Passion for Drama

Asian drama is a hot commodity within the region and increasingly popular around the world.

The digital upstarts arriving in Asia are not just battling it out for access to the Hollywood studios’ deep libraries. The region’s new players are well aware that to make it in Asia, they need a lot of local content. That demand, combined with the emergence of platforms like DramaFever, Viki and others bringing Asian content to the world, means that purveyors of scripted content from the region are finding a wealth of new opportunities.

Of course, it’s not just OTT players who have realized the value of Asian drama. Sony Pictures Television (SPT) Networks, Asia, whose business has largely been driven by English-language entertainment on AXN, has made a big bet on the regional content business. First it launched ONE in order to tap into the ever-present demand for Korean content. The channel has proven to be a strong performer in territories like Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. “Recently we brought the star of The Gang Doctor into Jakarta and Singapore and we engaged almost 10,000 fans during this two-day trip,” says Hui Keng Ang, senior VP and general manager at SPT Networks, Asia. Following the success of ONE, SPT partnered with leading Japanese broadcaster Nippon TV for GEM, a pay-TV channel that is delivering hits like Death Note across the region. HBO Asia has also dipped its toes into the Asian-drama business, releasing its third scripted original, Halfworlds, earlier this year.

Japan and Korea were the first to prove that dramas made for one specific market in Asia could actually travel across the region—and then around the world.

Within the continent, Japanese dramas have had the greatest resonance in Taiwan and Hong Kong, according to Shigeko “Cindy” Chino, senior director of international business development at Nippon TV. Comic-based stories such as Death Note and The Files of the Young Kindaichi have been strong sellers, Chino notes, alongside female-led dramas like The Pride of the Temp and Mother.

One of Korea’s biggest producers and exporters of content, CJ E&M Corporation, has found Japan and Southeast Asia to be particularly fruitful when it comes to scripted acquisitions. “Historical and romantic comedies are steady sellers,” reports Ellen Oh, international sales executive at the company.

Southeast Asian markets have also opened up to the dramas being produced by the Philippines’s two major broadcasters: GMA Network and ABS-CBN Corporation.

“GMA’s artists are well known to the audience and have developed their own fan base in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia,” says Roxanne Barcelona, VP of GMA Worldwide.

Buyers in those countries have much to choose from, with GMA producing at least 24 new dramas a year across the melodrama, fantasy and romance categories. The melodramas have become particularly popular, Barcelona says. “Viewer profiles in Southeast Asia are similar to the Philippines, meaning housewives from the ages of 25 to 45. Our dramas attract them because they capture their emotions and they can identify with our stories.”

ABS-CBN’s biggest buyers hail from Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and, more recently, Thailand. “Strong family ties and traditional family values with very strong romantic [elements] are recurring themes in our dramas, and Asians find these close to home,” says Evelyn “Leng” Raymundo, the head of integrated acquisitions and international distribution at ABS-CBN. “Most of our buyers also find that our dramas are somehow an ideal cross between the emotional fire of Latin telenovelas and the quiet intensity of Asian dramas.”

Also looking to deliver a cross between Latin American soaps—which have long found fans in Asia—and local drama is Mexico’s TV Azteca, which partnered with Malaysia’s Astro for adaptations of three of its shows, to be produced by Global Station. The pact began with A Love to Remember, which TV Azteca’s distribution arm, Comarex, has been introducing to broadcasters across Asia. “We already have numerous countries interested in the Malay version of A Love to Remember and we have several offers on the table that are still under discussion,” says Martha Contreras, the head of sales for Asia at TV Azteca/Comarex. “We are delighted with the response so far.”

Global Station is now at work on adapting Fierce Angel, and Contreras says the version for Astro will give international markets “an opportunity to get to know and see Malaysia and all that it has to offer.”

TV Azteca is looking to replicate the Astro model elsewhere. “We are in the process of closing several other partnerships with TV stations in Southeast Asia to localize our formats for audiences in the region,” Contreras says. Those local versions will then be repped by Comarex.

South Asian content owners, among them Zee Entertainment Enterprises, have also found opportunities to sell their scripted shows, produced primarily for Indian consumption, to other markets. “Most countries from the Asia-Pacific region have a natural affinity for Indian dramas,” says Sunita Uchil, the global head of syndication and chief revenue officer for international ad sales at Zee. So do the Middle East and Africa, Uchil adds.

CJ is aiming to extend its scripted tentacles well beyond the region in the year ahead. Arriving at Asia TV Forum with a slate that includes the romantic comedy Bubble Gum, CJ “is planning to travel further to India and beyond,” Oh says. “We believe OTT VOD will become the right vehicle to take us there.”

For Chino at Nippon TV, Turkey and Australia are key growth opportunities, as is the digital space. “Digital rights account for the largest portion of our revenue now,” she says. “This was not the case just a year ago. Although it is a challenge for us to keep up to the digital-driven speed, it is also a new chance for us that opens up opportunities for our dramas to travel to the Western world.”

Another way that can happen is via scripted formats, Chino adds. “We are currently negotiating with various parties, including broadcasters and digital platforms, on how we can create locally adapted versions [of Nippon TV shows]. Such local versions will give us the momentum to reach out to the other parts of the world.”

At ATF, highlights include the crime series High&Low and Higanbana, the female-led A Girl’s Breakfast and the suspenseful Angel Heart.

GMA’s Barcelona is aiming to capitalize on a growing interest in Asian drama from markets around the world, with key offerings that include the brand-new launches Little Nanay, Tila Madrasta and Dangwa, and proven performers such as Beautiful Strangers and The Half Sisters. “Furthermore, we will continue to strengthen our presence in Africa, which we have maintained in the last five years,” Barcelona says.

Barcelona also sees the potential for scripted-format sales for Filipino content. “In fact, we sold two drama formats to two Asian broadcasters. At MIPCOM this year, we received quite a number of inquiries from several broadcasters and production companies regarding our scripted formats. These companies are in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”

Zee is bringing to ATF a broad mix that includes the crime drama Agent Raghav: Crime Branch, fronted by well-known actor Sharad Kelkar, and the historical series Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani, among others. Uchil is looking to expand Zee’s syndication business further in Asia and the Middle East—where the broadcaster also has a presence with its pay-TV channels. She is also looking at opportunities presented by digital players, both in Asia and around the world. “We are exploring and understanding the medium and believe in arriving at a mutual value where both the content and the pipe can evolve together while providing the consumer with easy and seamless access,” Uchil says. With a catalogue of 210,000 hours across a broad range of content, Zee is able to offer a variety of options for different time slots, Uchil adds.

Africa has become a key market for ABS-CBN. “We have established a strong presence in Africa since 2002, with Ugandans as our dramas’ most avid fans,” Raymundo says. “This year marked a breakthrough when we were able to penetrate Central Asia, Southeast Europe and even Latin America, whose telenovelas we continue to import.”

As the business of drama becomes even more international, expect to see more borders come down for Asia’s top scripted exporters.