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Asian Language Content Set to Challenge Hollywoods Global Dominance

Enlarged font  Narrow font Release date:2020-01-09  Author:Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Singapore  Browse number:300
Note: With original, native-language programming having proved the key to driving streaming subscriptions throughout Asia
With original, native-language programming having proved the key to driving streaming subscriptions throughout Asia, many delegates at the Asia TV Forum were confident this high-quality content could command a global audience.

Halfworlds: The Indonesian dark fantasy series guaranteed to keep viewers in their seats.
Photo: Halfworlds: The Indo<em></em>nesian dark fantasy series guaranteed to keep viewers in their seats.
Halfworlds: The Indonesian dark fantasy series guaranteed to keep viewers in their seats.

Celebrating its 20th edition, Singapore's Asia TV Forum and Market (ATF) is one of the region's biggest events for the television, streaming and content-production industries. This time around it kicked off with a one-day Leaders' Summit of keynote speeches and seminars followed by a three-day market featuring a trade show and a number of additional seminars. More than 5,700 exhibitors and buyers from 60 countries participated in the event across its four-day run, including such traditional TV giants as The Walt Disney Company, Viacom International Studios and WarnerMedia Entertainment, as well as many of the leading digital platforms – notably Netflix, YouTube, iQiyi, Viu and HOOQ.

Given the seismic shifts in the TV industry towards streaming services in recent years – and the associated explosion in original content – it was no surprise that most of the conversation at the event revolved around these particular topics. Indeed, following the emergence of the global streaming platforms, particularly Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of regional and in-country services, the Old World media conglomerates have had to hastily restructure and roll out streaming services of their own in order to compete.

For its part, Disney has already launched its Disney+ streaming service in North America and in some international territories, while reportedly planning to extend Hotstar, its Indian service, across Southeast Asia next year. Among the other streaming services in the pipeline from the traditional media giants are NBCUniversal's Peacock (scheduled for launch in April 2020) and WarnerMedia's HBO Max (May 2020). Apple is also taking on Netflix in the streaming wars with its Apple TV+ service already online as of last November.

A recurrent theme at the ATF was that all these global players, as well as Asia's in-country and regional streaming services, now rely on original content to draw in audiences and win over subscribers. The rationale behind this is simple – most companies have found that producing their own films, series and short-form content is cheaper than acquiring it, allows them to control the distribution and gives them exclusive programming.

Explaining his company's particular approach, Gong Yu, Founder and Chief Executive of iQiyi, the Beijing-headquartered streaming giant, said: "We can control our costs more effectively when we make our own content. In addition, as our core viewers are relatively young, they don't want to see programming that replicates that offered by the worlds of traditional film or TV."

Another trend – and one particularly apparent in Asia – is that local-language content is proving to be far more successful in terms of winning over viewers than the English-language films and TV shows that dominated the traditional cable and satellite networks. In light of this, both Netflix and Amazon have been investing heavily in films, series and non-scripted shows in Chinese, Japanese, Hindi and Korean. Asia's three big regional players – Hong Kong-based Viu, Kuala Lumpur's iflix and Singapore's HOOQ – are also now producing content in multiple Asian languages, while iQiyi and its rivals, Youku and Tencent Video, are focusing on Chinese-language films, series and reality programmes.

Perhaps more surprisingly, some of this local-language content is also finding its way overseas. While Korean TV drama has long had a far-reaching fanbase, one that only expanded still further following the arrival of the streaming platforms, now other Asia-sourced content is starting to find international audiences, with notable successes including two China-made period dramas (Story Of Yanxi Palace and The Longest Day In Chang-an) and several Indian web series (Netflix's Sacred Games and Amazon's Made In Heaven to name but two). Acknowledging this changed reality, Shibasish Sarkar, Chief Executive of Reliance Entertainment, a Mumbai-based content distributor, said: "Indian stories are going global because language is no longer any kind of barrier."

Invisible Stories: The lives and times of the dwellers in a Singapore public-housing estate.
Photo: Invisible Stories: The lives and times of the dwellers in a Singapore public-housing estate.
Invisible Stories: The lives and times of the dwellers in a Singapore public-housing estate.

Perhaps bolstered by such successes, a number of India's streaming platforms – including Hotstar, MX Player and ZEE5 – are expanding into North America and Europe, while China's iQiyi and Tencent Video are slowly rolling out across Southeast Asia. Explaining the thinking behind such moves, Gong said: "Netflix had global impact because it had Hollywood content. Now, though, we don't know for sure which culture will be next to go global via online streaming, but we believe it's going to be Chinese or at least Asian."

With Asian streamers starting to look outwards, it seems unlikely that the US tech and media giants will willingly cede the Asian streaming market, especially as, according to Hong Kong-based Media Partners Asia, it will be worth some $50 billion by 2024. While Apple, NBCUniversal and Disney are yet to reveal any plans to begin producing original Asian content, WarnerMedia chose the ATF to announce it would be ramping up its slate of local-language productions across the region.

Outlining the factors that led to the decision, Giorgio Stock, WarnerMedia's President of Distribution and Advertising Sales for the EMEA and APAC regions, said: "Asia has passionate audiences and they expect stories that are unpredictable, while also wanting to see characters and stories that resonate with their daily lives."

WarnerMedia actually has some experience in Asian-language production via HBO Asia, which was recently folded into the company, along with Turner Asia Pacific, following AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner, its ultimate parent company. Since its launch in 1992, HBO Asia has produced a host of popular shows, including the Chinese-language drama The Teenage Psychic, the action fantasy series Halfworlds and the anthology series Folklore and Food Lore, with the latter tapping into the region's unique superstitions and cuisine. While all of these shows have found audiences across the region, some have also played on HBO channels in Europe and the US. Among the content on HBO Asia's current slate is The Garden Of Evening Mists, a feature film co-produced with Malaysia's Astro, and Invisible Stories, a six 30-minute episodes drama series focusing on the residents of a Singapore public-housing estate.

Another advantage WarnerMedia may have over its competitors in the region is that it has decades of experience in producing English-language premium content (through its HBO subsidiary), while also having been in the Asian-language space since 2012. By comparison, although Netflix and Amazon have had a small number of successes in Asia, many more of their locally produced shows have failed to draw viewers and / or been critically panned.

One of the problems here is that, while there is a huge amount of creativity and no shortage of stories in Asia, the region still lacks expertise, with the kind of showrunners that can develop content across eight to 10 episodes particularly thin on the ground. This, though, may well change, at least according to Jessica Kam, HBO Asia's Senior Vice-president for Original Productions, who now has oversight of all WarnerMedia's proprietary programming in the region.

The Longest Day In Chang-an: Youku's take on Tang Dynasty terrorism.
Photo: The Lo<em></em>ngest Day In Chang-an: Youku’s take on Tang Dynasty terrorism.
The Longest Day In Chang-an: Youku's take on Tang Dynasty terrorism.

Confident that by enabling talent and allotting enough development time, the region will soon catch up, she said: "Talents just need the opportunity to try things out. In the case of Singapore's Ler Jiyuan, the creator of Invisible Stories, he wrote three episodes of [HBO Asia period drama] Grisse and has also directed. We'd already taken note of his potential, so when he pitched me a show, I was confident he could deliver.

"He also pitched a show that I knew was well within his capabilities and that was based on people he knew in his neighbourhood – the characters we see but don't notice, like an Indonesian helper who falls in love with a construction worker from Bangladesh. So, while the show has a strong local flavour, it also has something that connects more broadly."

For its part, the Singapore government has already moved to close the existing skills gap – as well as to meet the anticipated future demand for Asian talent resulting from the streaming boom – through the introduction of a range of financial incentives and training programmes. These include the Capabilities Partnership Programme (CPP), which was launched by Singapore's Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), with the aim of improving the skills and business networks of Singapore-based talent and SMEs through partnerships with international tech and media giants.

At the ATF, the IMDA announced five new partnerships under the CPP umbrella – link-ups with regional streamer HOOQ, Chinese tech giant Tencent, South Korean media conglomerate CJ ENM, Facebook and Viacom. While the exact nature of these partnerships will inevitably vary, the HOOQ deal will see IMDA co-funding Singapore-driven stories that will be distributed via the streamer's platform. In a further move, the Authority is partnering with Tencent and VS Media to nurture Singapore digital content creators in line with Tencent's Southeast Asia expansion plans.

The Singapore Film Commission (SFC), meanwhile, has launched its own Southeast Asia Co-production Grant, which offers funding of up to $184,000 (S$250,000) to any Southeast Asian filmmakers co-producing a film with a Singaporean partner. The first eight recipients include Indonesian director Makbul Mubarak's Autobiography (produced with Singapore's Jeremy Chua) and Malaysian director Amanda Nell Eu's Tiger Stripes (produced with Singapore's Akanga Film Asia).

According to Rob Gilby, an IMDA Board Member and Chairman of the Singapore Media Festival Advisory Board, these initiatives are not just intended to benefit Singapore-based talent, but also designed to help nurture many of the fast-growing, but less developed, markets throughout Southeast Asia. Overall, he maintained, Singapore is now pivoting away from its previous Made In Singapore stance to a more inclusive Made With Singapore approach.

Expanding upon this, he said: "Singapore is quite proactive when it comes to saying, 'We have quite a finite market, so developing it in isolation will not allow us to grow much further.' Essentially, the best way for us to help ourselves is to ensure we are a part of a system that is developing across the whole region."

Through financial incentives and a number of other enticements deployed by the IMDA, the Economic Development Board (EDB) and several related agencies, Singapore has also now managed to position itself as one of the key Asian gateways for the fast-expanding tech and streaming industries. The success of this initiative has led to several global players setting up their regional headquarters in Singapore, including Netflix, WarnerMedia, Disney, Discovery Networks, Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Google.

Asserting the value and independence of such regional headquarters, Gilby said: "These are no longer the colonial outposts of old – they are the key decision-making centres for sizeable country operations. Indeed, many country executives are now based here, including representatives from India, China, Indonesia, the US and Europe. Ultimately, we're looking to build an international leadership community here in Singapore."

Story of Yanxi Palace: 70 episodes of intrigue and romance in 18th-century Beijing.
Photo: Story of Yanxi Palace: 70 episodes of intrigue and romance in 18th-century Beijing.
Story of Yanxi Palace: 70 episodes of intrigue and romance in 18th-century Beijing.

The 2019 Asia TV Forum and Market took place from 3-6 December at the Marina Bay Sands Expo & Convention Centre.

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