CAMPAIGN REPORT ON ASIA: Customising content - Foreign networks and programming can be hit and miss when they transfer to Asian TV. Rachel Oliver sizes up the winners with advertisers and viewers

Ask a media buyer which of the regional networks are a must-buy locally and they're likely to say none of them. "In India, you must buy Star to get the cricket but I don't think any have become a must-buy over terrestrial on a local basis,

CIA's Caven says. "If you have a regional channel trying to go for local dollars it's going up against some powerful local terrestrial channels. Until you've reached critical mass with reach and penetration these are seen as something nice to have on the schedule."

Regional ad budgets in Asia are not big, by any stretch of the imagination.

Some estimates put the total pool of money spent regionally at as low as US$170 million.

CNBC's Froude concedes that the majority of the channel's ad revenue does not come from local advertisers. "Most of our advertising is from international organisations but those decisions are mostly made in Asia,

Froude says. "There are relatively few multinational Asian corporations south of North Asia."

Star's Hayward admits that the size of regional ad budgets are nowhere near enough to sustain a purely regional channel, without the aid of local money. "You're not going to be able to float a region-wide broadcaster on what can be spent on a regional basis,

he says.

CIA's Caven adds: "One TV channel told me that its average client budget is only around $200,000. In Japan, on terrestrial it costs $50,000 just for one spot."

So, is it a case of localise or be damned? Asia's regional TV industry is still trying to figure this out, although some channels are clearly further ahead of the game than others.

As one Hong Kong-based media buyer puts it: "If I was promoting a luxury brand, like Mercedes Benz, I wouldn't go to CNBC. I mean, who buys Mercedes Benz here? It's not expats, it's wealthy Chinese businessmen and maybe I can do a better job going for them through local channels.

"Someone like Richard Li (Hong Kong media tycoon) probably watches CNBC, but how many others like him are out there?"

When the UK export The Weakest Link hit the shores of Hong Kong, the publicity machine at TVB Pearl - the local channel airing the show - went into overdrive. The station had the rights to the only show that could take on its rival channel ATV's own version of another UK export, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.

It should have been the light entertainment stand-off of the year, except that within a few weeks of airing, The Weakest Link's ratings fell. The presenter, Dodo Cheng Yue-Lung was seen as too rude. Chinese viewers found her offensive. So she was asked to smile, to be nicer to the contenders, and to essentially take away the very ingredients that had made the show such a runaway success with viewers in the UK and the US.

The lessons everyone took away from it were simple: what works in one country will not always work in another. And there are some programmes that just don't travel too well.

The main importers of foreign content into Asia are not the local networks, but the regional players; the likes of the Murdoch-owned Star, Discovery, MTV and CNBC. What content is chosen for broadcast, and the extent to which that content is localised for individual countries are the key deciding factors as to whether that channel will gain significant reach, not just on a regional basis, but within the individual markets themselves.

There's no question within the industry that, in order to score a hit with a local audience, the regional networks need to localise their offering. The question is how much localisation is necessary. And this question has dogged the pan-Asian TV industry for more than a decade.

"Asian broadcasting stands no more chance than European broadcasting," Mike Cooper, the regional chief executive of OMD, says. "It was the same when Sky went into Europe. If you're French, you don't want to watch the news in English."

When it comes to the news, be it BBC World, CNBC or CNN, the language of choice tends to be English. CNBC offers a certain amount of local-language programming in markets where there is a perceived low level of English literacy or significant cultural differences, such as Japan, where it has a joint-venture channel with Nikkei, which produces Japanese and English-language programming. It also produces local programming in India, in both Hindi and English, although English dominates.

CNBC's main rival, CNN, also has dedicated local-language programming in South Korea and Japan, but English prevails regionally. In terms of localised content, only 20 per cent of CNN's Asia programming is actually produced in Asia.

On the language issue, the news networks will naturally insist that English is often more appropriate, particularly when their target audience is English-literate.

"Our audience is an upscale one, interested in international news. Obviously they are largely English-literate, especially in South East Asia, and English is the language of business,

Mark Froude, the vice-president of sales at CNBC Asia, argues, adding: "It is not a language specifically for an expat."

"For an upscale business audience, an English-language international news channel is, in most markets, viable,

Tess Caven, the general manager at CIA International in Singapore, says.

"But it can't be too American. Look at CNN; it's got quite a significant Asian-made content. It's important that it has customised it and presented it with Asian faces."

Toby Hayward, the executive vice-president of sales at the Murdoch-owned regional network Star, believes that while there is not an Asian audience per se, there are types of content that have universal appeal. "There is no such thing as Asian programming; it just doesn't exist. But there are shows with global appeal. Baywatch is one of the most successful shows ever, Friends does extraordinarily well everywhere. Certain shows have universal appeal, but if you want to be successful you have to show the best shows in India, Taiwan and so on."

Star is easily the biggest regional TV network, in terms of channels, feeds and viewers. It operates more than 30 satellite channels, in eight languages in more than 50 countries in Asia, and syndicates content on local terrestrial channels in China, Thailand and Korea.

With the key exception of Star World, Star's English-language entertainment channel, each of Star's channels are localised to varying degrees. Star Sports is available in Hindi, English and Mandarin, with ESPN also airing in Cantonese; Channel V has Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Thai and Hindi versions; National Geographic is available in Hindi and English, though it also incorporates a degree of non-English-language voice-overs in Mandarin and Japanese, and subtitling in Mandarin, Korean, Thai and Malay.

But its most successful channels are those dedicated to single markets, with locally produced programmes in the local language, such as Star Plus in India and the Phoenix Channel in Taiwan.

"If you can produce locally for a market you're going to have more success than imports,

Hayward says. "If you purchase locally, you're probably buying something that's already been successful somewhere else."

Conversely, one of Star Plus' flagship programmes includes the reversioned Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, which Star bought, renamed (it's now called Kaun Banega Crorepati), and produced with a new presenter in Hindi. "It was an enormous success - a phenomenon,

Hayward says.

Star's main vehicle for imported programmes is Star World, dominated by US imports such as Friends, Ally McBeal, First Wave, The Practice, The Pretender and Chicago Hope. In most cases the episodes shown are from old series, which Hayward says is owing to the channel being primarily watched in India, where, in many cases, it is the first time these shows have ever been seen. So, the channel's appeal outside India is far lower.

The number of imported programmes that can stand up on their own, without any reversioning, is fairly low. "Right across India to the Philippines, people will watch Friends,

OMD's Cooper says. "But how many shows are there like Friends? There just aren't enough programme vehicles that can be shown across the region."

Imports that tend not to work in Asia are hosted magazine programmes, quiz shows and soap operas, which should definitely relate culturally to local audiences to be successful.

"Once that curiosity factor begins to fizzle, they want the same genre that is inherent in their own culture,

Frank Brown, the president of MTV Networks Asia, says.

MTV operates local-language channels in India, Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines, and has selected local-language content in its sub-regional channel, MTV SouthEast Asia, including Thai, Tagalog and Malay. The level of MTV Asia's foreign-produced content has dropped in recent years. "There are very few programmes on a day-to-day basis in Asia that we acquire directly from our affiliates,

Brown says.

"For a while The Real World performed very well in Asia, because people are interested in what goes on in the US. But we found it to be more meaningful to adapt it to Asia with a show called It's My Life,

he adds. To appeal to a wide Asian audience, It's My Life took the same approach as The Real World but instead of focusing it in one city, took six people from six different countries and followed their lives for a year.

However, and perhaps not so surprisingly, another MTV stalwart, Beavis and Butthead didn't go down as well. "From a regional point of view, it was not appropriate,

Brown says. "The viewership was very high for a while, out of interest in these two characters - there was a curiosity aspect - but over time, while it was successful in Taiwan, in other markets it had a short shelf life."

Conversely, a show that many might call more inappropriate, Celebrity Deathmatch, went down a storm in Asia. "Celebrity Deathmatch plays everywhere and does very well,

Brown says.

The type of content that has proved popular across the board with minimum localisation effort is sport, and the costs and effort involved in localising the broadcasts are relatively small.

"For Formula One and the English Premier League, the only versioning is that of the soundtracks. Instead of having an English commentator, you have a Chinese one,

Star's Hayward says.

Another genre that has proved equally popular across borders is documentaries.

Aside from Star, the regional broadcaster viewed by media buyers as the one that has cracked it is Discovery.

To localise its content more and reach out to local advertisers, Discovery last year set up a US$7.5 million fund in Singapore with the Economic Development Board (EDB) solely to develop local programming. Both parties contributed 50 per cent of the cash to the fund.

According to James Gibbons, the head of programming at Discovery, the pool of money is supposed to fund 50 hours of local programming over five years. What the money will be spent on will largely be influenced by what the advertisers want.

"Advertisers using our network often have a specific idea that they want to convey and we don't always have the programmes to complete the package,

Gibbons says.

Discovery operates 13 different feeds in Asia-Pacific, including Japan, for the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Travel and Adventure. Of the feeds, four are dubbed in Mandarin, Thai, Hindi and Japanese and five are subtitled in Mandarin, Korean, Malay and Japanese. For South East Asia and Australia, Discovery mainly operates an English-only feed, though it does offer Chinese subtitles for this part of the region as well.

While the content comes from a common inventory, Discovery also operates individual "strands

to tailor certain content to each market. In Taiwan, one of the most popular forms of programmes is natural history, while in Australia there is a higher level of interest in forensic science programmes.

"We run a strand called Primenight, which gets very high viewer figures there,

Gibbons says.

When it comes to attracting the ad dollars, however, competing on a local level is tough and one of the driving factors behind the EDB fund is Discovery's perceived need to reach out more to local audiences and advertisers.

According to Cooper, around 80 to 90 per cent of OMD's revenue comes from local advertisers. TVB in Hong Kong, for example, dominates the TV market, scooping around 75 to 85 per cent of both audience and ad revenue share.

"In Hong Kong, how would you compete with TVB? All the premier Cantonese artists are signed up to TVB. They've got a licence to print money,

he comments.

ACNielsen figures for the top-ranking programmes across Asia for the month of January show that in every case, the local channels dominate the ratings. In Hong Kong, the top ten is entirely ruled by TVB Jade; in India, DD1; in Singapore, Channel 8; in Thailand, Channel 7.

In Malaysia, TV3 and TV1 share the top programmes between them; and South Korea's top ten is split between three local channels, KBS (1 and 2), SBS and MBC.

Taking a closer look at one of these markets - India - the channel that dominates the programme ratings - DD1 - has a staggering reach of 96.99 per cent. Its closest foreign competitor is Star Plus, with a reach of 50.75 per cent.


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