As competition intensifies, Asia’s leading pay-TV programmers are innovating their strategies for finding, and keeping, audiences.
Internet advertising has already eclipsed TV spending in several Asia-Pacific markets, including Australia, China, Korea, New Zealand and Taiwan. And it’s set to do so in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore by 2022, according to research by Media Partners Asia (MPA).
That’s a tough pill to swallow for the region’s pay-TV industry, which has been working hard for years to cut in on terrestrial television’s dominant share.
“Consumers are spending more time on mobile, social and online-video platforms, driving demand for internet advertising,” said Vivek Couto, executive director of MPA, in releasing the findings of the group’s Asia Pacific Advertising Trends report.
The pay-TV market, however, while facing the challenge of online disruption, is far from a dying sector. Pay-TV revenues are expected to reach $68.5 billion in 2022, MPA says. And there are still gains in certain markets, notably India, while in others, such as Hong Kong, cord-cutting is starting to take a toll on the sector.
For the region’s major pay-TV channels, the mission is straightforward enough: drive viewership, engagement and ad dollars, and make yourself indispensable to platforms. To achieve those aims, schedulers are experimenting with launch strategies, expanding social-media outreach and, as the acquisitions market gets squeezed by the arrival of content-hungry OTT platforms, stepping up original-programming initiatives.
“With more competition, more platforms out there, it is important for us to have our own uniqueness and be able to maintain our own identity,” says Virginia Lim, the senior VP and head of content, production and marketing at Sony Pictures Television (SPT) Networks, Asia.
Local production has been an essential part of the SPT strategy for years now, with AXN having been one of Asia’s first English-language general-entertainment channels to bet big on original programming.
“Original production gives you unique content and the differentiation that every service now needs,” Lim explains.
Last year the channel resurrected The Amazing Race Asia for a fifth season and this year it is working on season two of Asia’s Got Talent. The latest addition to the roster, for 2018, is The Elements, featuring Australian magician, illusionist and escapologist Cosentino.
FOX Networks Group (FNG) Asia has also been dabbling in the regional originals space, with highlights that have included Asia’s Next Top Model and Bolt of Talent on StarWorld, which was recently rebranded as FOX life.
It’s a similar situation at NBCUniversal, where Scott Mackenzie, VP of channels for Asia, reports that at E!, local content is becoming increasingly important. The service has made shows in the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore and more recently has been acquiring select Korean series for a new weekly block, Seoul Saturdays.
“Korean celebrities appeal across the entire region,” says Mackenzie. “Korean content allows us to appeal to fans everywhere from Jakarta to Japan.”
At A+E Networks, both Lifetime and HISTORY have been investing in content developed and produced locally. “Originals are highly important to establish locally relevant connections to a channel’s brand attributes, attract local sponsorship and provide value for our platform partners,” says Saugato Banerjee, the company’s general manager for North Asia. “But to have a sustained impact on live ratings, they need to be executed in sufficient volumes. That is often a challenge in some markets.”
Indeed, Asia’s big pan-regional players are still heavily reliant on imported content, a market that is now busier than ever as the likes of HOOQ, iflix and others ramp up their OTT offerings.
“We noticed, about a year and a half ago, that even on linear we were finding a lot of headwinds buying content because people were wanting to hold [the shows] back, saying, ‘The OTT guys want this,’” observes Keertan Adyanthaya, executive VP of content and communications at FOX Networks Group Asia. “But lately, in the last six months or so, things have eased up a lot. Two factors here: one, there are so many more shows being made, so that is creating a glut in the marketplace. Really good shows are still hard to come by, but if you want to curate strongly and look for hidden gems, you can find them. The second is, Netflix seems to have focused on a cherry-picking strategy versus buying everything. Two years ago they were taking every show possible. Now they just want the best show and they don’t want everything else. That creates space for everyone else to operate in.”
Adyanthaya, like the other programmers surveyed here, stresses the importance of day-and-date premieres. “Before people can pirate it, we want to give them an opportunity to access it legally,” he says.
For Prem Kamath, the deputy managing director for the Asia Pacific at A+E Networks, however, day-and-date is not always required. “It is important for some shows that have strong appointment viewing. It’s not so important for other shows where engagement rather than timeliness is the key driver of consumption.”
Beyond day-and-date, there are other scheduling considerations that programmers need to take into account. How often and when to repeat? When to schedule back-to-back episodes? How often to premiere new shows?
“You need fantastic curation,” is how Mark Eyers, chief content officer and senior VP for kids’ networks at Turner Asia Pacific, puts it.
“TV5MONDE Asie is providing a very large number of ‘premieres’ every day,” says Alexandre Muller, the managing director of the Asia-Pacific operations at the global French-language broadcaster. “A new drama or movie is released every weekday in prime time, as well as new documentaries, cartoons, current affairs and lifestyle magazines. Because of the richness of our library, the number of repeats is limited. It is impossible to promote all new shows individually, but we give special attention to all programs subtitled and available during [prime] time.”
At Rewind Networks, whose HITS network delivers classic U.S. dramas and comedies such as 3rd Rock from the Sun and previous seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, the mantra, according to CEO Avi Himatsinghani, is “keep it simple.” Series are stripped at the same time Monday to Friday, with back-to-back stacking on the weekends for those who missed out during the week. “Simple leads to less confusion, obviously, but it also leads to loyalty,” Himatsinghani says. “People remember, 9 p.m. this show is on, 10 p.m. this show is on. I’m shocked by the kind of feedback we’re getting from people saying, why are you showing season three again, you should show season four! They are so involved that they know this is the time you should be moving on to the next season.”
Himatsinghani adds that using data from affiliate partners’ set-top boxes is increasingly important. “With set-top box research we can see what our top shows are. We’re working on how we increase the average time spent by viewers on our network. One of the ways to do that is to give more exposure to the shows that work for us. For example, The Nanny does very well for us in Malaysia. So we could increase the frequency of The Nanny broadcasts within a 24-hour schedule. More people then have an opportunity to watch it. And we can give lesser exposure to stuff that’s not working as well. We’re working on that balance.”
Marathons are increasingly part of the scheduling mix at SPT, Lim notes. “Sometimes it’s back-to-back episodes in a full marathon, and sometimes we’ll do a mid-season catch up. And we make sure we schedule mid-season marathons on weekends to make sure you have your binge-viewing!”
NBCUniversal’s Mackenzie says he’s been a “long-term believer in marathons and blocks. We’ve been doing that actively for a number of years. The fact that more people have come around to that style of viewing because of on-demand services has only reinforced in our minds that it is the right approach.”
Indeed, FNG’s Adyanthaya notes that shows like Prison Break and 24 were being run with back-to-back episodes on his channels almost a decade ago. “We started using that strategy when we wanted to catch people up on previous seasons,” Adyanthaya says. “We also used [marathons] as a launch pad for a new season. For example, when we did 24 season three, we would do [a marathon] of one and two. We’ve even done a one-week non-stop 24 marathon.”
Lim points to SPT’s use of “complementary scheduling,” as a way to boost awareness of a show’s launch, premiering series in different time belts on multiple channels in the portfolio. “In some countries in Asia, the viewers consume both English- and local-language content. When we cross-promote in that way, we bring in new viewers. That has been very effective for us to reach out to our existing, loyal viewers and also to bring in new viewers within our [group’s] core audience.”
Adyanthaya also stresses the importance of cross-promotion activities across his portfolio. “The most important tool that we have at our disposal is our own on-air inventory,” he says. “We have a network of 25-plus channels across genres and languages. We have a very strong cross-promotional strategy and we’ve been using that to great effect. We’ve tracked our viewership and noted that almost 60 percent of our viewership has seen our promos.”
But what do you do if you’re an independent channel operator? Get creative.
“We’re a small network,” Rewind’s Himatsinghani says. “We don’t have deep pockets, so we don’t spend big money on consumer marketing. We tend to work with our partners. We put out generic promos for the shows and then we work with the respective platforms in every market. So if it’s Astro, we have Astro branding, and then we have them air cross promotions on their own networks. We rely heavily on the media assets of our platform partners. And we look at where similar audiences are. I look at HGTV or Food Network as a complementary service. Someone has gone there to watch some great programming on homes and food—they could also be interested in HITS. So we do a lot of cross-promotion partnerships with [other] networks.”
HITS is among the newer channels in the region, having just arrived on the scene in 2013. Smithsonian Channel is also a recent entrant, landing in Singapore last year with plans to expand to several more territories in the months ahead. For a brand-new contender in the Asian pay-TV landscape, David Royle, executive VP of programming and production at Smithsonian Networks, says the focus is on “quality programming” and carving a distinct niche in the factual landscape.
“We are, in a way, the antidote to fabricated reality shows,” Royle notes. “We haven’t gone the route of some of the other American channels and indeed some of the international channels. We position ourselves as factual TV you can trust. And I think in today’s age, people are yearning for that. At the same time, we’re very clear in our minds that we’re factual entertainment. We’re not preaching to people, we’re not educational TV, we’re good storytellers, we’re offering visually rich programming that hopefully entertains, draws the audience in, and at the end of which you can say, I took something away from it, I learned something new.”
To bolster its local resonance, Smithsonian has been making select regional acquisitions, including two titles from Korea’s EBS, Goshawk: Soul of the Wind and Great Snakes. “We’re looking to partner more in Asia,” says Royle.
Even established players are scouting new markets. HISTORY and Lifetime are well penetrated across most of the region, but they arrive in Korea for the first time this year.
“In Korea, our premiere strategy will be designed to expose a broad cross-section of our brand-defining global hits to the widest possible audience,” A+E Networks’ Banerjee says. “This will be complemented with locally relevant acquisitions and tied to key cultural moments for the HISTORY and Lifetime audiences. In a way, every single prime-time hour will be a ‘premiere’ hour as we gather data and insights for this whole new territory. Having said that, a premiere is no longer a time slot but an extended event cycle. It follows a longer arc with show announcements, updates by talent on social media, influencer marketing and activation of discussion threads and forums in the run-up to any tentpole premiere.”
For A+E Networks across the region, outdoor events have also proven to be effective for strengthening a brand’s presence and awareness in a market. Kamath references HISTORY Con in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, which drew an attendance of over 90,000 people this year. “Our attempt with all our marketing initiatives is to shift the focus away from information to persuasion and experiences. This is the consistent theme that runs across all of our marketing initiatives.”
At FNG, stunts include a mix of global campaigns—such as the use of local graffiti artists in multiple cities to create a mural for the launch of Outcast—and regional ones, including a VR initiative for The Walking Dead. Working with the Grab taxi service in Malaysia, random riders were treated to a VR experience for the zombie drama, and, when their headsets were removed, were greeted by a walker in the taxi with them. “We covered it all with hidden cameras and we cut a viral video that we floated out on YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and every other possible form of social media,” Adyanthaya says.
At NBCUniversal, a key strategy has been reaching out to “fan communities” around celebrities, Mackenzie says. He references a partnership with Spotify to promote E!’s launch of Mariah’s World.
The NBCUniversal channels also work with sister company Universal Studios on campaigns, Mackenzie says, citing the television broadcast of the first two movies in the Despicable Me franchise ahead of the theatrical release of the third film.
Social media and online distribution are also essential pathways to the consumer today, whether it’s shareable short-form content or premiering shows on-demand ahead of the linear release.
“The fundamental shift in marketing channel brands now is about going beyond tune-in messaging,” says Banerjee at A+E Networks. “Channels and their content have to be more sharply defined. They have to live in environments where viewers have plenty of choice, and not enough time.”
Turner’s Eyers observes that “given the erosion in appointment viewing,” programmers need to be able to identify talking points in shows that can be plugged on social media. “It’s no longer just, There’s a new episode at 4 p.m. of Adventure Time or Ben 10. It’s important to have a destination, but it’s more important to have something that creates talk. Is there a different character? Is there a special story arc?”
Eyers continues, “We have a number of shows around the world where we start on nonlinear platforms first, so people get to know [a brand]. Also, for us to experiment at a lower cost, with a wider-reach experience, we’ve been doing a lot of 15-second micro shorts and we scatter them across various platforms. Some would be on our own branded experiences, some on an AVOD platform like YouTube, some in our app and then our website and the linear platforms.”
Facebook is serving as a significant resource at HITS. “Our Facebook page has a lot of loyalists who send in paragraphs listing shows they want,” Himatsinghani says. “They know what HITS is, so they feel ownership of the brand, and that’s fantastic. I was at FOX for 12 years and never imagined that the viewer would become the programmer. That’s one of the greatest things we’ve achieved. We’ve translated the brand proposition in such a simple manner to people that they can make their wish list and we can hear them.”
At TV5MONDE, Muller says that having an OTT option for the channel has been critical “to erase the weight of geographical constraints and to meet the needs of our audience, independently of its location or aspirations.”
SPT’s Lim says that “accessibility” is one of the pillars of her strategy. “Allowing our viewers to access our content anytime they want is a very important part of our business. And we have a lot of viewers staying with us on this platform. On some of the new season premieres, we now offer prior full-season catch-up on-demand to encourage tune-in.”
Of course, deciding what to premiere on nonlinear, and where to do that, is a conundrum in and of itself.
“The benefit of the overall franchise is what’s important,” says Eyers. “Our linear platforms have varying distribution in different markets. So it may pay to lean more towards nonlinear before the pay-TV release, or using some original content first before the linear channel. You manage the flow. There’s no point just going to a paid linear platform that has limited distribution when it doesn’t benefit the entire market. That’s the guiding principle.”
Ultimately, Eyers says, “it’s all about joining the dots. That’s the world we’re in.”