Asia for the Win


An intensifying streaming landscape has translated into Asia remaining a robust acquisition market, despite the turbulence of 2020.

As one market after the next moved online this year, there remained hope that Asia TV Forum (ATF), the last industry sales event of 2020, taking place in a region that has fared better against the coronavirus than most other places, might still be able to proceed in person in Singapore. But travel restrictions and ongoing uncertainty over COVID-19 sadly made a physical gathering this year impossible.

“The ATF team has had many candid conversations with our partners over the past few months about proceeding with the market and conference in December 2020,” the organizers said. “To date, there is still much uncertainty on travel restrictions globally, thus impacting our partners who come from all over the world to attend ATF. After much consideration, and in the best interests of the industry, we have decided to take ATF online in order to facilitate business and networking.”

ATF Online+ has been running this week, from December 1 to 4, allowing content sellers from around the world to showcase their titles to buyers from across the region. The event is a vital part of the Singapore Media Festival, hosted by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), which is putting the spotlight on Asian storytelling for its seventh edition.

“This year has been undeniably challenging, but the resilience and creativity of our media community as it navigates uncharted waters, adapts, collaborates and continues telling our stories has been inspiring,” said Howie Lau, assistant chief executive for media and innovation at IMDA. “This has brought on a fresh wave of new experiences and uncovered growth opportunities for the region. As the market reopens and global players look to tap into the diverse stories in this region, we stand ready to celebrate novel ideas, talents and innovation, and to reimagine Asian storytelling for the global stage.”

A host of Asian distributors are participating at ATF Online+, with digital and linear players alike demonstrating a sustained need for content originated from the region.

“Although many projects were put on hold, especially during the first half of 2020 due to COVID-19, and the licensing of our formats aiming for original production in local Asian countries slowed down, our finished tape sales remained quite strong, especially in the Chinese market, with anime and drama series leading the sales,” reports Sayako Aoki, manager for sales and licensing in the international business development unit at Nippon TV.

Wincess Gonzalez, the sales head for Asia and Latin America at ABS-CBN Corporation, reports Japan and China have opened up to the company’s content in the last year, with new opportunities in Vietnam and Cambodia as well. “Even in China, where we did not expect to get censorship approval for one of our films within one year, the process was surprisingly quicker, and we hope to follow it up with more content soon, including our new slate of shorter dramas.”

But it has been a challenging year, concedes Roxanne J. Barcelona, VP of the worldwide division at GMA Network, with virtual markets proving to be less effective substitutes for physical gatherings when it comes to meeting clients. Meanwhile, “Almost all clients were hit badly by the pandemic, so business has slowed for clients acquiring TV rights,” she says. “This, plus the fact that our production of content was at a standstill for at least six months since March, resulting in less new content to offer clients. However, we have started production again, and we will have fresh content to offer in Q1 and Q2, 2021.”

As for the needs of clients, Nippon TV’s Aoki references “content for family viewing, lighthearted entertainment, nothing too dark or serious, and a proven success with a good track record in other territories. Of course, these are not new trends that suddenly popped up due to COVID-19, but rather are criteria that Asian buyers have always valued, and we also feel that the tendency or the preference toward ‘safe’ content is getting stronger.”

Barcelona says that transactions with streamers are on the rise, a view backed by Nippon TV’s Aoki. “Looking at the revenues raised from digital exploitation of our programs outside Japan, Nippon TV saw an increase of about 160 percent during the second quarter of 2020, compared to the same time last year. What is interesting to see is that the digital space is now working as an initial window to evaluate the performance of content. For example, our scripted drama formats such as Abandoned or Mother were first adapted for streaming on online platforms, but the series went on to also be acquired by traditional free-to-air channels, thanks to the positive feedback from viewers on digital platforms. In Southeast Asia, the mergers and expansions of various digital players have been accelerating, and the competition among the platforms is getting fierce. Local players are gaining power, international giants are trying to penetrate the market, and big players from China and Hong Kong are climbing up the ranking in each country. We are expecting that this competition will bring us better deals and more opportunities in offering Nippon TV content to viewers across Asia.”

Asian animation is also on the upswing, with demand for both properties developed or co-produced in the region. China’s Winsing Animation has seen substantial gains for its GG Bond property, with offline activities and consumer projects in Thailand, while GOGOBUS is faring well in South Korea and Indonesia, according to Amanda Hwang, overseas media specialist at the company, speaking on behalf of its sales team. “While the series is broadcasting on the TV stations, the toys of GOGOBUS catch people’s eyes and jumped to ‘best sales’ SKUs at Toys “R” Us in South Korea during this hard time.”

The ratings for Winsing’s shows have increased, Hwang adds, and the company stepped in to serve the needs of buyers with public-health content promoting the importance of good hygiene amid the pandemic.

CAKE arrives at ATF Online+ with a slate that includes Tish Tash, a collaboration between South Korean animation studio Studio Gale, Singapore-based August Media Holdings, Philippines’ media group Synergy88 Entertainment Media and U.K.-based Karrot Entertainment. “This has given Tish Tash a truly global approach,” says Julien Farçat, a sales manager at CAKE. Of the com­pany’s Asian ambitions, Farçat reports: “More and more platforms are launching, and we continue to grow our presence on SVOD and AVOD platforms in the region.”

Digital is indeed contributing to a robust kids’ content landscape, which has been less affected by COVID-19 delays as animation production has been able to continue remotely. “Our Bali studio has been working safely from home and we are lucky that our animation work can still be completed,” says Federico Vargas, VP of distribution at 9 Story Media Group. “We are actively developing new content even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as we were able to secure our entire staff with the technology they needed to support our pipelines within three weeks of our office closures in March.”

Vargas says there has been a “significant spike in demand for animation” from Asia over the last 12 months, “especially during lockdown, with consumption habits dramatically increasing. We’ve been busy over the past several months, responding to the demand across the Asia Pacific with new and existing partners.”

At Cyber Group Studios, Raphaelle Mathieu, senior VP of sales, acquisitions and new media, says that China has been a particularly fruitful market for the company over the last year. “During the past 12 months, we have strongly developed our relationships with China thanks to the strategic agreement we have put together with PMG, a key player in this territory,” Mathieu says. “We are extremely proud to say that Gigantosaurus, our big hit, has aired not once, not twice, but three times on CCTV this year, which is very rare for non-Chinese content. In addition, the series was part of the New Year parade/event on CCTV. It was the only non-Chinese show present on this occasion.”

Studio 100 Media has had a good year in Asia, according to Dorian Bühr, head of global distribution, especially in China, Korea, India, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand. “We have noticed an increase in demand coming especially from India. However, it’s our policy to target all territories across the region. We put a lot of effort into dealing with broadcasters from smaller Asian countries as well, and we have noticed an increasing demand from Southeast Asia, with Malaysia now coming into more focus.”

With kids spending more time at home amid COVID-19, “Parents are turning to readymade content in the form of educational shows, YouTube tutorials and online workbooks and activities,” says Vargas at 9 Story. “Consequently, the demand for content has never been greater.”

This has been especially true among digital services. “We’re pleased with the sustained demand for our content from the AVOD and SVOD platforms, with various volume and strategy discussions since the lockdown started,” Vargas notes.

“The nonlinear business is growing dramatically at the territory level, with new platforms increasing at quite an impressive pace,” adds Bühr. “Nevertheless, television remains our focus for the first window. It continues to be the most important medium for creating a high level of awareness of a property and thus remains crucial, especially for our merchandising and licensing partners. Additionally, we are exploring different ways of placing our content on nonlinear platforms, always considering the specific needs of the market. Of course, we are more cautious when selling a new show, especially regarding ‘free’ VOD content. However, depending on the region, AVOD can also coexist with television at the beginning of its life cycle without jeopardizing each other.”

The expanding nonlinear environment has boosted the prospects for drama distributors, who are finding new opportunities on channels and streaming platforms alike.

“We were fortunate to have finished principal photography for most dramas, including Roadkill, All Creatures Great and Small and It’s A Sin, so we have been able to move forward on deals with these titles,” notes Sabrina Duguet, executive VP for the Asia Pacific at all3media international. “Thanks to the rise of digital viewers, platforms have had to acquire more, and rapidly diversify their content offerings. Due also to U.S. dramas being delayed, we have been able to fill some of these demands with the dramas that we had already delivered.”

Asli Serim Guliyev, head of international sales at Calinos Entertainment, references sales to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and Pakistan amid the pandemic. “The habits and needs of the audience are shifting from traditional TV to more online. So, this makes buyers look for more younger-targeted series with shorter episodes. Also, due to bad clouds around, audiences would like to watch happier and lighter series and movies to get away from the current situation.”

Russia Television and Radio’s sales arm, Sovtelexport, has also had a good year in Asia. “Surprisingly, even in lockdown, we have managed to sign agreements with a few Chinese airlines!” says Julia Matyash, director of Sovtelexport. “It should be noted that the international industry is getting more and more into Russian content—the number of Asian channels and platforms interested in acquiring Russian titles is increasing, among which are companies from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia. These are new and complicated territories for us. We are just starting to establish relationships here. The mentioned-above territories demonstrated interest in our traditional classics—TV series Anna Karenina, And Quiet Flows the Don—and feature films.”

Of note, in Korea, Sovtelexport sold Ekaterina to Sangsaeng Broadcasting Corp. and Demon of the Revolution to CJ ENM. In addition, the TV channel WeLike will air Anna Karenina and the drama series Fyodor Dostoevsky. On the non-scripted front, Discovery Channel in Japan opted for Firing Range. Matyash is eyeing new opportunities with streaming platforms in China after developing relationships with iQIYI and Bilibili, among others.

The lingering impact of COVID-19 remains unclear as the world waits for a vaccine. But the shift to more digital viewing—and, Matyash notes, the growing need for younger-skewing content—continues apace.

“Since the pandemic is not slowing down and it seems like it will continue at least for one more year, content that is more suitable for digital rights would be the trend,” agrees Calinos’ Guliyev.

Streamers will continue to provide a range of opportunities for content owners, GMA’s Barcelona says. “OTT players are interested in local content from each region in order to attract local viewers. This made up for the slowdown in the syndication of free-TV rights due to the pandemic.” Plus, Barcelona adds, “Since OTT is a new avenue and not subject to censorship, content producers can experiment with storylines, plots and length. This will result in more diverse stories and content not traditionally produced for free to air.”

Across digital and free to air, there will remain a need for COVID-19-proof shows, Nippon TV’s Aoki observes. “Our latest format that we co-produced with The Story Lab called 9 Windows was planned and developed before the COVID-19 outbreak, and we were able to produce and air the show in September 2020 under strict production regulations. Just like this format, in the non-scripted world, it is likely that studio-based formats that maintain a fun atmosphere and a creative structure but with cost-effective measures and manageable production styles will continue to be a trend.”

Duguet at all3media sees growing interest in scripted formats. “Clients want safe, reliable content with track records, which will also help getting sponsors. Formats also allow a fast track to production. We have had great success with Miss S, the new Chinese scripted format adaptation of the globally popular Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, seen on Tencent and HBO Asia. Marzi, the Hindi adaptation of award-winning producer Two Brother Pictures’ thriller Liar, was also a success, and we are continuing to work with local producers to explore local production with international topics and exploit local content.”

ABS-CBN’s Gonzalez, who reports that schedule gaps led to clients acquiring more or relicensing titles, feels that there will be increased demand for foreign-language finished content, “especially those that have ticked the boxes for buyers in terms of ratings and budget.”

Vargas at 9 Story predicts the need for a “steady stream of new, diverse and informative kids’ content in Asia and worldwide as kids start to carve out their lives in this ‘new normal.’ There will be an increased focus on creating content to help kids and families navigate through these times, like our new special from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood entitled ‘Won’t You Sing Along With Me?’ The timely, music-filled 22-minute special helps address some of the challenges and disappointments ‘little tigers’ and their families may be experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I think we can expect to see a lot more of this in the next 12 months.”

And Cyber Group’s Mathieu is finding that “more than ever, in Asia comedy is definitely a universal flavor.”

Southeast Asia and its fast-moving digital landscape will also continue to provide new opportunities, Vargas adds. “Mobile video streaming has seen significant jumps in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand in the past year, surely continuing to fuel the need for more content.”