Virginia Lim, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Sony Pictures Television Networks, Asia

Feature

Interview: Bag of Tricks

Sony Pictures Television Networks’ new Asia boss, Virginia Lim, is as tough as the environment she faces and a lot more straight talking. As she settles into a different role, Lim talks about shifting acquisitions habits, original production and other assets in her bag of tricks. 

 

Sony Pictures Television Networks’ new Asia boss, Virginia Lim, along with everyone else in the space, faces the toughest subscription video environment anyone can remember in Asia. No-growth is, at best, the new normal in the linear pay-TV environment. Affiliate revenue is flat at best, and if there are any increases, they come with a big basket of new asks. Regional advertising budgets are ghosts of their former selves – and they were never that brilliant to begin with. “Digital” is less shiny than the original hope. In Singapore’s domestic ‘Singlish’ dialect, the question now is, “So how?” 

Lim’s bag of tricks right now includes top English-language general entertainment channel, the 20-year-old AXN, along with the region’s top Asian channel, Korean service ONE. ONE was the number-one Korean channel in Southeast Asia in 2017 with a 54% share of the Korean channels in Malaysia and a 39% share in Singapore*. 

There’s also English-language female-focused Sony Channel, and GEM, a joint-venture Asian channel with Japan’s Nippon Television now available in seven Southeast Asian markets. Among other firsts, GEM was the first regional entertainment channel to offer day-and-date Japanese series outside of Japan. 

Newly appointed as senior vice president and general manager for Sony Pictures Television (SPT) Networks Asia, Lim has already made her mark for pushing a high-impact originals slate at a time where rivals have walked back spend and are tiptoeing forward.

Last year, she green lit season two of FremantleMedia talent show Asia’s Got Talent; season three is in pre-production (no details yet). The year before belonged to The Amazing Race Asia season five, which was the second show on the channel for the year behind CBS’ reboot of MacGyver. New seasons of both original series are being considered.    

Lim is also steering Sony’s acquisitions into a new direction, still anchoring the English-language entertainment schedule in first-run titles such as MacGyver 2, Quantico 3 and The Blacklist 5, but also allocating a larger portion of her programming budget to high-impact shows with a live component. 

So far, SPT Nets has picked up rights left on the table after RTL and CBS sold their Asia joint venture, RTL CBS Entertainment Networks, to Blue Ant Media in 2017. Shifting to SPT Networks from this year are FremantleMedia’s America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent and American Idol. Britain’s Got Talent premieres on AXN this month, followed by America’s Got Talent in May. American Idol airs on Sony Channel on the same day as the U.S.

Real originals (as opposed to streaming originals that are high-priced acquisitions) include The Elements: Cosentino with Australian illusionist/escapologist/magician, Cosentino. The four-part series, which premiered in January 2018, was filmed in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. Cosentino’s return to AXN is being discussed. 

“We continue to rely on Hollywood content to provide a core programming grid,” Lim says. But, with so much of the same content widely available across other platforms, “we have to change, we have to find our differentiator”. 

“I wouldn’t say we are buying less. What we are trying to do is strike a balance between top Hollywood series and original content creation,” she adds. 

“At the same time when we evaluate our content acquisition strategy, we also focus on individual markets, and then you start looking at what actually rates, what viewers really want. Sometimes what the viewers really want may not be that biggest Hollywood series. It varies from market to market.” 

Never as urgent as now, the drive towards differentiators has also taken Sony into market-specific originals such as crowd-sourced travel series, Adventure Your Way, for the Philippines.    

Lim calls Asia’s Got Talent a “no brainer”, despite all the budget busting that went on for season one. Season two, in which she was directly involved for the first time, operated with some of the same people but under a completely different structure – and with a lower budget. 

“Season one was good for us as a network all round. Ratings were great and we set a new benchmark for original production in this part of the world,” Lim says.

For season two, “we had to think about how to do it better, with less money, of course. That’s always the big question: how do you make it so that it makes financial sense. It’s a really expensive production.”   

The second season was always a case of when rather than if. Lots of things have changed, Lim says, but there “was never a moment when we thought that we would not want to bring it back. We were just thinking of bringing it back in a better way”.

 There’s also the possibility of rolling out Sony’s U.S.-based Crackle on-demand streaming platform in Asia. This will, if it happens, extend the company’s streaming presence beyond its investment in the Singtel-led HOOQ joint venture with Warner Bros, and the Animax on-demand platform in Japan and Korea. Will Sony go for the bank-breaking effort involved? That’s a question for another day.