Television

'Around 20-25 per cent of our revenues in the Asian region come from India' : Ricky Ow - SPE Networks Asia GM

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This has been a busy year for Sony's international channels AXN and Animax. The task has been to pace up to the market competitiveness while staying sensitive to content that the government views as being "indecent."

Realising a vacuum in the youth market segment, Animax has repositioned itself by adding live action into its programming mix.

AXN, on the other hand, had to be taken off the airwaves by the government at the start of the year for its potrayal of indecent content. Since then, it has focussed on differentiating itself through original content and raising the bar on acquired shows.

Indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto caught up with SPE Networks Asia GM Ricky for a lowdown on the content, revenue and digital plans for the two channels in India.

Excerpts:

India is transitioning to digitisation. What opportunities does this present for Sony Pictures Television?

In the long run, the cost of technology will go down. It will help the overall penetration of pay television. For content providers this means that more viewers will have access to their offerings which will allow them to invest more.

Digitisation gives us opportunities to launch more channels across the region. We recently launched three channels including one for women in Singapore on Singtel's IPTV platform. English entertainment makes sense due to the great economies of scale.

In terms of revenues, how important is India vis-?-vis the rest of Asia?

India is a key market driver for us in the region. Around 20-25 per cent of our revenues come from here. India offers room for a lot of growth as it is not yet a mature market.

Are you seeing growth on the advertising front?

I would say that this year is better compared to last year. For our key partners, we will look at more branded content which will come through our original productions. On the mobile front, we are talking with a couple of firms for getting on board. We are looking to conceptualise content so that clients can be active participants and not just passive ones.

The government has been acting against adult content. Was AXN's late night content modified in any manner in India after the government took action earlier this year?

We had a block called Hot N Wild which we had taken out long before the ban. We, however, still had shows on that which reflected the edginess of that time block. We air shows that offer the brand promise of action and adventure, but we are not pushing ourselves as being a sexy channel.

Do you feel that the India should have a watershed hour like what the UK has?

We follow the law of the land. We only ask for clearer guidelines and for more leeway. A watershed hour means that the regulator believes in the maturity of the people. The regulator believes that people can decide for themselves what is appropriate. Whether or not this happens in India is for the people to decide.

The English entertainment space in India is getting more competitive. How is AXN improving its programming mix to maintain share?

Our current template has been working fine for us. From abroad you have driver shows like the CSI franchise. Then we do two to three local productions. We will be doing The Amazing Race 2.

This is a point of differentiation for us. We don't just produce content for a single market. We produce it so that it can travel across the region. As Indians become more sophisticated in taste, our formula will grow in appeal over the years.

Have you noticed any changes in viewership patterns in India and Asia over the past year?

Earlier we used to rely more on movies to drive the channel. Then when movie channels launched, this kind of content started to play a lesser role for us. It was a blessing in disguise for us as it let us concentrate on high quality TV shows.

We are seeing a trend in India where TV serials are getting more viewership than in the past where it was mostly English movies. There will an upward curve for them in the coming two to three years. While most of our viewership is male, the number of women tuning in has also gone up.

How did the idea of doing a pan Asian version of The Amazing Race come about?

We have been airing the US version for a number of years. Fans kept writing in, asking how they could participate. Obviously to participate in the American version you need a Green card. So we decided to do an Asian version of the show. We were the first broadcaster to do the show after CBS.

The show is inspirational and we wanted to do a show that would reflect what our viewers aspire to be. This show celebrates the human spirit which is why it connects so well with our viewers. It is not just about a race per se. Luck plays a part as well. The budget for the show will keep growing as we do more editions of it.

What is most interesting is that the most number of entries have come from India. Entry is not just about sending in an SMS or filling up a form. It is about shooting a video of yourself and the partner.

'There is a vacuum that exists in the youth market which Animax is looking to fill. Our aim is to make it grow in popularity by having more diversity in our line up'

What were the key challenges and learnings from the first season?

Getting visas for the contestants is the biggest problem. This is exacerbated by the fact that they do not know which countries they will be visiting. The Indian team needs a visa for every place they visit and this is an uphill task. For the US version, you don't need a visa for most of the places you visit.

The other learning was that some viewers preferred the Asian version over the US one. The Asian version is competitive but not ruthless. It offers good drama and touching moments. In my view the Asian contestants are more sincere. One team will not try to destroy the other. If one team is down and struggling, then you could find them being given a helping hand by other participants.

How did you cope with logistics?

Everyday you have to move from one city to the next. The core production team comprises 70-80 people. They travel with the contestants. When they reach the next destination, there will be another 70-80 people waiting. Sometimes you plan for the race to end at say 3 pm in the afternoon, but some teams take so long they arrive at 3 am. This means that we have to organise lighting. Some of the production members have worked on the US version as well. So they have the experience.

We also work with the local players in each place we visit. The partnership really helps. We also build relationships with the airline. This way we can move equipment a lot quicker.

What are the key attributes that AXN is looking for in participants?

Personality is important. They must be outgoing. I remember an Indonesian couple last time around. There was talk about when they would get eliminated but they lasted till almost the last round. For each edition we look for a different relationship between the contestants. For our second edition there will be surprises.

When does the second season kick off?

We are looking to do it towards the end of the year. Last time around, it was more Asia focussed. The time contestants will travel outside the region as well. In fact, more than half the show will be outside Asia.

What are the other pan Asian reality concepts that AXN has in mind this year?

Our aim is to look at a winning formula and produce a show for a multiple number of markets. Local channels find it difficult to do this due to the comfort level and costs involved. We are doing a local version of the boxing-based reality show The Contender.

The Contender is being done out of Singapore. India, though, does not have a representative in this show. This show is not as big in India as it is in some of the other Asian countries. But we are hopeful that it will grow. In Asia boxing is seen as a form of exercise like Yoga.

Another show we are looking at is called Ultimate Xtreme that we are casting for. This where friends recommend that a person take part in a show without his/her knowledge. It could be that the person has been working hard without a rest and so the boss feels that this might be a good way for the employee to take a break. It will be positioned as the ultimate experience for that person.

In terms of foreign shows, what is coming up?

We have a major show called Damages coming up. It was done by SPTI for the US and stars Glenn Close. It is a legal thriller set in the world of New York City high-stakes litigation. The series which provides a view into the true nature of power and success, follows the turbulent lives of Patty Hewes, the US' most revered and reviled high-stakes litigator, and her bright, ambitious, protégé Ellen Parsons as they become embroiled in a class action lawsuit targeting the allegedly corrupt Arthur Frobisher, one of the country's wealthiest CEOs. As Patty battles with Frobisher and his attorney Ray Fiske, Ellen Parsons will be front and center witnessing just what it takes to win at all costs, as it quickly becomes clear that lives, as well as fortunes, may be at stake.

Last year Sony did a magic show abroad. We are looking to bring it to Asia and India. Acquisition costs have gone up and so we have to be more clever in terms of what we buy.

Animax recently introduced live action. Is it fair to say that Animax was forced to go this route as Indian viewers feel that animation is for kids?

That seems to be the perception in the market. That is not true actually. This move was done for Asia as well. Last year we changed our positioning from an anime channel to a youth oriented one.

We needed to add components to make it more rounded. So we have gaming, movies. In some markets there are music shows. At the same time, we are not compromising on the anime content. 70-80 per cent of the content is anime. The response to the repositioning has so far been good.

A lot of Indian broadcasters are launching youth targetted channels. How confident are you that Animax will be able to stand out from the crowd?

Some youth targetted genres are struggling like the music ones. We are seeing that MTV has scaled down their operations in Asia. A channel must have content that viewers really want to watch. If you are a music channel it might not be a good idea to have reality shows as that can be had anywhere else.

There is a vacuum that exists in the youth market which Animax is looking to fill. Our aim is to make it grow in popularity by having more diversity in our line up. The net savvy youth are more exposed to anime content than any other TG.

How has Animax used interactivity and on-ground events to get closer to viewers in India and Asia?

The Animax Awards have been successful for us. This is a scriptwriting competition. Each country has a winner. The competition then reaches the next stage and competes also with Japan. An Asian panel chooses the wining entry.

I am impressed with the Indian entries as one always feels that Indians are relatively less exposed to animation compared with other Asian countries. We also connect on-air and on the ground through gaming. We were one of the first channels to use gaming as a platform in India. I think that gaming will become big especially in the metros.

As far as new media is concerned, both Animax and AXN launched mobile offerings recently. How has the response been and how many telecom partners do you have?

It is a question of finding the right partners to work with who understand and share our vision. It is not just a question of money. Right now the money in this sector is small but with our strategy the future is bright.

AXN offers customised short form versions of shows like The Amazing Race. This you will not find on the channel. Animax will have long form programming. This means that you can catch up on episodes that you have missed on the mobile. It is still a learning phase for us.

What we have learnt so far is that users will use our mobile content more if it is reasonably priced. This means that the content cost and airtime cost package have to be affordable. There is no point in having low priced content if the airtime cost to download the content is high. We have to be smarter in terms of how these two costs are packaged.

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