WarnerMedia heads into 2021 with new structure that puts all entertainment for India, Korea and Southeast Asia under Magdalene Ew, a sharp eye on the direction streaming platform HBO Go is taking, and a critical eye on an original production strategy that covers investment and development.
WarnerMedia Entertainment premieres HBO Asia’s Taiwanese romcom, Adventure of the Ring, in mid-December, capping a year that included the acquisition of extensive rights for all3media International’s Miss S, which is billed as an HBO original, the premiere of international co-pro The Head in June, followed in August by the Singapore-based regional programmer’s first sci-fi production, Dream Raider.
As massive global integration swept through corporate offices, the platform in Asia saw kids content triple year-on-year; lots of energy around HBO Max titles coming into Asia, including The Undoing, The Flight Attendant and Raised by Wolves; rapid fire rollouts of Asian streaming platform HBO Go; and a bundle of entertainment channels and services programmed with everything from Korea’s Moon Fishing in Aewol to China’s The Heart to Aquaman, Jumanji and We Bare Bears.
Counting down to the dawn of what will be the first full year with an integrated programming and production division, WarnerMedia is building on a slate of about 20 HBO Asia originals, and all eyes are on what direction new entertainment content head, Magdalene Ew, will take.
“It has been a busy year,” Ew told ContentAsia at the end of August during the ContentAsia Summit. “The intention is to go local, to work with and showcase talent from across Asia, including directors and actors, not only in Asia, but also elsewhere in the world.” HBO in the U.S., for instance, picked up HBO Asia original production, Invisible Stories, directed by Ler Jiyuan and starring Yeo Yann Yann. “So that’s my intention. The idea here is to be able to deliver a production a month and every week having an episode of our Asian original production on top of the regular shows that we get from HBO Max and HBO,” she said.
In a Q&A about programming the premium platform for Asia, Ew also told us...
The U.S. is obviously the scene of the fiercest fight over movies and libraries with the studios launching their own streaming services and pulling rights in-house. How much does that impact acquisitions for HBO in Asia?
“Fortunately for us we have our own WarnerMedia networks of brands... like Cartoon Network, TBS, DC, Warner. We’ve also obviously got a lot of great original production from HBO and HBO Max coming through. And besides all that, we have our long-term relationships and output deals with the studios. And we acquire a lot from other third-party studios and content from indie production companies. So far, there have not been any issues...
We will start to see a lot more productions coming from HBO and HBO Max from next year onwards. Obviously Covid has thrown a spanner in the works but all in all we can see at least 100 hours of new content coming through our network next year. And we obviously have a lot of kids content, like We Bare Bears, Loony Tunes, Sesame Street... that helps us to increase the stickiness of the platform.”
Do HBO Max originals automatically come to you?
“Nothing comes automatically! But obviously there’s a deal we’ve cut with our team in the U.S. All the content is going to be controlled and distributed by Warner Brothers; all those will come to us through our output deal.”
Is it too early to ask what impact HBO will have on your audience profile or demographic in Asia?
“It’s a bit too early but I can tell you that the HBO Max content we have been putting on HBO Go has been doing really, really well... it’s great storytelling and it adds a lot more diversity and a lot of different genres. Every market in Asia is very different, and tastes differ within each country as well. Our aim is to really make sure that we have a diverse amount of content, different genres that cater to different moods, for people who are time poor. Some shows are anthologies that can be watched in single episodes, so that helps give people a lot of options.”
HBO Go streaming footprint has grown significantly in the last few months, are there any viewership surprises coming out of the data you’re getting?
“No... obviously it’s been a busy year. We are currently in eight countries, with six of them offering OTT, so our number of subscribers has gone up significantly and our number of monthly-users has grown 100% year-on-year. With kids content being added on to the platform, viewership of kids content has tripled year-on-year. Series like The Head and Workers did well for us too. I think shows that have local relevance, which feature casts from local markets, do well for us. And movies of course, year-on-year, day in day out, those are our mainstay. So those are great results... we have more than 2,000 hours of HBO library content, and those titles still do well, led by Game of Thrones... So, there are really no surprises.”
Has data changed the way you curate HBO Go?
“Yes, of course. Obviously now everyone sees data as king, but it’s science. Most important is not to treat data as a silver bullet for everything. There’s the brand that we need to maintain, there are many factors that affect the way we curate. But, yes, all in all data does affect what we decide to produce and what we acquire.
For example, based on percentages and the genres we have for the whole year, we will see what’s missing and make sure we acquire... to fill the gaps. Also, for some months, if we have fewer premieres, we will acquire to make sure there’s strong content throughout the year.
On top of that, based on viewership patterns, we then curate and create promotable stunts and make sure we push all that content to our consumers as well. Viewers in Asia love action films, shows based on books, with a great cast and great directors. We will use those stunts to push and repackage shows; the old and the new, the very rewatchable classics...”
HBO Go carries a fair amount of Asian content, including Korean, Japanese and Chinese drama. In the current environment, with all the scrambling for Asian rights, how difficult is it to secure the titles you want?
“Obviously there is a lot of competition out there... but we have long term partnerships. So for Red channel, our partner is Mei Ah. They work closely with us to acquire all the content from around the region. We haven’t so far seen any challenges or any issues. The brand helps as well. And I think distributors do not want to put all their eggs into one basket. They want to be able to have their content on all the various platforms in Asia. So far, we don’t see potential problems.”
What about co-productions, like The Head with The MediaPro Studio. Are these global partnerships and investments part of a structured agenda to be involved in international co-production or is it just opportunistic, as and when they come up?
“I won’t say opportunistic, although to a certain extent it could be seen that way... With The Head, it was good timing, the right place at the right time. The conversation started really early on; I think we spoke about it a year and a half or close to two years in advance. And it took a long time. At the time, we had worked out our timelines and our plan for the year, and there was a void for that particular month for a particular show.
“The Head has a great cast; [Japanese idol] Tomo is very popular in Asia and English-language content can travel as well in Asia. On the week The Head launched on HBO Go, the series rated number one.
“So we look forward to more co-productions. We’re open to any ideas. Nothing stops us from working with anyone internationally, and we might work with HBO networks in the U.S., Latin America or Europe to create content.
“With streaming services these days, consumers are used to shows that are not just in English. Most languages travel, as long as you find the right story.
“The beauty of The Head is, besides the cast, the story itself. It’s a six-parter, so it’s very easy watching.
“We want to make sure we have a mix of different kinds of original production or co-production, be it in Chinese or Bahasa or Thai or even remakes, like Miss S, a 30-parter in Chinese. [Miss S is a Chinese adaptation of Australian drama, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which is currently on Netflix].
“Miss S is in 30 episodes, there are 15 cases/15 stories, each solved within two episodes. You can watch it in isolation, two episodes each time.
“We want to try different formulas for original production and co-pro so that we can see what works and what doesn’t work.”
Published in ContentAsia's December 2020 magazine