Tuning in

Jo Bowman

The development of television in Asia reflects the bigger picture of growing consumer affluence and choice. Discovery Networks’ Kevin Dickie talks to Jo Bowman

It’s only 20 years ago that foreign visitors to most of Asia-Pacific were in for a shock if they tried flicking through channels on television. The region had some of the driest TV content in the world and almost zero choice for consumers. Most of Asia – particularly China and India – subsisted on a steady diet of government announcements interspersed with occasional low-budget dramas. Commercial breaks as long as 20 minutes weren’t uncommon, but there was no risk of channels losing viewers – there was nothing else on.

Fast forward to today, and the region is home to a thriving television industry. More than 360 million homes in Asia-Pacific have a multichannel TV service, and as consumer choice has opened up, so too have consumer markets opened up to new ideas and opportunities.

Kevin Dickie, Senior Vice President, Content Group, at Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, says the growth of the pay TV industry reflects the burgeoning of the region’s middle classes and the broader macro-economic situation. “This is true not just in Asia but in other regions: as disposable income increases, there are certain luxuries that get added to the household list, and one of the first things adopted by the new middle classes is a pay TV subscription,” he says. As disposable incomes and exposure to international content rise, preferences for TV content evolve.

“If you take Southeast Asia, one of the areas that’s really grown in the past five to seven years is lifestyle television, particularly television that looks at travel, fashion and cuisine. Universal are in that space, we’re in that space, Fox is. You have, in many markets, 20- and 30-somethings coming through with a level of income and exposure outside their country that the previous generation didn’t have. Look at the burgeoning number of airlines in this region – it’s phenomenal. The travel sector is just going through the roof, and with that comes an interest in other cultures and cuisine. They want to understand things like Italian culture. They want to understand Italian cuisine. They want to understand what the latest trends are in fashion. Whereas 10 to 15 years ago, the previous generation had basically their free-to-air networks – the national broadcaster and a couple of commercial free-to-air networks if you were lucky, fed largely on a diet of home-grown general entertainment – studio-based shows with some acquisition.

“It reflects a broader change in society and how people’s working lives have changed as well. There are many multinationals in the capital cities of Southeast Asia employing thousands and thousands of people, ourselves included on a smaller scale.” As people travel more and see new ways of doing things, their outlook becomes more international.

Snakes and sharks
There remain, however, huge differences between different Asian markets and across different demographics within countries. In the television sector, development is happening at different rates – and from very different starting points. Australia, for instance, has had a strong and steady economy for years and a highly mature media industry, not just in TV but also in print and film. “But if you go to Malaysia or, even more extreme, the Philippines and India, they’re coming from essentially third-world economies transitioning towards a first-world economy, a very much less developed media landscape controlled by one or two players, and very limited investment in the sector. So they’re coming from very different places and, as a result, the consumer expectations are quite different.”

For an international brand such as Discovery, the challenge lies in being local enough to be relevant to regional expectations and tastes while at the same time staying true to the brand’s international essence. Dickie says dedicated feeds for parts of the region carry content that’s been localised to different degrees. The feed for Australia and New Zealand is far closer to what viewers of Discovery would see in the US, while in the Philippines, the line-up is significantly different. “There’s still a hunger for what we could call traditional content, because they’ve not had the same [international] exposure.”

The Discovery business model is built on economies of scale, and Dickie says that there remains a core of content and themes that has not just region-wide but global appeal, transcending different tastes and stages of economic development. The ‘survival’ genre, for instance, is in high demand around the world. Popular science – series such as Mythbusters and Magic of Science – is also successful across diverse markets. “But then you have to have a percentage of your schedule given over to those localised needs so we can differentiate the Philippines from Australia – but ultimately it’s still within the Discovery Channel context. It’s still within the ‘satisfaction of curiosity’ remit, but you satisfy that curiosity by catering to different tastes but still in the same space.”

As less developed markets catch up in terms of income, will viewing preferences eventually become universal, then? Dickie thinks not. “You still have specific tastes, and at the end of the day the attitudes in different markets are still shaped by so many broader cultural influences on societies’ very fabric, and you’re not going to change that overnight.” he says. “For example, there’s an amazing fascination for snakes in India. If we show a snake documentary in India, it’s always guaranteed a fantastic rating. There’s less of an appetite for snake content in Southeast Asia; it’s pretty well received, but it’s not off the charts – and that’s just one of those little cultural phenomena. Similarly, we do a massive Shark Week in Australia. Shark Week is a big stunt that happens in the US, and it still really resonates in Australia – 90 percent of Aussies live on the coast, and they’re obsessed with sharks. It’s a cultural thing. You’ve got to recognise what those cultural interests are and programme accordingly.”

In fact, as penetration of pay TV deepens in emerging markets, the need for localisation is actually increasing rather than decreasing. Dickie explains that pay TV services usually launch in capital cities and target the top end of the consumer market. Once that segment is saturated, growth comes from expansion into slightly broader demographics. “They’ve already targeted the higher end middle class, so they’re moving down the economic scale and creating packages that are cheaper. But one of the interesting things is, when you go into a market like Malaysia, as you drill down it’s less bilingual and more local language. English becomes less and less the default language. Astro, for example, has developed something in the region of 20 Bahasa channels of their own to service this audience, and there’s an expectation that the international channels will, at the very least, fully language customise but also provide a percentage of content that’s particularly relevant to that audience and in the local language, and I think that’s going to happen more and more as the platforms mature.”

Who? What? Why?
Understanding how tastes evolve and assessing what will work for different audiences rests largely on audience analysis. “There are still focus groups, but a lot of it is analysis of historical data,” says Dickie. “We invest heavily in research – at last count we were buying seven peoplemeter rating systems, and those systems are now very, very sophisticated in terms of how far you can drill down, look at so many different variables and audience migration. From that data, the programming team are constantly shaping any given schedule to take into account what trends we’ve seen in the past.”

A pilot online viewer panel project launched recently in Southeast Asia, with the expectation that programme testing will increasingly be done online rather than in physical focus groups. Likewise, research into key influencers of discussions about TV programming is also going online; Discovery has dedicated heads in Australia, India and Singapore managing social media activity around the brand and its content. Offline word-of-mouth activity is harder to track. Discovery used to work with a research partner to rank the activity of key brand advocates and influencers, looking at who was most likely to recommend. “It’s interesting that so much of that influencer activity has now moved online,” says Dickie. “That’s the reason we’re now running our own social media programmes, and there’s less emphasis on the conversations happening around the water cooler and more emphasis on what’s happening digitally.”

Dickie says that there is a danger, in relying so heavily on audience data, of missing important consumer insights into why people watch what they do. Audience data, after all, still only counts the number of bodies in a room when a programme is on. “One of the things we talk about a lot is – because we’re so invested in peoplemeters – have we become too focused on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why,’ and that’s one of the reasons that we’re investing in the panels: we want to be able to have a dialogue and go beyond the data and understand the behaviour and motivations more meaningfully.”

Dickie’s hope is that a TV content research system will evolve, linking the all-important quantitative research with qualitative insights that help explain it. “If there was a system that married the ‘what’ with the ‘why’ so you had a research system – and I wouldn’t expect the ‘why’ on an overnight basis but on a fairly regularly basis – you would get some qualitative input, and that would track motivation. I think over time – and this is probably going to happen relatively quickly – you will get ratings agencies tracking social activity. There are already people looking at social media activity and the correlation between that and audience. I think you’re going to see more and more research companies creating tools in that space.”

Consumer behaviour will evolve differently across the region, Dickie predicts: mobile devices will be a greater part of content delivery and monetisation of content in North Asia; in South and Southeast Asia, development for the time being will be more about the regular TV screen. “In terms of direction, I don’t think it’s going to change dramatically. The interesting thing about this marketplace is that many of the territories still have relatively low penetration. A number of markets are below 10 percent – places like the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. There’s tremendous growth to come, tremendous opportunity.”

Kevin Dickie is Senior Vice President, Content Group, at Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific