Asian Scene

Ahead of CASBAA, Mansha Daswani surveys some of Asia’s leading pay-TV channel brands about what they’re doing in the original-programming space.

The jury is still out on what impact Asia’s booming OTT sector will have on the traditional pay-TV landscape. Unlike the U.S., there’s no hard data on cord cutters or cord shavers. But one can’t help but notice that streaming platforms are getting very aggressive when it comes to exclusive, first-run rights to high-profile American shows. This development leaves the big pay-TV channel brands in an increasingly competitive—and expensive—rights-acquisition game. But that’s not the only factor compelling leading pan-regionals to up their local development slates. In a crowded landscape in which viewer engagement is paramount, channels have found that original programming made for Asia gives audiences more reasons to tune in.

After the U.S. import The Amazing Race was a strong performer, AXN commissioned its own version of the competition format a decade ago—making the Sony Pictures Television (SPT) Networks, Asia–owned channel a pioneer in local programming in the region. This year The Amazing Race Asia returns for a fifth season after a six-year hiatus.

For Virginia Lim, the senior VP and head of content, production and marketing at SPT Networks, Asia, the timing was right to reinvigorate the franchise with bigger and better challenges and, more importantly, a key social-media strategy.

“The show will be very focused on social conversations and multiscreen experiences,” Lim says. “Our viewers will be able to access exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and interact with the contestants via Facebook and Twitter during the series. There will be a lot more engagement, and viewers are going to feel much more involved in the show. They won’t just be watching on the screen; they will be part of the whole experience.”

Another international format that has turned into a significant Asian pay-TV franchise is Next Top Model. Fox Networks Group’s (FNG) female-skewing STAR World is gearing up for season five of Asia’s Next Top Model and has optioned the rights to do a regional version of The Voice.

“We produce pan-regional versions of these shows that are meant to be seen across various markets in Southeast Asia,” says Keertan Adyanthaya, executive VP of content and communications at FNG Asia. “What we look for in terms of new shows are the touchpoints: What are the things that audiences here would like? What kinds of international shows do they watch in the English language? And could that be something that cuts through to them if we create a version of it locally? That’s one of the key aspects we look for. And then we ask, Can this be expressed without language? Can people who don’t speak English fluently watch it?”

At NBCUniversal International Networks, the slate of English-language shows with a regional focus includes DIVA’s How Do I Look? Asia, which recently returned for a second outing. “We wanted to step it up in season two and take it to the next level,” says Scott Mackenzie, VP of channels for Asia. “We’ve done something that probably no one has done before in having the original U.S. version’s host, Jeannie Mai, come to Asia for the local edition. We made eight episodes featuring women from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, and then in each episode we paired Jeannie with a guest stylist from the region.”

How Do I Look? Asia is based on a show that first aired on the now-defunct Style Network in the U.S. Tapping into the resources of the broader NBCUniversal group is an important strategy for the Asian channels operation, Mackenzie says. “We’re always looking for ways we can partner with the other divisions of NBCUniversal to create something greater than what we would be able to do on our own.”

A similar approach is being employed at A+E Networks Asia, where local originals are being produced for the HISTORY and Lifetime channels. These include shows that were developed locally, such as Photo Face-Off, which returned for season three on HISTORY this September, and format-based properties such as MasterChef Asia.

“The majority of our original productions have been original ideas, developed locally,” says Michele Schofield, the senior VP of programming and production at A+E Networks Asia. “However, we have produced a few international formats: MasterChef Asia, My Ghost Story Asia and 10 Things You Don’t Know About. The advantage of working with our own or A+E Networks’ original formats is that we have more control over what we can do with the creative and how we can offer sponsorships or integrations to advertisers. The advantage of working with an international format is that it needs no explanation; it has an established credibility for both the audience and the advertisers.”

One area that has started to expand is original drama for the pan-regional general-entertainment brands. And not surprisingly, given the history of its parent company, HBO Asia is setting itself up as a pioneer in the local drama space. One of the premium channel’s biggest successes so far is the thriller series Halfworlds, recently renewed for a second season.

Halfworlds was developed with the scale to cross territories, so we were extremely pleased with the critical acclaim the first season received from the Asian media and the cult following it established among Southeast Asian fans, who devoured the series on air, online and on social media,” says Erika North, the head of programming and production at HBO Asia.

The series was conceptualized in-house, North says, with its themes rooted in Asia’s diverse cultures and mythologies. Playing to such a broad region, however, comes with its own set of challenges.

“Our primary motivation is to tell local stories that resonate across Asian territories,” North explains. “While there’s no cookie-cutter approach to engaging the region, we have discovered that genres like action and the supernatural sit very well with our audiences.”

FNG is also looking at English-language scripted opportunities, but Adyanthaya concedes that it is a challenge. “Scripted requires a lot of writing talent, which is lacking here in Asia at the moment. There’s great writing talent in the local languages, but English writing talent is lagging behind just a little.”

Meanwhile, Adyanthaya’s colleague Cora Yim, as senior VP and head of Chinese entertainment at FNG Asia, is eager to tap into the writing talent in markets such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and China as she steps up the originals portfolio at STAR Chinese Movies (SCM). “We are developing and lining up around one to two mini­series every year,” Yim reveals. “The budget would be around $500,000 to $1 million per episode. We’re aiming for five to eight episodes per series. We have three in development, all in the Chinese language, either Cantonese or Mandarin.”

Chinese-language drama is also on the horizon for HBO Asia, which has entered into a pact with the China Movie Channel (CMC) to co-produce an anthology of martial-arts movies.

“CMC is China’s only TV network dedicated to movies and has been increasingly more focused on original productions,” says Beibei Fan, the senior VP of new business at HBO Asia. “CMC has 2.8 million subscribers on its premium subscription channels, and its basic-cable channel reaches over 1 billion people. That is a potential increase of 1 billion viewers for us. So when HBO Asia started looking at producing original content in China, CMC was a natural choice. In addition, a co-production like this will truly benefit both sides and bring about cultural exchanges.”

Fan describes the expansion into Chinese-language content as a natural progression for HBO Asia. “China is a big market, and many [viewers] in our territories understand the language. After all, good storytelling isn’t limited by language, especially when we work with partners to produce content from the development stage and ensure the storytelling, art direction and pace, as well as the marketing and promotion, are catered to international audiences’ viewing habits and tastes, especially our audience in Asia.”

Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN) Asia is also developing content in multiple languages, with a key focus on shows being “culturally relevant” to individual markets, says Paras Sharma, the senior VP for MTV, Comedy Central and digital media in the region.

“Our programming comes at three different levels,” Sharma explains. These include international content from the parent company in the U.S., regional content that will travel across different markets, and hyper-targeted local shows. The Show from MTV Korea, for example, can air on the Southeast Asian feed, while Yogakuex Express is made solely with the MTV Japan audience in mind.

“One of the key things for MTV as a brand is that it’s not just about localization,” Sharma explains. “It’s also about culturalization. It’s not just translation or interpretation. It has to be culturally relevant for that particular market.”

Turner also employs a multipronged approach across its various Asian assets. Its Japanese business, for example, produces a wealth of local content for TABI Channel (about 100 hours a year) and MONDO TV (about 200 hours annually). Cartoon Network, meanwhile, is investing in a variety of originals, some focused on specific markets and others geared toward regional or even international rollout. Exchange Student Zero came out of Australia, rolled out across Asia and is making its way to Europe and Latin America. Roll No. 21 was produced for the Indian feed of Cartoon Network.

“We want our brand to be consistent in multiple markets, like any other major franchised brand,” says Mark Eyers, the chief content officer and senior VP for kids’ networks in the Asia Pacific at Turner and content head for Cartoon Network, Boomerang and Toonami. “So we want 80 percent of our content to work everywhere, and 20 percent is local.”

Eyers mentions the shorts series Lamput as a good example of a title that has international legs. “It was created by one of our partner creator-directors in India. We’re using that all over AsiaPac and sharing it with the rest of the world. It was made in India with a global outlook.”

In addition to creating local engagement, Asian originals are allowing brands to be far more creative with their ad-sales opportunities. “These days more than ever, it’s important to work together with brands to find ways to incorporate them in an entertaining way,” says Mackenzie at NBCUniversal.

“Audiences are very savvy and they can understand if something is incongruous or not a good fit. We work very closely with the production companies to ensure that any integrations or brand placements in shows are sensible, fit with the DNA of a production and are done in a way that doesn’t take away from the creative integrity of the product.”

Brands on board for How Do I Look? Asia, for example, include Zalora, an online fashion retailer, and AirAsia. “We see continuing interest from brands to associate their products with celebrities and well-told stories,” Mackenzie adds.

“More than a ‘spots-and-sponsorship’ approach, advertisers see a lot of value in having the opportunity to integrate into original content,” agrees A+E Networks’ Schofield. “We take our original ideas to advertisers at the inception stage to allow them the opportunity to associate with the program. We also meet advertisers and agencies on a regular basis to understand their goals and objectives. We can then keep them in mind as we’re developing our editorial.”

SPT Networks’ Lim agrees that brand partners should be brought on early for integrations to work well. “Sponsors are looking to stretch their dollars further. We have to be highly creative in how we integrate their brands into our productions, while of course maintaining the very high quality and integrity of the programs that will appeal to our viewers. We work with our partners from the concept stage, so they are part of the show’s vision right from the beginning. We integrate them seamlessly. For season five of The Amazing Race Asia, we are very fortunate to have attracted some of the biggest sponsors: Indonesia’s tourism ministry, Garuda Indonesia, Grab [a transport app] and Great Eastern [an insurance company]. Our approach is to integrate their products and offer them a service that delivers their brand and the promises of their brand across platforms, reaching viewers wherever they are.”

VIMN’s Sharma notes the importance of being able to deliver local, regional and international solutions for clients’ advertising needs. For MTV World Stage, a live concert held in Malaysia last year, VIMN partnered with local telco Celcom on a multiplatform campaign that was “built with local activation and local engagement in mind,” Sharma says. On the other hand, “The MTV Show, a pan-regional pop-culture show, has both regional and local sponsors. The program is built in a modular fashion in that there are branded segments or content-integration opportunities, as well as activations for a sponsor at a local level. At the same time, it can travel regionally for a regional sponsor. Then around MTV EMA [Europe Music Awards], we have Vivo as a sponsor for China. So we create programming around EMA that is targeted for the sponsor, keeping in mind their requirements in China.”

FNG’s Adyanthaya says that it’s essential for channel executives to meet with brands to identify the “communication problems that we can solve. And how do we go about solving them? We sit with their brand teams and with their marketing teams and brainstorm ideas for how we can seamlessly bring in the brands and exhibit their key traits to audiences, and then we execute. Brands like Subaru, Zalora and TRESemmé are repeat customers for us. They’ve supported [Asia’s Next Top Model] season after season, with increased outlays every year.”

Adyanthaya says that FNG Asia is eager to continue expanding its local content slate. “At the moment we’re doing one [English-language regional] every year. We want to do many more. This year we have plans to do at least three different shows and hopefully more.”

To boost its development efforts, FNG held the first Fox Formats Lab this year in Singapore. “It was intended to fire up the local ecosystem of production. We had international producers from our group companies—National Geographic, FOX, etc.—come and do seminars with first-time producers and even experienced producers, telling them what we look for when we identify projects and how we go about constructing, pre-producing and finally producing those shows. There were four different seminars. We ended up commissioning a few shows off the back of that.”

Talent development is also a mantra on the Chinese-language side at FNG. The company has co-produced 12 movies over the last three years through its Go Local! production scheme, working with producers in markets such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. “We would like to do more, especially with China, in the film-production area,” says Yim. “We may announce a new talent-production scheme at the end of this year to cultivate new talent. One of the projects we are considering is bringing a Hollywood scriptwriter to work with talent in China on new drama series. We want to raise the bar in the production level and quality.”

HBO Asia, meanwhile, has partnered with the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore on an initiative to train local drama talent “and provide a platform to showcase them beyond Singapore,” North says.

Turner’s Eyers mentions the importance of fostering aspiring talent at Cartoon Network. Via its “digital-first” strategy, whereby the platform can test concepts as shorts before committing to full series, Turner can work with a broader pool of talent. “[Producing] a half-hour or 11-minute pilot [takes] a lot of money and time,” Eyers explains. “It’s not so much about the money. It just takes a lot of time, and at the end you might say, That’s not right for us! With the digital-first strategy, we can do multiple little shorts and content with multiple creators, and we have the platforms to test them in real-world situations, not just a focus group in a fish bowl. We can take the shorts and stick them on the channel or our branded sites and platforms, as well as in front of the paywall on our new apps such as Cartoon Network Anything and Cartoon Network Watch and Play, and we can see how audiences react. We learn from that. That’s exciting to creators as well.”

At SPT Networks, Lim has her eye on more English-language regionals, additional market-specific commissions like Cash Cab Philippines and opportunities with its Asian entertainment channels. At GEM, for example, SPT worked with joint-venture partner Nippon TV on the original We Are Asia. Lim says, “We’re going to do more wherever we can.”