Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: The Asian trade in TV content

If you are a popular entertainment broadcaster from South Korea would you be interested in buying the rights to a documentary, a drama or a slapstick reality show? A 60-minute session on What's Trending in Korea had some answers. After watching about a dozen clips it was evident that pop singers, pop shows and lots of reality TV of the grossly slapstick kind works in South Korea. The tear-jerkers on Indian TV looked positively intellectual by comparison.

However, at the Asia TV Forum & Market (ATFM) in the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre in Singapore last week, this was one of the most attended - and seriously taken - sessions. The conference was running parallel to the actual buying and selling of TV content. And on the trading floor, where more than 5,000 buyers and sellers from 60 countries where doing deals, three things were obvious.

First, the South Koreans and the Chinese are among the biggest buyers of rights to video content from across the world.

Second, although linear TV remains big, it is the emergence of digital platforms as buyers of video content that is pushing growth in Asia. The interest in what Maggie Xiong, senior director, international acquisitions, Youku Tudou, had to say was very high. With 500 million viewers, Youku Tudou is to China what YouTube is to the world. Across the board, small and big content sellers such as Bomanbridge Media, Deutsche Welle, Atlantyca say that digital platforms in China remain some of the biggest buyers. In the absence of enough content on linear TV that is hamstrung by regulation, Chinese viewers are consuming hours and hours of top-end American and British dramas on relatively-free-of-restrictions digital platforms.

The third, and most important, trend seems to be the rise of local content. Currency fluctuations in the region have made buying dollar-denominated content 20-25 per cent more expensive. Then there is the imminent entry of Netflix that is pushing local platforms and broadcasters to quickly beef up libraries. But most importantly, most markets are learning that dubbed and subtitled content works only so far and only with a certain audience. After that, Koreans want to watch a Korean show, with Korean faces and Korean sensibilities.

And that brings me to a fourth, albeit, unacknowledged fact - the very patchy presence of India. As the world's second-largest TV market by volume and one of the largest content-producing factories in the world, why were Indian content firms missing? Except for Zee and Viacom18, there was no one there. This fits the pattern of lackadaisical Indian participation at regional conferences. The reasons are not hard to find. At over 800 TV channels and 800 million viewers, India has a huge domestic market. Just meeting the needs of this competitive market keeps the Rs 47,500-crore TV industry on its toes.

Whenever Indian firms have tried, Indian shows have done well in dubbed or subtitled form in Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates among other countries because of a local Indian population or because there is cultural affinity. In addition to the 80 countries it has channels in, Viacom18 syndicates its content in dubbed or sub-titled form to local channels in 125 countries in Dari, Pashto, Japanese and Hebrew among other languages. For instance Balika Vadhu, a huge success in India, is available in 15 languages. While broadcasters such as Zee and Viacom18 have always made the overseas market a critical part of their revenue mix, others haven't been as interested.

At the ATFM, which saw transactions with an indicative value of $263.19 million (Rs 1,758 crore) in a three-day market, it was evident that the big push on the trading floor comes not from broadcasters but production firms. More than 80 per cent of content on Indian TV is commissioned by broadcasters who then own the intellectual property (IP) rights. Once they have recovered their money and more within India, the hunger to go beyond is limited. In Britain, for instance, the law mandates that production firms retain the rights to what they create; this then pushes them to look for markets outside of home to hawk their shows. The focus of the Indian TV industry so far has been on filling the hours on TV to satisfy a local audience, not in creating IP that can be traded across the world. There's some time then before we see a Balaji, Sphere or Vikatan at ATFM.

Twitter: @vanitakohlik

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