Friday 14 Jun 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on June 10, 2024 - June 16, 2024

Nine girls, each a vibrant thread from Asia’s rich tapestry, stood triumphant on the Chuang Asia: Thailand stage as cheers celebrating their debut erupted across Southeast Asia and the continent. Their debut marked the dawn of a new era — the fusion of Asian cultural content across over-the-top (OTT) platforms.

Digital Edge was invited to the show’s finale, which was held at ICONSIAM in Bangkok, Thailand, on April 6. The nine girls — Qiao Yi Yu, Ruan, Pailiu, Yean, Elyn, Wang Ke, Xueyao, Didi and Emma — are to debut as the international girl group Gen1es.

Chuang Asia: Thailand, a Thai spin-off of the popular Chinese idol survival show Chuang (Produce Camp) by Tencent Video, is igniting global conversations on fusion content. These hyperlocalised shows embrace multicultural elements to fuel localised content that resonates across borders.

“There continues to be strong demand from local audiences across Southeast Asia for high-quality hyperlocalised content. For instance, in recent years, the surge in popularity of survival-themed content has redefined Southeast Asia’s entertainment scene,” says Kaichen Li, lead producer of the show and head of WeTV.

The success of WeTV’s show bodes well for pan-Asian productions in the unscripted and reality contest space. The title was among the top 10 Southeast Asian titles of the year, with about 50% of viewers tuning in from outside of Thailand, according to Media Partners Asia (MPA).

“The Chuang format has built-in regional appeal with talent across the Mando-pop, K-pop and Thai-pop worlds and brings together the region’s avid music fan bases,” says Dhivya T, lead analyst at MPA.

According to AMPD Analytics, a research platform measuring consumer behaviour across the digital economy by MPA, the show ranked No 1 in the top five most travellable titles on OTT platforms in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) for the January to April 2024 period. The top titles are measured across mobile devices, covering platforms such as iQIYI, Netflix, Prime Video, TrueID, Vidio, Viu and WeTV.

The impact of Indonesian, Thai and Chinese content is increasing. Thai and Indonesian content have grown in prominence as global platforms, particularly Netflix, have invested in local originals and licensing.

“In Southeast Asia, Thai stories maintain the strongest regional appeal, drawing significant audiences to their drama, romance and comedy titles through Netflix and Viu. Indonesian horror films drive Indonesian content beyond its borders,” says Dhivya.

Modern Chinese dramas are increasingly taking on K-drama-like storylines and themes, appealing to wider audiences through platforms like Netflix and Viu, relative to traditional Chinese costume fantasy dramas, which remain popular in Thailand and Taiwan, according to MPA.

(Photo by Grace Yap Ern Hui/The Edge)

Merging local and international content elements

OTT platforms are taking a more hands-on approach, going beyond content distribution to invest in local productions. This is done through research and collaboration with local production partners to produce new and engaging content appropriate for the target audience.

“The way we do local productions is we try to pull together the elements of local markets but also other markets where we have the presence and experiences. So, we are kind of like a content creator who is trying to merge different cultures into a piece of local content in particular territories,” says Li.

However, before content can travel across borders on OTT platforms, it needs to resonate with local viewers first. Strong local reception will become the launching pad for global marketing efforts.

“Platforms generally approach markets looking for locally relevant stories first, rather than pan-Asian projects which may struggle to be authentically local while also appealing to multiple markets, especially given the diversity of Asia and Southeast Asia,” says Dhivya.

Specifically, for large content markets like Thailand and Indonesia, the streaming platforms are looking for titles that can perform well in the home market first, before any regional impact, she says, adding that truly pan-Asian productions with cross-border cast, language and talent are relatively rare, especially with scripted content.

“Instead, platforms are focused on local productions with local language and cast that can travel well. For example, among the best travelling titles of 2024 are Viu’s What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim in the Philippines and Thai drama Beauty Newbie, both K-Drama remakes,” says Dhivya. Notably, both are adaptations of popular Korean dramas and the themes are replicated in the drama, romance and comedy genres.

As for Malaysia’s position in the market, Li says there were efforts made to produce an original Malaysian series but the demand wasn’t big, which may make OTT platforms hesitant to produce such series.

“While the production cost may be comparable to that in Indonesia, the potential audience for Malaysian content is much smaller, leading to lower profits. The market already has competition from existing media companies such as Astro and Media Prima, which produce their own series. So, there’s less wide space in the market for new OTT-produced Malaysian series,” notes Li.

The primary challenge remains being able to continuously produce quality content to cater to the target audience’s needs. “The second thing is [to look at] how we are able to leverage technology to better satisfy users’ needs in terms of the product interface, recommendation engine and also artificial intelligence- enabled language translation,” says Jeff Han, WeTV director and vice-president of Tencent Video, adding that they are still exploring the use of AI in the industry.

“It’s still in a very early phase. So, I think we’re just trying to be very cautious and not aggressive with it. But it is something we’re willing to explore further [in the future],” says Li.

Nevertheless, WeTV is slowly but surely growing its paid subscriber base in Indonesia and Thailand, where it also has a lot of demand across its “free layer”, the ad-supported video on demand (AVOD) tier, says Dhivya.

AVOD offers users free access to on-demand content in exchange for watching ads. Some viewers may not be ready to pay for a subscription yet, or they may prefer the free option despite the ads.

“Through WeTV’s freemium model, we are able to lower the barrier to entry to our content for our users in the regional market, allowing mass market penetration in Southeast Asia where OTT providers remain highly competitive,” says Han.

WeTV’s monthly active users and subscribers are concentrated in Thailand and Indonesia, where the streamer has focused its marketing and growth efforts, says Dhivya. She further mentions that the platform’s core offering of Chinese dramas, particularly romance and fantasy, is resonant in Thailand, on top of Chuang Asia: Thailand’s success.

“Tencent Video (WeTV) is our Chinese version for the China market. In China, we’ve produced more than 100 titles, cutting across series, variety shows, documentaries and animations. We’re looking to strengthen ourselves on the basis of strong Chinese content plus local and international content,” says Han.

MPA says that in Indonesia, MD Entertainment is a key producer of popular local original dramas for WeTV, and Tencent has a minority stake in MD Entertainment.

“WeTV maintains a decent pipeline of local originals but its core offering in Indonesia is Chinese dramas,” says Dhivya. The company also has a large distribution partnership with Telkomsel, the largest telco in Indonesia.

“In volume, I think, in the past three years, we have produced more than 30 local Indonesian series. So that represents the job opportunities and investment in the content industry in Indonesia. But I think, more importantly, we did manage to elevate the standard of quality in Indonesian series,” says Li, who wants to elevate the local content industry through OTT platforms like WeTV by producing quality content in collaboration with local tier one film production companies.

Han expresses optimism about the further growth of its overseas business-to-business (B2B) segment and audience in Asia.

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