OTT Blossoms Across Asia

Mansha Daswani explores how a new crop of streaming platforms is rapidly transforming the media business across Asia.

The battle lines are being drawn fast and furious as digital upstarts compete for the disposable income and spare time of consumers. From partnerships with telcos to exclusive content deals to alignments with top-end talent, the OTT landscape has become fiercely competitive very quickly.

“The pace of change is rapid,” observes Vivek Couto, co-founder and executive director of the research firm and consultancy Media Partners Asia (MPA). “This is a business that changes every two to three quarters in terms of content consumption, market share and competitive dynamics.”

Couto notes that it took years for pay TV to reach a level of maturity in the region, both regarding infrastructure and content. In the last few years, however, “apart from India, most of the investment hasn’t gone into satellite-based telev­ision distribution or even legacy cable; it’s gone into people building broadband businesses, particularly across mobile. As those businesses grow and they look to sell more products, the role of video has become huge.”

Telecommunications companies are indeed betting big on video as a subscription driver. Singtel partnered with Sony Pictures Television and Warner Bros. Entertainment to roll out HOOQ. A raft of providers have inked deals with iflix (which recently received a $90 million financing injection to fund expansion), among them PLDT in the Philippines and Telekom Malaysia. Globe in the Philippines is working with Netflix. Pay-TV operators are also getting in on the OTT action. Malaysia’s Astro, for example, has Tribe. And Hong Kong’s PCCW Media, owner of Hong Kong’s now TV IPTV platform, has been rolling out Viu, a service that has emerged as one of the most successful competitors to global giants Netflix and Amazon, which are now almost everywhere across Asia.

“Viu was launched to capitalize on the growing demand for flexible entertainment services on the go, especially among the millennials,” says Janice Lee, the managing director of PCCW Media Group. In operation for about 18 months, Viu is now available in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, with a Thailand launch slated for later this year. According to Lee, Viu has more than 4 million unique users across the region.

Partnerships with mobile phone operators have been central to the Viu strategy, as they “resolve any potential problem with payment, for example, lack of credit-card usage, as well as ensure a good content delivery network,” Lee reports. Partnerships are in place with Singtel in Singapore, Telkom Indonesia and Vodafone in India, among others.

“Access is one of the biggest barriers to entry for a digital product such as HOOQ,” says Krishnan Rajagopalan, chief content and distribution officer and co-founder of the HOOQ platform. “Particularly in the emerging markets, credit-card penetration rates are relatively [low], thus hindering access. Partnering with telcos allows a big part of the population to have access to a payment option where they already have an existing relationship.”

“You’re almost asking telecom operators to subsidize your entry into the market,” says MPA’s Couto on the role telcos are playing for online services. “Particularly in markets like Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, you’re getting a reach from these telco operators you could never get with pay TV.”

It is indeed in those Southeast Asian markets mentioned by Couto where OTT seems to be making the most noise given the sheer number of competitors. HOOQ, iflix, Viu and now Tribe are all either established in those markets or are arriving soon. Netflix is widely there too. It’s in the content offering, the user experience, and price, where these services are looking to carve out a niche for themselves.

Leading the space in terms of buzz is iflix, which counts European giants Liberty Global and Sky among its investors. Like Viu, iflix is faring particularly well among millennial audiences. “A lot of the Western shows that target that sort of audience are doing well,” says James Bridges, global head of content partnerships at iflix. “Initially we found high English-literate, tech-savvy, young male early adopters driving [usage]. Now we’ve had a couple of massive successes with Korean dramas. That’s the sweet spot we were hoping to be in—a great core of Western content that is subtitled in all the local languages we’re in, and then a couple of really strong early-window, straight-after-broadcast local TV series from say the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, and a regional underpinning of great Korean content. We think the split will be about 40 percent Western, 20 to 30 percent Korean and the balance local over time. So we will shift to a more Asian focus, a more Asian balance, but only very slightly. We know the Western content is very important.”

Key Hollywood imports include Mr. Robot and The Magicians, from iflix’s first-run, exclusive pact with NBCUniversal. Locally, a key growth area is Filipino content, Bridges says, mentioning the GMA hit Encantadia. “We get it the day after broadcast,” Bridges notes. “It’s been a massive hit for us. There’s no sophisticated catch-up service in the Philippines, so they can now see the show in great quality the next day on their phone. We’re trying to get into the exclusive space across all local and regional acquisitions.”

Next up for the platform is original production, Bridges says. “We have a terrific head of commissioning, Mark Francis, and he is about to announce three to four productions across Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines,” Bridges says. “And then we’ll expand beyond those three markets.”

HOOQ has also started producing locally with OTJ: The Series, based on the Filipino movie On the Job. For now, though, the bulk of its content falls under three pillars, Rajagopalan says: Hollywood series and movies, kids’ content, and local fare licensed from key suppliers in the region. On the U.S. imports front, “we go after mass-market exclusives, things that work well with audiences who are not very comfortable with English,” he says. This includes the Warner Bros. DC titles, which are exclusive to HOOQ.

At Viu, Korean dramas have been a core driver of consumption, PCCW’s Lee observes. “Research we conducted on online viewing of drama across multiple Asian markets has shown Korean content to be among the most popular content categories for Asian viewers,” Lee says, noting that a majority of respondents said they watched Korean series on a regular basis. “Speed is essential; for the popular titles, for example, Descendants of the Sun and Goblin, we see a ten-times growth of viewership at midnight [the night of the original linear broadcast in Korea], which reveals that quick content delivery is beloved by K-drama fans.”

Lee says that Viu is the “leading provider of Korean content, as we have partnerships with the top four Korean broadcasters for series that are broadcast four to eight hours after telecast with local-language subtitling in selected markets. We can use the content on multiple platforms in multiple countries.”

Tribe, the new OTT offering from Malaysia’s Astro, has also made Korean content a lead offering. The platform first launched in Indonesia, a small pay-TV market with high mobile internet usage. As of mid-February, the Tribe app had about 700,000 downloads in Indonesia, delivering Korean drama, anime and live sports. In December 2016, the service partnered with Globe to expand to the Philippines.

Coming soon to the Southeast Asia region, meanwhile, is TVING, an on-demand platform run by CJ E&M in Korea. In its home market, CJ E&M delivers streaming access to 150-plus channels and reported a 177-percent increase in unique visitors from January 2016 to 2017. Bolstered by the huge Asian demand for Korean series, TVING is targeting rollout to Japan, Vietnam and Thailand, followed by Europe, Latin America and the U.S.

And yet another competitor joins the fray this month: FOX+. Delivering high-end Hollywood fare, sports and more, FOX+ launches first in the Philippines, followed by Singapore and other Asian markets.

There is, of course, plenty of activity taking place outside of Southeast Asia, where the dynamics, and the route to market, are radically different. Like their counterparts in the U.S. or Europe, Japan’s SVOD players largely have a direct relationship with the consumer, rather than operating through a telco. One of the leading services is Hulu Japan, which has been owned by commercial terrestrial group Nippon TV since 2014. In the time since that transaction, Hulu Japan’s paying subscriber base has risen from about 600,000 to 1.5 million as of the end of January 2017.

“The SVOD market in Japan is very crowded, with over ten platforms competing with each other,” says Kazufumi Nagasawa, chief content officer at the platform. “To be honest, the biggest threat (I hesitate to use the word competitor, though) is Amazon Prime, as they provide the service including Prime Video and Music (on top of early delivery and free shipping) at the annual fee of ¥3,900. It is much less than half of our price. Based on multiple surveys conducted by third parties, we know Hulu is the second most-used SVOD service after Amazon, although Hulu is rated as number one in terms of the content lineup.”

Movies, drama series and anime are all resonating with Hulu’s users, with a fifty-fifty split between Japanese and international when it comes to consumption. “That said, catch-up content from Nippon TV is always dominating the top ten ranking in terms of the number of unique viewers. The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are the most important U.S. shows. We also understand that our original series are really appreciated by many subscribers, while the number of shows is still small.”

Hulu has content deals with suppliers like BBC Worldwide, A+E Networks, National Geographic and others, including an exclusive SVOD alliance with HBO. On the originals front, Hulu is making about ten shows a year, about half co-produced with Nippon TV. “In that case, Nippon TV tends to air the first episode to entice viewers to come to Hulu to watch the rest,” Nagasawa says.

The relationship with Nippon TV has been highly beneficial, Nagasawa reports. “First of all, Nippon TV provides catch-up content to us on an exclusive basis, which is extremely important to differentiate ourselves. Exposure on Nippon TV is also very important. They also help us to promote our key exclusive (or semi-exclusive) titles, such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.

Another market to watch is India, where the loudest players at present are global heavyweights Netflix and Amazon. Both have been very busy making high-profile content deals. Indeed, just a day after Amazon announced the arrival of its Prime Video service in 200-plus countries across the globe, including India, Netflix unveiled a landmark deal with the world’s most recognizable Bollywood star, Shah Rukh Khan. The multiyear global streaming deal with Khan and his Red Chillies Entertainment outfit includes releases like Dear Zindagi and Dilwale. Amazon, meanwhile, has been on an acquisitions tear, most recently inking an extensive deal with Lionsgate that includes La La Land. In India, Amazon and Netflix are facing off against local heavyweights Hotstar—owned by Star—and Voot, operated by Viacom18.

The Chinese landscape, meanwhile, is entirely dominated by local players such as Youku Tudou, Tencent and iQiyi. “There’s been lots of regulatory action with day and date Hollywood and Korean content,” says MPA’s Couto on challenges in China. “SVOD is growing and being driven by Tencent, iQiyi and Youku Tudou. It’s an ecosystem of their own, related to e-commerce and instant messaging.”

Stringent regulations aside, content providers are finding plenty of opportunities in China. FremantleMedia International recently renewed its alliance with Youku. The company has seen “exponential” growth in its digital business across Asia, reports Ganesh Rajaram, the company’s general manager and executive VP for sales and distribution in Asia. In China, Youku is beginning to license lifestyle content, Rajaram observes. “Because they’re owned by Alibaba, that e-commerce factor comes into play, so they’re looking to do lifestyle and see how they can link it with their e-commerce in terms of selling product. For us, it means that the kinds of genres we’re selling into China have changed. Because of OTT, all of our entertainment shows are in China. Beyond that, there’s a new factual platform in China called Bilibili. Usually, factual is confined to linear channels, but now audiences have access to this content in the online space. That was another significant deal we did last year.”

FremantleMedia’s OTT business in Asia is certainly not confined to China. Indeed, Rajaram is finding a wealth of opportunities for many of the company’s brands.

“Before the OTTs were securing content, we had linear channels that were very set in their ways about the kinds of shows they’d buy,” Rajaram explains. “OTTs are willing to take a punt, try new genres. Today I’ve got guys in Korea on an OTT platform lapping up foreign-language drama because they want to give some differentiation to the audience. I would have never thought that in Asia I’d be successful in selling shows like Deutschland 83 and Modus. Once you get a couple of these shows onto their platforms, they begin to gain traction.”

Of course, getting content onto a platform is only half the battle—as OTT subscribers are discovering everywhere, user interfaces can be troublesome. MPA’s Couto says that in an increasingly competitive environment, perfecting the platform experience is essential. “Am I providing a content catch-up experience, a content consumption experience, or a whole platform experience?” is a question providers need to be asking themselves, Couto says.

“This is certainly a space where we’re doing some things I’m super excited about,” iflix’s Bridges says. “Obviously, if you get content and no one can find it, or they find things they like and you don’t present them with other things on the platform they would like, you’re failing your customer. We’re going to be talking about getting back to brands as a way of curating discovery. We’re not just a wall of posters. There are obvious brands that do resonate. It’s a step back towards this idea of linear channel brands. As we move further away from shows being identified with their channels, there’s a role for an OTT service like ours that can help extend those channel brands beyond the traditional pay-TV audience, which is not the audience iflix is going for. We’re going for the pay-TV-never audience that may not have been exposed to these brands. It’s part of a big overhaul of our curation. The other part of it is, as we onboard new subscribers, there will be a whole selection journey of genres and even celebrities you might want to follow. Once you select those, those genres and celebrities and their playlists will be presented to you on your landing page. Each subscriber will have tailored collections on their landing page that are just for them.”

That personalized experience, and understanding what each subscriber wants, will be central to the growth of OTT platforms as they vie to sign on, and hold on to, new customers. And big data is crucial—but you can’t make all your decisions based on your analytics, HOOQ’s Rajagopalan says. “We’ve got indicators, but I wouldn’t bet our content strategy on them. With blockbuster movies in Indonesia, having the hottest titles can, for short periods of time, provide very strong lifts. But that means you need a movie hitting every month—that’s not sustainable! There are content categories that are obvious hits. I know that if I put The Flash up on the homepage, people are going to watch. Friends is a top-ten title in Asia, which is why we got it exclusively for India. It’s an art. The science piece will help us test, but the art is in the selection.”