Golden Drama

This article originally appeared in the MIPTV 2013 issue of TV Asia Pacific.
Audiences in Germany are tuning in to RTL II for a dose of Bollywood glamour. Across the Middle East and Africa, Filipino fantasy series and Malaysian soaps are popping up on television schedules. Korean soaps are now making inroads in Latin America, a region that has its own prolific drama-production business. There’s even a Singaporean-Malaysian drama being considered for a U.S. adaptation. It’s safe to say that a part of the world that has historically been known solely for its documentary and animation exports is looking to be a major player in the increasingly international business of drama.
“We continue to receive growing demand from all territories,” reports Roxanne Barcelona, the VP of GMA Worldwide, the acquisition and distribution arm of Filipino broadcaster GMA Network.
“We see opportunities in Europe and Latin America,” notes Han-Sang Jo, the team leader at KBS Media, which represents the significant scripted output of the Korean public broadcaster, KBS, including the hit series Winter Sonata, Full House, Boys Over Flowers and Autumn in My Heart. “Korean dramas do not have a huge fanbase [in those markets] yet, but the fans are really enthusiastic and well-organized, so we expect the [demand for series] will grow gradually.”


Not surprisingly, Asian distributors of drama have seen their greatest successes on the home front with broadcasters within the region. Korean series, in particular, have enjoyed tremendous success among Asian channels, part of the so-called Korean Wave that has swept across the continent over the last few years. “Our strongest market is female viewers in Asia,” confirms Jo. Audiences have responded to the “strong and addictive romance that can be found commonly in most Korean series, even in thrillers and medical dramas,” Jo says.
On offer at MIPTV will be Iris 2, the sequel to the big-budget espionage drama that scored close to a 30-percent share when it aired in Korea in 2009, as well as the romantic comedy Ad Genius Lee Tae Baek. KBS also has a number of period dramas to offer broadcasters, including The Princess’ Man.
With its slate of dramas, KBS Media has been able to take over slots that were previously home to Latin American tele­novelas in a number of Asian markets, as well as make deep advances into neighboring Japan, despite the two countries’ historical differences. Indeed, Jo notes, “Our sales heavily depend on the Japanese market, so the politically fluctuating situation between Korea and Japan can affect sales.”
Sales to other parts of Asia—Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines—have been more stable. “People appreciate fundamental values like family, love and trust and they are reflected in [our] stories. Korean dramas appeal to viewers of almost all ages, from teenagers to seniors.”
GMA, too, has seen its strongest sales within Asia, according to Barcelona, with viewers responding to the “universal themes of love, family, relationships, conflict [and] justice,” found in titles like Indio, Forever and Temptation of Wife, three of the company’s highlighted titles at MIPTV. “Family sagas, fantasy stories and relationship dramas have particularly strong demand,” she says.
Boosting GMA’s business outside of Asia, notably on the African continent, is one of Barcelona’s main priorities. “We have extended our reach into several territories in the past year,” she says. “As our reputation with our new clientele grows, so will our productivity within these new territories. Our ability to produce and maintain an extensive library of quality programming facilitates our success as well.”
The Middle East is also proving to be a lucrative new territory for many drama distributors from Asia, including Zee Entertainment Enterprises, which has seen an increase in demand for its Indian daily serials and movie output. Nitin Michael, the assistant VP of content sales for the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan at Zee, says that the company is re-versioning Indian programming for this part of the world, principally by speeding up the storytelling in extended-run Indian dramas. The company is also eyeing other emerging markets on the heels of licensing the historical drama Jhansi ki Rani (Queen of Jhansi) to Kazakhstan.

At MIPTV, Zee will be touting Zee Bollywood, which it bills as a one-stop shop for platforms interested in Indian content. Zee Bollywood features more than 100,000 hours of programming across a number of genres. Scripted highlights include the family drama Sapne Suhane Ladakpan Ke and Phir Subah Hogi, as well as a number of Bollywood movies available in English, Hindi and Indian regional languages.

At the forefront of the Asian drama-distribution business are the region’s biggest broadcasters, which are producing these shows for their own domestic markets. They are not, however, the only ones who see the potential of scripted stories from this part of the world. U.S.-based Mannam Media, for example, has built its entire business on selling Korean programming to North America and Latin America.
“I realized there was a demand but no one had yet really bridged the communication gap to fulfill that need, especially in Latin America,” says Sebastian Choy, the president of Mannam Media, on why he started representing Korean content. “With the increase in platforms for the general public to access and share content, awareness of Korean programming has definitely increased,” he observes. “Plus the recent worldwide Psy phenomenon”—the singer behind the viral video megahit “Gangnam Style”—“has also made an impact,” Choy says.
Telemundo Internacional similarly sees the potential for Asian drama in Latin America, having taken on the rights to a number of properties from Korean broadcaster SBS. “A few years ago, when the Korean series boom was not yet a reality, we screened many leading Korean series and realized the quality of their scripts, production values and overall acting,” says Xavier Aristimuño, the senior VP of sales and business development for Asia at Telemundo Internacional. “Based on our long relationship with SBS, we started planting the Korean TV content seed all over Latin America and Spain, building an interest for the product.”
With a slate that includes He’s Beautiful, My Girl, Secret Garden, Brilliant Legacy, My Husband’s Lover and Stairway to Heaven, “the response [from buyers] has been quite impressive,” Aristimuño says. “Customers are not only anticipating the next Korean title, but also successfully broadcasting reruns.”
There are, however, challenges in selling these shows outside of Asia, given the dramatic stylistic differences between Korean soap operas and Latin American telenovelas. “The most obvious difference is the length of the [Korean] series, which average a total of 20 episodes,” Aristimuño says. “Also, the overall pace and development of the stories are more aligned with Asian cultures.”
Mannam’s Choy backs up that perspective. “There are some cultural differences. Korean dramas are generally considered family programming and therefore lack the type of sex appeal that is prevalent in Latin telenovelas.”
Differences aside, Aristimuño has found many commonalities between the Latin American programming staple and Korea’s number one content export. “Korean series, as well as most of the Latin American telenovelas, have excellent photography, direction and locations. Even if [the series] are produced in opposite regions of the world, the formula remains the same: a complex love relationship between pure souls and a web of evil or friendly characters helping, or complicating, their love story.”
Another novela distributor that sees huge potential with Asian scripted content is Latin Media Corporation, which represents the rights to a number of series from Malaysia. Its most successful series thus far have been Bola Cinta, Temptation of Love and Dr. Love. Like the Korean serials, Malaysian shows do tend to have shorter runs than similar products from Latin America or India, but the basic formula is often the same—love story, tragedy, happy ending.
José Escalante, the CEO of Latin Media, notes that the biggest challenge in selling Malaysian scripted content has been a lack of awareness. “These dramas are fairly new to the international market,” he says. “There is that uncertainty by international clients about whether they will do well. However, once they realize that our stories are universal, they will start to gain trust in the product.”
Escalante sees the greatest opportunities in the Middle East, which shares an Islamic culture with Malaysia. He is also optimistic about driving sales into China, Singapore, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka.
A new player in the business of Asia drama production is Singapore, which churns out both Mandarin- and English-language properties for the domestic and regional market. One of the most high profile has been The Kitchen Musical, which racked up two nominations at the International Emmy Awards last year and has been praised for being dramatically different from most of the scripted shows coming out of Asia. Billed as Glee meets Hell’s Kitchen, the series is distributed by Hong Kong–based Lightning International. It was shot in English in Singapore and Malaysia and aired across Southeast Asia on AXN, among other broadcasters. In addition, the format has been optioned in the U.S. and Italy, and sold into Vietnam and India.
Formats in general are an emerging area of exploitation for Asian drama distributors. Korean series in particular have translated well within the continent; GMA’s Temptation of Wife, for example, is based on an SBS title of the same name. KBS notes that it is selling the scripts to most of its titles, as is GMA Worldwide.
International distributors, too, are looking to Asia as a new region for scripted format deals. Telemundo has already experienced some success on this front, with novela adaptations in the works in India, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam.
FremantleMedia is eyeing the chance to step up its scripted-production business in Asia, after having built a strong portfolio of daily dramas in Europe. Donna Wiffen, the head of worldwide drama at FremantleMedia, says that the company looked to its European successes when it first began developing its scripted business in Asia.
“There are these scripted reality shows in Germany that run on RTL in the afternoons, from about 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day. We started looking at those about two and a half years ago and asked, Is there anywhere we could go with something like that?”
Wiffen and her team held a joint workshop for FremantleMedia’s local production teams in India, Indonesia and Singapore to try to come up with scripted-reality concepts that would appeal to regional audiences. “For us [scripted reality] was a really good way to get into markets where FremantleMedia isn’t known for its drama,” Wiffen explains.
The concept that came out of that initial workshop was Confrontation. It has since been produced in Indonesia and, more recently, India, where it has been a hit for Colors. The series is set up like a talk show, with two people engaged in some kind of conflict, airing out their differences while two counselors mediate to determine who is the wronged party. “We have those types of shows in the U.S. and U.K.—we have Jeremy Kyle and Jerry Springer, where real people will expose themselves and some of the social issues they are facing. People wouldn’t volunteer to do that in India. [Confrontation is] a way of accessing that material, which is interesting and dramatic and tells some great stories, and has a bit of a moral message as well.”
Developing the concept in Asia, with local production teams, was crucial, Wiffen says. She notes that importing European scripted concepts to the region has proven to be a challenge, “especially when the cultural references are so different. We would rather just take the learnings from those [European] shows, take the processes if you like, but not actually take the editorial content. We’ve found that [daily drama series] are so culturally specific and localized in their tonality, adaptations very rarely work.”
Indonesia, India and Singapore, where FremantleMedia has production hubs, are the company’s current priority markets for scripted content, Wiffen say. The company also has an eye on the Philippines and, eventually, China.
Also on the horizon for a number of companies is pan-regional co-productions. One already in the works is Serangoon Road, set in 1960s Singapore, which is a partnership between HBO Asia and the Australian public broadcaster ABC TV. Given the cultural similarities across the region and the ability of Asian dramas to travel seamlessly across the continent, co-productions are likely to become as important in the Asian drama business as they are in U.S. and Europe.