Zubin Gandevia, President, Asia Pacific & Middle East, FOX Networks Group

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FOX Nets Asia boss Zubin Gandevia on FOX+

FOX Networks Group (FNG) Asia president, Zubin Gandevia, is in plus mode, adding angles to an ecosystem built up over the past two and a half decades and subtracting nothing except, perhaps, the fear that has wracked a traditional subscription video industry in decline.

At the core of the way forward is FOX+, a multi-screen streaming product that has promised “an unrivalled combination of the latest TV series, first-run Hollywood blockbusters, hit Chinese series and movies, live sports and thrilling documentaries, all in one place, accessible from any device, at any time, in high definition”. So that’s the press release. 

The reality? Well, maybe not every single documentary uploaded so far is thrilling. The “unrivalled combination” of content could be debated title by title, window by window, across 11,000+ hours against streaming rivals. But then add live sports streaming. And in an environment where consumers’ every need has been anticipated. That’s a turn-the-critics-away-tail-between-legs moment for FNG. And they’ve only just got started.  

Gandevia talks about FOX+ as more than just an app. It’s a multi-million dollar commitment to a future that builds rather than breaks. 

He’s clear about why. “Our requirement is different from other players who might be in valuation mode or doing in to disrupt the system. We are trying to strengthen the ecosystem, building value, not destroying it”. 

“We are being accretive, building on an amazing ecosystem that we have built over many years,” he adds.  

There’s a good reason, among many other reasons, why. For now, as Media Partners Asia’s (MPA)  data shows, there’s a gap between traditional and “digital” revenues that means supporting co-existence is a very sensible idea. 

And it may always be in one form or another, but that’s a question for another year. The question for today is “how can one create a strategy where the market is arguably declining but can become stronger. FOX+ is part of that,” Gandevia says. 

“Our belief is that the game will be won by people who have big legacy businesses who adapt to the future. We see this as a huge opportunity,” he adds.

He is single-minded about “working with current partners first and foremost” and won’t be drawn into a direct-to-consumer conversation. “We believe we are better off working through partners than going direct because they have scale. Key is the marketing and the retailing scale,” he says. 

Gandevia talks about “incentivising existing subscribers” and says FNG’s “number one priority is to improve the experience of our loyal fans… thereby protecting the businesses of our affiliate partners”.  

A high-value experience is a bet against the lure of piracy and losing viewers to other channels. “Let’s make sure we serve our fans first and then we will go for new ones,” he says. 

What does success look like? A couple of weeks after the FOX+ launch in the Philippines, FNG won’t go on the record with download numbers. The service is available through Cignal, PLDT and Smart in the Philippines. “A measure of success is not the number of down loads, it’s customer satisfaction,” he says. 

It’s a good story being told by a company that has made story telling a priority. 

“If you step back, our DNA and ethos is story telling,” Gandevia says.  “We might make and tell them ourselves or someone else might. Movies or sport, maybe Hollywood, Chinese or Indian. That’s what we are about. That’s how we define our business. It’s not a channels business. We tell stories in branded destinations that consumers trust and love,” he adds, describing brands as “the castle in which the king lives”. 

“Stand alone content is good but not as good as marrying it with a powerful brand,” he says. 

Three elements underpin the way forward. First, he says, “in a market under pressure, we are becoming stronger by doubling down on the best content and brands so that we can expand market share... our strategy is to get all rights to the best content, get it first and get it exclusive”. 

Within that, FNG is going “upstream” and investing in producing its own content. 

The first two TV series are Chinese finance thriller Trading Floor and five-part crime thriller Stained, which is inspired by real-life crimes in Hong Kong. Both series were announced at Hong Kong Filmart in March this year, and mark a new original production era for FNG in Asia. Both will be available on FOX+ as well as on FOX channels worldwide. 

FNG also acquired U.S. Open rights, giving the network rights to all four tennis grand slams, along with rights to The Voice and The Blacklist. FOX+ went live in the Philippines on 7 March with Deadpool, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Revenant, and full catalogues of shows such as The Walking Dead, and Homeland, along with recent titles The Young Pope and 24 Legacy.

Gandevia’s second imperative is to “make products for the future”. FOX+ is an example of that. There’s more in the works, along with a stronger push beyond video.   

All this new thinking required significant changes to the way FNG’s business is structured. 

“Digital changes the product, distribution, advertising sales, the way we organise ourselves,” Gandevia says.

FOX+ was created in Asia by a dedicated unit under Prakash Ramchandani, FNG’s senior vice president of SVOD digital, Asia Pacific & Middle East, with a team that will continue to operate as an individual unit within FNG. Ramchandani will also have his own teams on the ground in every FOX+ market to manage local implementation. 

The groundwork for the new structure that gave rise to FOX+ and its content strengths was, however, laid long before. 

“When we looked to do this, we were clear about two things. One is it must start with what the consumer needs/wants. It’s easy to say but the industry has not done a good job. We thought we had to fix that and to play to our strengths, which we have a lot of in this part of the world,” Gandevia says. 

“If you are a consumer, the industry has forced you to make a choice. If you are on linear, you get a good experience,” he says. The on-demand experience, not so much. Giving consumers what they want was difficult because of the rights windows, Gandevia says. So he set about changing the relationship with distributors, and redistributing the advantage that used to belong solely to linear. 

FOX content was less of an issue. “Luckily for us, we also make a lot of our own content,” Gandevia says. 

In the new world created by FOX+, the latest shows are streamed day and date with the U.S. and on the same day as the shows air on the linear channel. FOX+ also offers box sets of past seasons.  

Hollywood and Chinese movie titles will also be available on FOX+ as soon as they go on the channel. 

“For the first time we are allowing the consumer to marry old and new, bringing the entire experience in one place. It’s never been done before,” Gandevia says. 

For his part, firsts and never-done-before’s have become a way of life for Ramchandani, tasked with building the platform from the first one and zero. 

Everything he has lived and breathed for the past year at least has been about making the app easy to use, from the unique episode descriptions and images, the size of the subtitles and the language customisation, to the ability to download a movie in three minutes on a 4G network and to dial into the call centre directly from the app. 

“We want to be as close to the user as possible,” Ramchandani  says.  

Although FOX+ is tethered to existing pay-TV partners, the product will be available as a standalone to non-FOX subscribers through the platform. 

That said, “we are working with our partners and incentivising consumers,” Gandevia says. Deals will differ market by market, but generally if viewers already subscribe to one of the higher ARPU packs, FOX+ may well be bundled in at no extra cost. The idea is to make the bigger subscription pack more attractive than buying FOX+ alone.   

FOX+ will be geoblocked for specific markets. While this eliminates the ability for subscribers to take the subscription with them wherever they go, it also allows FNG to customise pricing market by market.  

“We are being very careful not to cannibalise our existing business,” Gandevia says. “We have to give our consumers a good, legitimate experience that’s world class and better than any other.” 

Gandevia said the more programmers moving into the streaming environment the better. “Anyone who owns content can do this,” he says, adding: “The question is do you own enough and are there enough consumers who want to consume the content to make it worthwhile?” 

With FOX+ up and running in the Philippines, the immediate mission is to roll out everywhere else. Singapore is likely to be next, although nothing had been confirmed at press time.  

The more users the service has, the bigger the data – another critical change from the un-sharing environment that characterised traditional pay-TV relationships. 

Going forward, FOX+ will be shaped to some extent by that data, although Gandevia stands by the line that “people don’t watch algorithms, they watch content”. 

Is there anything he doesn’t like about the FOX+ experience? “I’m very impatient. I would like to do it much faster. But I tell myself it’s a marathon. One step at a time.” 

Published on ContentAsia's APOS Special, 19 April 2017