TV FINDS NO PAN-ASIAN PANACEA

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HONG KONG-The great experiment in reaching a broad Asian TV audience with a single signal has failed.

Although Star TV changed the Asian TV market forever when it introduced its free to air service three years ago, Star executives now concede that pan-Asian TV and advertising haven't worked as planned. Star's goal had been to reach more than 45 million people across 38 countries from Japan to the Middle East with a single signal. The big problem, they found, was its reliance on the English language. Although there are no definitive measurements, it is estimated only about 2% to 5% of Asia's population understands English, initially Star's only language.

Star's ambitious venture, however, has paved the way for others, including program suppliers, to try different tactics to tap into this lucrative market.

Most are seeking out smaller niche partners or segmenting the region.

New owner News Corp., for example, is splitting programming into different languages for regions like China, India and Indonesia. After telecasting mostly in English, it now tries to meet local tastes.

Prior to leaving Star in May, MTV also telecast in English, but it will start two separate services, one in Mandarin and the other in English, later this year. And the language mix of Star's replacement music channel, its own Channel V, is predominately Chinese.

A spokeswoman said that when MTV first entered the region, it wanted a local partner that knew the area, but now that it has established itself, MTV prefers to have total programming control.

One-size-fits-all programming hasn't worked. "We are finally realizing that the idea of creating a pan-Asian television market, where programming would cross borders as easily as radio waves do, has run smack into a diversity of cultures, people and tastes," said Tom Hartje, managing partner in Hartje Cross Wilson, a consultancy. But that hasn't stopped broadcasters trying to crack this high population market through alliances. "Every major player in world media is in conversation with one another [about ways to work in Asia]," said Star TV's chief executive Gary Davey.

Nor has it discouraged advertisers. Fragmented media "makes our job more difficult but it makes the payoff a lot better," said Dusty Kidd, communications director of Nike, Hong Kong. "The more formats, the more kinds of people you can reach."

"Western culture and Western programming are important, but they aren't going to drive this business. Local language programming is," said Mr. Davey. Star, initially targeted to well-heeled English-speaking expatriates and the Asian elite, is shifting to country-specific, local language fare.

That too is causing shakeups: Star and the BBC's World Service Television recently split when Star replaced the BBC in half its territory with Star Movies. The reason is that Star believes the Chinese language channel will be more popular with viewers and marketers.

One problem with MTV, a Star executive said, was low ad revenues: MTV only brought in $2.9 million of the $3.5 million that Star's former management budgeted it to take in last year. Under the agreement, Star could terminate the deal if MTV didn't meet its revenue goal, he said.

MTVhad no comment on ad revenues but said the decision to leave Star was "very much one we made on our own."

HBO is another telecaster that has followed the rules-and finds the going tough.

Home Box Office International Executive VP Steven Rosenberg said for all the general talk about how welcome a premium product like HBO is, the potential market in Asia is only about 2.5 million homes. That's roughly the size of the Netherlands.

One media analyst said because changes are occurring quickly and programming supply will outweigh demand, the Asian media scene will see "survival of the fittest."

"In the short-term, pent-up demand for TV will allow Western program suppliers to coast with universal formats; movies, sports, cartoons, dramas and soap operas. But despite its higher production quality, Western TV is likely to remain a niche, not a mass product," said Mr. Hartje.

A good example is Hong Kong where 90% of the population speaks English but where no American program comes close to Television Broadcasts' top-rated drama "Pao, the Judge," a Cantonese-dubbed drama series from Taiwan about a 19th century judge. The series plots are broken up into weekly components; each series can have anywhere from 40 to 80 episodes. "Pao," telecast on TVB since July 93, has had ratings up to 41 points, with each point equalling 55,000 viewers. (See related story, this page.)

The case for local programming is strong. At least 18 of the 20 top-rated shows in Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand are local. In Hong Kong's open market, almost all are also local: Foreign programming is unpopular.

"Where exactly is the this mythical pan-Asian consumer?" Mr. Hartje said. "At the end of the Yellow Brick Road perhaps?"

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