'Advertisers and us need to rethink how we work together' : Ricky Ow - SPE Networks Asia GM

One of staples of the English entertainment scene in India is AXN. The seven-year-old action channel constantly looks for ways to increase variety. For this purpose it will introduce a gaming show that is currently shooting in India for telecast later this year. It also sees the need to work with advertisers in a more effective manner.'s correspondent Ashwin Pinto caught up with SPE Networks Asia GM, Ricky Ow to find out more.


What have been the highlights for AXN Asia over the past year?

It has been very good. The channel is available in 18 countries across the region. We have just launched in Korea. This has been an exciting time. The channel has stayed in the top 3 among ad supported international networks like MTV, National Geographic, Discovery and ESPN.

In Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Phillipines we are either number one or number two. In India there is some perception in the market that Star World is doing better. That is not the case at all. If you look at the six-month performance in terms of channel share we are ahead.


China and Korea are two key markets. What is the strategy as far as growing the brand there is concerned?

Korea is no doubt a big market. We are with a partner Skylife. which has a million subscribers. It is a retransmission service.

There are four big markets for television in Asia - India, China, Korea and Japan. Korea was earlier missing. China is a work in progress and is a different market altogether.


Are there plans to launch in more countries this year?

Not for now. We need time to grow in Korea. Also in the existing markets, the competition has become fierce. So we need to ensure that we do not lose share.


Could you talk about efforts being made to increase the variety of programming on the channel?

The definition for action and adventure has definitely changed in the past five years. This is partly because perceptions have changed over what is male domain and what is female domain. It has blurred to some extent.

45-50 per cent of our viewers are female. So the definition of action has broadened in scope. When we first launched there were raw action shows which focussed less on storylines. Now there is a mixture of raw and high quality action like CSI, 24 which are intelligent and sophisticated. In this way the range of shows has widened.


One of your major initiatives for this year The Contender performed below expectations on NBC in the US and there is talk that it may not return. Are you satisfied with how it fared?

Funnily enough some shows on our channel that have seen good viewer response have not done as well in the US. That is a shame. The Contender did well for us. The new concept of having a boxing show and a reality format come together was something that fit into us very nicely.

'We are expanding the studios we buy content from and it has become easier as the channel has become a success. It has given the studios more confidence to premier their top shows on our channel compared with three years ago'


Besides CSI NY what are the other major acquisitions that have been made?

The three CSI shows are among our A-list shows. The last episode of the main CSI series has been produced by Quentin Tarantino and we are excited about that. The other shows that will be coming include Ultimate Guinness World Records.

We have also added a show called Doctor House which is doing well in the US. It is unlike the normal AXN show. It mixes wit with drama.

The 4400 comes back. It first came as a mini series. It did so well that it became a 13-episode series. Then we are excited about the movie Kung Fu Hustle which did well in cinemas in Asia.

All these shows allow viewers to expect something new and interesting. We are going to try and really wow our audience. With the success of The Contender we will be bringing in shows that have boxing theme.

We deal with almost all the studios now. Sony remains important. We now buy from Disney, Paramount, Universal and even Fox from whom we acquired 24. We are expanding the studios we buy content from and it has become easier as the channel has become a success. It has given the studios more confidence to premier their top shows on our channel compared with three years ago.


While AXN is ahead of the other two English general entertainment channels in terms of share, the ratings of your top shows have gone down compared to last year. Would you attribute this to fragmentation?

That is a very good question. If you look at the English entertainment genre we are in the top three. While that has not changed some of our top shows have not managed to match the ratings of Koffee With Karan.

However, that was one show of a rival (Star World) and it is surprising that the one show did not manage to bring the overall ratings of that channel up more than what it did. It could be because the ratings of the other shows remained very low. Fragmentation is certainly happening. It has been a while since we have had a reality show that can command ratings.

We are hopeful that Ultimate Guinness Records will do that. We are looking at it as a ratings driver. It has the potential to lift us up. While there is fragmentation some of our shows have stickiness and strong loyalty and it is this connection that will become crucial in an increasingly competitive market.


In India your localisation efforts have gotten bigger. In 2002 you had Who Dares Wins - India. This was followed by Extreme Dhamaka and India versus Pakistan. What have been the key learnings from this?

There were three things we took away from this activity. Those three shows you mentioned were not being done by anybody else. They were expensive to do.

We do it once a year and it defines who we are as a brand. The finale for India Vs Pakistan was shot outside India. The production was challenging. We learnt that we might have been better off doing it in India as it would have created more buzz and built up a stronger brand connect. The India production done outside India for the Indian market was not that well received. It was however not too disappointing either.

The second lesson we learnt is that while one special is good the time has come for us to do more. The third thing we learnt is that the viewer acceptance of our specials is high and there is an expectation which is not low. They always expect us to do something different. So whatever we do moving forward has to have the star of boldness. It has to be different from what others are doing.

So what is next on this front?

I can give you an idea of this. In the end of September we will be launching a show called Gamex.

This will be a 13-episode half an hour magazine show and we have commissioned TWI to make it. It will be shot in India and in London and production has commenced. This show is focussed on computer gaming, whether it is Playstation, Xbox, the whole gaming craze that is eating the world.

We felt that this would be the right time to showcase the manner in which the concept is catching on in India. The Indian consumer does not move but rather leapfrogs from one stage to the next.

There will be on ground events around the show. Basically our aim is to give viewers a first hand experience of gaming and feel the rush. There will be contests where people are given a chance to participate. We are working on these details. This way there is both local relevance and high tech relevance from London.


Are you employing a similar localisation strategy for the other Asian markets?

The same strategy applies for all markets. We have done local events in Taiwan and South east Asia.


What role does dubbing play?

We provide subtitles. We feel that the original language is the best in most cases. Only in special cases do we look at dubbing. Kung Fu Hustle would be dubbed as the language is not complicated. Most of the time our viewers prefer the original voices.

We have done dubbing for reality shows in the past and this will be done occasionally as a stunt like a monthly special. However, it is not a long term plan.

'Everything costs money and if clients do not place a lot of value to unique content but ask for a lot of integration that is seen as value adds then the value of the channel gets depreciated'


What plans does AXN Asia have as far as exploiting the mobile platform is concerned?

We have been looking hard at Taiwan to tie in promotions with mobile firms.

We have done mobile content in the Phillipines where cell phone penetration is very high. We have the rights for CSI and we did a deal with an big telco there. People could get additional content on the show that they paid for.

We have not yet reached the stage where 3G can allow for watching an entire episode. Mobile will be useful for certain kinds of images. It will work particularly well for short news clips. From a long term point of view the mobile will also help when we look at making localised shows where viewers can decide on the ending.


Could you talk about the ways in which AXN Asia works with clients to maximise their ROI?

Very interesting question. I think that the advertisers and us need to rethink how we work together. If you want to clap two hands are needed. The presence of more unique channels changes the landscape. However the thinking between the buyer and seller has not changed as fast as the landscape.

Unique content providers like ourselves as well as clients tend to sell and buy like the way when there were fewer players. The advertiser needs to give value and appreciate the environment of the unique content provider which does not only reach certain demographics but also certain psychographics. The psychology of the viewer needs to be understood better by our clients.

At this point a lot of the integrated approach is being seen by clients as value adds. This means that the unique providers are not motivated to go beyond a true integration that can create an impact. Everything costs money and if clients do not place a lot of value to unique content but ask for a lot of integration that is seen as value adds then the value of the channel gets depreciated.

Planners also need to look at incremental add ons. Sometimes not all things are suitable for going through the traditional buy. For high end products it is better to hit the niche upper end viewer first before going mass. A unique provider like AXN may not give huge numbers but may be the most effective way to reach the high end customer.


How has the performance been?

We were able to ask the market to bear our increased rates as the performance has been solid. The advertisers will be happy to note that the money gotten through increased ad rates is not simply being pocketed.

A part of that is being reinvested into the channel through programming like Gamex. These new initiatives will make clients investments that much more stronger.

'We created Animax as the craze for Anime in Asia outside India is huge. Anime is not niche. We had Anime on AXN earlier and it was a key driver in the early days in 1998 and in 1999'


As far as Animax is concerned in India it has understandably not managed to make a big impact so far as anime is still a relatively new concept. How is it faring in the other Asian countries?

We created Animax as the craze for Anime in Asia outside India is huge. Anime is not niche. We had Anime on AXN and it was a key driver for AXN in the early days in 1998 and in 1999.

In South East Asia it has done particularly well but there is room for improvement which we expect this to come in later this year. It is going through the toddler stage. We have a couple of huge shows lined up which I would say is our Survivor for Animax. There will be dubbing of voices for South East Asia.

Anything else?

We are looking at creating a fan club for Asian anime fans. Basically this will be an area where fans of the anime genre can get together.

The powerful thing about anime is not in the art of the drawing. It is in the storytelling. Anime is very effective in telling complex stories in a simple manner.

In the future as far as localisation goes we would look at stories from India that have universal appeal across Asia. We would look at doing local productions using Indian stories. However, I would say that we are probably at least a year away from doing that. The spark has been lit in India but unfortunately it has not become a fire.

We did research to find out what viewers feel. There is passion among a group of viewers. They are becoming a voice for us to their surrounding circle of friends. We have to now fan this spark into a fire. It requires more clever marketing and more careful understanding in terms of programming.


Finally could you talk about organisational restructuring that has taken place?

My previous boss Todd Miller is heading SPTI Asia which looks at production and licensing deals. Todd has licensing experience and his stint at AXN gave him channel experience. I was earlier the head of sales and programming. I have also had experience in marketing and distribution. Now I am SPE Asia networks head which represents Animax and Asia. The head of marketing Gregory Ho has been shifted to advertising.

Rohit Bhandari who was heading our India operations was shifted to Singapore as AXN South Asia marketing director. That is because India is an important market and we needed someone who understands that market thoroughly on the senior management team.

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