate us and [provide the content] that a customer values and will pay for and that advertisers need to reach the customers. So we cannot just have more and more channels when you know that people are shifting to on-demand. We have to be clear about what role the channels play and that’s where data is extremely important in various ways. Matching the data supply and the data demand is extremely important. And understanding the customers enough, and our advertisers enough, to know the customer personas and how much they can be valued at, where the real gaps are and where our real strengths are.