May 9, 2017
This episode I’m in Tokyo with long-time Asia media executive, David Shin, President and Representative Director for Fox International Japan.
Here’s the background you need. Call it Inside Asia’s “Guide to Asia Media.”
First, a few fun facts: over 800 million homes in Asia currently subscribe to cable or pay-tv services of some kind. That’s a lot. It’s all the more impressive if you consider that just twenty-five years ago, multi-channel pay-tv didn’t even exist here. Back then Asian viewers were on a restricted daily diet of B-class melodramas and government propaganda.
That all began to change in the early1990s, when Richard Li – the son of a Hong Kong tycoon – launched Star TV. It was a rough start and anything but conventional. Li assembled a ragtag team of former media executives, entrepreneurs and deal-makers who put their heads together and came up with a plan that sounded like a Hollywood screenplay than an actual business deal.
Li wasn’t prepared to place an order for a new satellite and then have to wait years for its delivery. Instead, he hunted down and purchased a second-hand satellite from the Soviet Union.
That was just the beginning. It gets stranger.
Sending his new toy into orbit posed another challenge. The French and Americans had virtually cornered the satellite launch business, so what did Li do? He turned to the Chinese. China’s leaders were keen to show the world they had the capacity and know-how to penetrate space. The fact that China had never before launched a commercial satellite didn’t seem to bother Li and his minions. For weeks, they ran full-page ads emblazoned with three large words – “Watch This Space.” If this were a great myth, in the next chapter we would have found Li lost in space.
But this was Hong Kong in 1990. Anything was possible. And so, on April 7, 1990, in the remote Chinese province of Sichuan, the Long March 3 rocket was launched.
It actually happened. I know. I was there. I saw the launch with my own eyes.
We’d arrived only hours before on a chartered flight from Hong Kong. Li and a bevy of tycoons in front and I and my journalist cohort consigned to the rear. Between us sat a phalanx of bankers and insurers.
We all thought StarTV a laughable idea, but damn if it didn’t work. Li’s media enterprise set in motion a tsunami of TV entertainment for a starved Asian audience that today generates nearly US$40 billion in annual revenue.
Which is not to say that it’s been easy. Not everyone liked the idea of people in Asia glued to “American Idle” and episodes of the “X Files.” For some governments in the region (China in particular), it was a cultural affront and in some case, in violation of censorship laws. For others, it was an opportunity to build new cable-TV companies to redistribute programming courtesy of the big Hollywood brands.
Whatever the feeling, it’s fair to say that in Asia it all started with Star TV. Post-launch and throughout the early 1990s, Star lay the groundwork. In those ensuing years, droves of US media executives ranging from CNN’s Ted Turner to Disney’s Michael Eisner touched down in Hong Kong for an audience with Li. They came bearing gifts of programming catalogues. Soon enough, Asians from Kyoto to Kabul were watching Hollywood films, American sitcoms and blockbuster game shows, all from the comfort of their tiny living rooms.
It was a virtual bonanza for companies like Sony, Turner, Time-Warner and Disney who cut lucrative programming distribution deals with the region’s burgeoning cable-TV providers.
Slowly at first, then more quickly, Asian production companies entered the fray, offering their own repertoire of programming that spoke more precisely to the tastes, preferences and aspirations of a growing Asian middle class.
Over time, US films and TV programs began to lose their appeal. The Hollywood crowd will deny it, but in Asia, a local fare of homegrown programming is quietly displaced American-style TV. Equally disheartening is the encroachment of video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, and a slew of other Asian home-grown services. It’s a powerful entertainment substitute for a population that today watches more than half its video entertainment on mobile phones and devices. In this part of the world at least, video is on the go. The days of circling up around the living room TV set are pretty much over.
All of this leaves global media brands wondering where future Asia growth will come from. That was where I started in my conversation with David Shin.
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