AsiaPac OTT Platforms Take Center Stage at ATF


HOOQ’s Peter Bithos, iflix’s Mark Britt, Viu’s Janice Lee and Amazon’s James Farrell discussed their acquisition and commissioning strategies and the key to finding success in Asia in a panel at the Asia TV Forum.

The panel, “The Evolution of Storytelling,” took place during a pre-market day of conferences at the Asia TV Forum, which officially kicks off in Singapore on Wednesday. It was moderated by Robert Gilby, a board member of the IMDA and chairman of the advisory board of the Singapore Media Festival.

Gilby kicked off the session by asking the panelists about their overall content strategies.

Farrell, head of content for the Asia Pacific at Amazon Prime, said that at the top level, some content travels universally, notably top-rated global series and big movies, which consumers will expect when they access Amazon. Beyond that, it’s about “creating value and stickiness” with original content.

Lee, managing director of PCCW Media Group, which operates Viu, said the platform is focusing on Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East. As such, it is offering “pan-regional content that appeals to a lot of these clusters,” including shows from Japan and Korea. In the last year, it has begun producing content locally. “By the end of this year we are producing about 170 episodes of shows, about 24 titles, and we’re looking to double that next year.”

Britt, the co-founder and CEO of iflix, echoed Farrell’s views, adding that if you have “enough of a portfolio across enough segments, you can generate enough data to learn and understand what works. Some of the things that don’t work will surprise the hell out of you.” He added, “Linear pay television is an old metaphor.” Being an on-demand millennial model requires more experimentation to see what’s working. “It’s an expensive way of getting there.”

Bithos serves as CEO of HOOQ, which has always had global content as part of its core proposition alongside Asian stories. “We match local content with Hollywood content. We try to do that deeper and in a more extensive way than any other player. Any country we operate in in Southeast Asia, we really invest in the local community, local content. Increasingly, originals play a large part of that.”

He added that a key factor is, “Where do you get your best return on investment relative to performance? Some things will surprise you about that journey. Increasingly it’s a combination of what drives viewing and engagement, but also what drives viewing and engagement with the highest returns.”

Bithos then talked about the HOOQ Filmmakers Guild, which was set up to discover new talent. “Telling great stories that haven’t been told is really hard,” he said. “We have about 20 projects right now, in various stages. About half a dozen of those come out the HOOQ Filmmakers Guild, an open call for young, up-and-coming talent that couldn’t get their stories told. We had over 400 submissions across Asia; we are producing six pilots out of those submissions. We’ll see how many series we actually produce.”

A key lesson learned, he noted, is that the whole ecosystem is learning to tell stories in a new way. “We want the edginess and production quality of a movie, but we want the engagement format of an episodic. That doesn’t exist in Asia today.”

Amazon has also been investing in high-quality originals in both India and Japan. “In India, the theory was, we have a lot of great partners on the licensing side; what our service was lacking was premium original local content,” Farrell said. The idea was to go to top Bollywood companies to make shows to fill that gap. The first was Inside Edge and more are premiering in the coming months. “That was almost like trying to create a new medium. It’s been tough; it’s tough to get actors to commit to multiple seasons” and to get production schedules in place in order to deliver season after season. The payoff, however, is worth it, he said.

In Japan, the success has been on the variety side, especially with content featuring top comedians.

Britt said that at iflix, “We went to the creative community and said, Go crazy.” The platform has also been experimenting significantly with live shows, notably the simulcast of the Mayweather/McGregor bout, a recent eSports competition and streaming a concert with Korean boy band BTS. “Every single one of those tests has broken records,” he said, added that iflix will “keep learning and keep pushing the boundaries.”

Viu is working with local talent in many markets, such as Indonesia, where it held a festival focused on female storytellers. “We’re looking to discover talent,” Lee said. “The fresh content complements the wide range of pan-regional content we have.”

Gilby asked the panelists about the efforts that haven’t worked well. Farrell at Amazon mentioned original documentaries out of Japan. “It’s expensive to make super high-quality documentaries. We still look for documentaries, but licensing is fine.”

Britt said there’s a big shift happening in the industry when it comes to the value of licensed content versus impactful originals. “Scaling original productions is hard.” He tipped his hat to Netflix for its pace in delivering original shows of a consistently high quality.

He mentioned an iflix original stand-up comedy series out of Malaysia, which did very well. The platform wants to expand it to 12 other markets, “That’s probably a 12-month exercise,” he said.

Another challenge with originals was discussed by HOOQ’s Bithos. “The writers and to a certain extent the directors, they are so ingrained in what they have been briefed on in the past. It’s either a two-hour movie that has a happy ending or 100 episodes shot at a very, very low budget that doesn’t stray from the mainstream. There’s this huge gap in between. We say, We want to do something interesting that lasts several seasons and has a story arc and complex characters. We find it way harder than expected to get that output. The iterations that we’re now having to go through on scripts and concepts is a lot more [than we were expecting.]”

Iflix’s Britt brought up a point about the shifting barriers between original and commissioned in the global content landscape. “The differentiation between direct commissioning versus genuine originals versus exclusive first-run licensing and wrapping your brand around it and calling it original or just third-party licensing—that whole world is getting very messy. It confuses us in terms of how we think about our commissioning strategy.”

The conversation then moved to licensed content and what role that plays on services, especially as rights owners, including Disney, Fox and HBO, roll out their own streaming platforms.

Licensed content WILL remain significant for HOOQ, Bithos said, given the challenges of scaling up originals.

For Britt, it’s less about licensed versus original and more about Western versus local.

Viu’s Lee, meanwhile, said it’s about what’s widely available in the market versus what isn’t. “We won’t go into English-language original content, because there’s already so much of it available.”

Farrell said that at Amazon, “licensed content is one of the more straightforward decisions we make every day. People love Mission Impossible and Grey’s Anatomy and Salman Khan movies. The vast majority will [continue to] be licensed.”