'Outside of guaranteed hits, challenge is in selling rest of the catalogue to the viewer': HBO Asia Senior VP Programming, promotion Quek Toi Mien

Times are busy for HBO. The channel recently claimed to have emerged as the number one English movie channel this year.

Quoting Tam data for the period September 2003 -August 2004 sec A,B,C 15-44 the broadcaster stated that it had seven of the top ten rated English films. Spiderman was the highest with a rating of 1.95's correspondent Ashwin Pinto caught up with HBO Asia senior VP programming and promotion Quek Toi Mien for a quick chat on the sidelines of a media briefing. She joined HBO Asia when it was established in Singapore in 1992. Her portfolio entails the on-going strategic management of programming and scheduling, on-air presentation and operations, research as well as on-air promotions and production to maximise new and existing business.


What have been the highlights of this year?

It has been very exciting. The biggest thing that happened was the launch of The Big One, not just in India but also across Asia in January. Another highlight was the summer festival, which had the tagline Summer Is HBO.

If you have been following how HBO has been evolving the Summer band you will have noticed that the previous two years we had the Summer Action Marathon. For this year we grew the summer into a huge seasonal theme for the channel. We aimed at widening the target audience through blocks like Sizzling Nights. Then there was a special programming block for kids.

We started the initiative of having a theme every month. Other movie channels then started copying our formula. For any movie channel to be successful and HBO is not an exception you have to learn how to listen to your viewers. You need to gauge their pulse.

The fact that we are ahead of the competition shows that we are in tune with what the viewers want. When we launched in India four years ago we were babes in the woods trying to find our way around. Not anymore.

What has research shown about the Indian English movie viewer?

We have invested a lot of time in qualitative and quantitative research. One thing that has happened over the past few years is that the English movie viewer in India has gone through the same process that in the rest of Asia took a decade to happen.

There has been an explosion in terms of choice. While the Indian viewer is international in outlook, its not that you take what has worked in the US and merely air it on Indian television. I must say that the Indian viewer is very smart in choosing what he/she wants to watch.

One initiative that worked really well was The Big One. What is the next major programme innovation we can expect from HBO?

2005 will be a very good year for HBO in terms of blockbusters. For this year's last quarter we have The Lord Of The Rings. Then we have Swordfish with John Travolta and The Sweetest Thing with Cameron Diaz. Our aim is and always will be to cater to a variety of tastes.

Is the amount of original content on HBO India going to go up?

The original content for HBO India and HBO Asia is very similar. However it will never be as much as it is in the US. That is because HBO US' original content contains a wide gamut of programmes. A lot of this is specifically tailored to the American audience.

We are thoughtful about the kind of shows we pick. They must have appeal for Indians.

Positioning is also crucial or not many people will tune in. We air about eight original movies a year like Path To War. Whatever HBO movies comes from the US will be carried here.

We try to establish a pattern in terms of the scheduling so that the viewer knows when to look for an original product. We will be continuing with the Sex & The City franchise next year. What is great is that all our original content have a dynamic range of themes. Having said that some of our shows and movies are more dynamic and daring than others.

Is 'Angels In America' coming in this year?

No! We are bringing it in next year. However, we are still deciding on the time frame. We are still in the process of figuring out how to pitch a show that is so intelligent and metaphorical to the Asian audience.

What we are a little wary about is the fact that there have been extreme reactions. On the one hand there are quite a few viewers even in the US who did not get the show.

They wondered what the show was trying to say. On the other hand there are people who have lavished praises on it. It has performed extremely well at the Golden Globes, Emmies. It will be a challenge to sell in India.

"We try to establish a pattern in terms of the scheduling so that the viewer knows when to look for an original product"

Why do you feel that 'Angels In America' will be a challenge to push in India?

It is sophisticated in terms of narrative. It uses metaphors like the angel played by Emma Thompson. It is based on the Pulitzer prize winning play by Tony Kushner. Everytime you try and transform literary work onto a drama on television there is also the danger of something going wrong.

However HBO has done a wonderful job. On our part we need to find the right hooks to sell it across Asia and not just in India. We will have to find a particular theme that the show deals with whether it is loss, denial or political hypocrisy that resonates with the Asian viewer. Once we do that then the task of selling the show will have become easier.

Speaking of original content 'Carnivale' seems to be rather off beat. When you consider the nature of the English movie viewer in India what would you say are the show's strong selling points?

Good question! We thought about this long and hard before picking it up. What it has going for it are the supernatural elements and the struggle between good and evil. These themes work especially well for India.

We positioned the show as being spooky with an edgy feel but not too cerebral. It is also very character driven and therefore has colour.

A recent report dwelt on how some Indian single women are being influenced by 'Sex and the City' in terms of the nature of their relationships. Any comment?

It is an interesting thought in terms of whether Sex and The City really reflects changing values or if it is actually affecting the value system of women.

The show looks at a woman articulating about changing values. The way women relate to each other and to men keeps changing in major cities across the world including Delhi and Mumbai. That is something that the show successfully shows. In Indian cities where many women have an urbane, global and cosmopolitan approach to life the show resonates at that level.

On a broader subject could you give me an overview about how the English movie acquisition process works?

For movie channels it works through output deals. We have deals with Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony. In a year around 300 new titles are added. It is important that you reach this level in order to be considered credible by the industry. However the blockbuster acquisitions in terms of Spiderman, The Mummy that Hollywood releases in a year can be counted on your fingers. Outside these guaranteed hits the challenge for any movie channel is how well you are able to sell the rest of the catalogue to the viewer.

On an average we screen a film 15 months after it has aired on the big screen in the US. Sometimes when a film's release is delayed in India we air it at almost the same time that it hits cinemas. One of our Big Ones Spy Kids 3D came to Indian cinema halls in May. We aired the film in June. We normally have a 12-month window to air a film like Spiderman before it moves on to another channel. AXN for instance has shown stuff that have already aired on HBO. That is a part of the movie life. It has different windows.

What are the factors that HBO takes into account when deciding whether or not to acquire a title?

Demand and entertainment value are key. It is the same for Star Movies and the other channels out there. It is a title driven business but at the end of the day the question is how successful will a title be in keeping viewers hooked for X amount of time?

While I would rather not comment on price, I will state that our budgets are only getting better. However just because a movie channel spends more money it does not necessarily mean that the amount of knockout programming is going up.

There are a lot of dynamics that go into cutting the right deal. Whatever deal you cut,you need to be able to bring that influx of good programming. We generally acquire films for the whole of Asia.

We usually don't follow the strategy of only acquiring a set of films for one market and not for the others. If a title is strong then we want it to be available for all our channels as far as possible.

However there is no hard and fast rule about this. It does not mean that if you go one way you are worse of in the other. It is a real decision that you make. It is a question of getting the right combination of titles to keep viewers hooked.

Is the acquisition process only title driven or do you also acquire films because you want to strengthen a genre like comedy?

It is a mixture that boils down to what you are looking to achieve. Your acquisitions need to be in line with deliverables that you are looking to give your viewers.

To give you an example the creature feature like Aliens does really well in India and Asia. It is a must have in any English movie channels repertoire. It is not surprising that everybody has these kind of films in their lineup even though they might be re runs.

"We usually don't follow the strategy of acquiring only a set of films for one market and not for the others. If a title is strong then we want it to be available for all our channels as far as possible"

With Sony acquiring MGM there is every possibility that they could launch a movie channel in India. This means that big titles like 'Spiderman 2' will probably air on the new channel. What impact would this have on HBO?

That is in the realm of speculation. At the end of the day India is a huge market. There are lots of opportunities for more movie channels. If you are at the top of the heap like we are you would welcome competition.

How would you describe the state of the foreign language film market in India?

For the Asian and Indian market if you have titles that are very popular on the international film festival circuit then there is every chance that viewers will tune in. People will have heard about the film.

We just did a Japanese theme. Our foray into Japanese films was experimental. We also wanted it to be a fun experience for viewers. We are open to opening the right doors for different films from various countries.

Also the trend of Indian English movies has caught on. While we have not entered this area yet the future is open. So I would not rule out the possibility of films like Bride and Prejudice coming onto HBO. The main thing is to maintain a balance between trying out new things and relying on your core strengths.

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