Feature

New tunes

Lots to love about Singapore, which rules December because of the Singapore Media Festival and the ATF programme market. Chicken rice. Mee siam. Char kway teow. The white tiger at the zoo. Spago. Media, um, maybe. Depends on the day and who has the mic.

Singapore remains a regional media hub. But the energy that characterised the early days of multichannel television? Not so much if you’re not Netflix. Or Amazon. As 2018 turns to 2019, a battered video industry hunts around for lifelines that range from direct-to-consumer subscription services and YouTube to ramping up original production and winding down old structures peopled by, well, people. Too many of them, clearly.  “Digital” and “social” continue to be interpreted every which way, for good and for bad, and a common panic is over the relative absence of skills (or a new combo of skills) that will recreate kickass media businesses. 

Other than shutting off analogue TV at the end of December 2018, what’s Singapore’s plan? 

Two-year-old government agency, the combo telecoms/media Infocomms Media Development Authority (IMDA), is peddling furiously to be all things digital, including an admirable effort to upskill, reskill and future-proof the domestic workforce. In 2017, for instance, 50,000 seniors took part in the Silver Infocomm Initiative, and the government’s TechSkills Accelerator received another S$145 million/US$105.6 million for another 20,000 training places by 2020; the aim is to teach emerging digital skills, like data analytics, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. 

The vision is to create a “dynamic Digital Economy and a cohesive Digital Society, driven by an exceptional infocomm and media ecosystem”. Somewhere in there, during 2017 (the most updated figure available), was funding for 5,477 hours of public service broadcasting programmes, and a S$3-million/US$2.2 million three-year content development fund to pilot and test new concepts and formats. What else is happening as the year turns?   

 

Free TV 

Singapore’s sole terrestrial broadcaster remains Mediacorp, which is backed by the Singapore government and has a mixed public service/commercial remit. Mediacorp operates seven TV channels (Channel 5, 8, U, Channel NewsAsia, Suria, Vasantham, okto), 11 radio stations and multiple digital platforms, including video streaming platform Toggle. 

Unlike the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Korea, where broadcasters routinely release ratings, Mediacorp closely guards viewership  data from the country’s government-supported SG-TAM by Gfk. The best we have been able to get recently is for English-language Channel 5’s MasterChef Singapore, which was watched by close to 900,000 people over the eight episodes, making the series the highest-rated English-language variety/entertainment title on Channel 5 in two years since October 2016, when the SG-TAM ratings launched. The finale was watched by 277,000 people. The reality show also had  387,000 video views (and 100,000 unique viewers) on Mediacorp’s streaming platform Toggle. No word yet on a second season. 

Anecdotal evidence indicates that digi-life and the universe has not been massively kind to many in the traditional broadcast space, and Mediacorp, monopoly or not, cannot – surely – be exempt from the country’s enthusiastic use of VPNs to access overseas services, plethora of easily available android boxes, and easy-ish access to pirate streaming sites. The English-language Channel 5 perhaps has the hardest time in an environment flooded with legal, illegal and grey-area English-language alternatives. Chinese Channel 8 fares better. New local music competition series, Spop Sing!, scored more than 1.7 million viewers over its 10-episode run from August this year, plus 816,000 views on Mediacorp’s streaming platform Toggle, according to Mediacorp.   

Other than standing with its hand out for the government’s S$250 million/US$182 million a year in public service broadcast funding and lobbying for more – what’s a broadcaster like Mediacorp to do?

Enter national entertainment treasures, Dick Lee and Michael Chiang. In a new initiative designed to boost English-language Channel 5, Mediacorp is tugging at the country’s domestic heartstrings and “sense of Singaporean-ness” in a new plan that could – if done right – stem viewer leakage and shore up defences against better-resourced regional and global entertainment services. 

Both Lee and Chiang will resurrect their best-known creative works for English-language Channel 5 and for Toggle. The first two original productions under the “Lights. Camera. Singapore” initiative announced in late November are a 13-part TV drama based on Lee’s iconic 1991 musical, Fried Rice Paradise, and a rework of Chiang’s stage play, Mixed Signals. Fried Rice Paradise is scheduled to air/stream from 2 July 2019. The TV drama is the story of a woman struggling to keep her father’s coffee shop afloat. The 13-part dramedy, Mixed Signals, about dating in the digital age, will premiere on 1 October 2019.  Chiang promises “humorous hijinks will be heightened for television”. 

Supporting the initiative, Lee says “our national identity is something we must never take for granted, so I’m always mindful of imbuing my work with a sense of Singaporean-ness”.

Mediacorp says the initiative “champions the cultural cornerstones that make us uniquely Singaporean” and will tap ideas from across the creative ecosystem. A Tuesday 10pm home on English-language Channel 5 has been created to house the new strand, which kicks off on 27 November with the free-TV premiere of 2015 movie 7 Letters

Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye (2017) will air on 18 December, and Ilo Ilo (2013) on 26 February 2019.  28 movies have already been identified for the slot in a partnership with the Singapore Film Commission (SFC).

The official line is that Lights Camera Singapore celebrates “content created for, by and with local talent, and cements Mediacorp’s commitment to spotlighting shared experiences – our people, places and parlance – via Singaporean storytelling”.

Mediacorp is onto something here. Whatever else Singapore lacks, national sentiment isn’t in short supply; the National Day Parade on 9 August was the most-watched programme across both Channel 8 and Channel 5 for the three months from July to September 2018, according to rankings released by the IMDA. Mediacorp says 1.85 million people watched the live broadcast.     

 

Pay-TV

There’s only one way to describe this sector: a great big sigh (and not of relief). Regional analysts Media Partners Asia (MPA) forecasts a pay-TV industry revenue decline of 6% in Singapore from 2018 to 2023, making the country the worst performer in Southeast Asia for the next four years.

MPA’s numbers are not a huge surprise really. Between them, the two major pay-TV players – Singtel and StarHub – shed 53,000 traditional pay-TV subscribers in the first nine months of this year. The 11-year-old Singtel TV ended Sept 2018 with 383,000 residential subscribers – a drop of 18,000 from the beginning of the year. StarHub ended September this year with 423,000 subscribers, down 35,000 from 458,000 at the end of 2017.

 It’s a long way down from 2015. StarHub’s high was in March 2015, when TV subscribers hit 545,000. Singtel never quite managed to overtake StarHub, coming closest in December 2015 with 424,000. And it doesn’t look like Singtel ever will, or at least not in the traditional box-based way being left in the dust by a focus on mobile/streaming. 

Both platforms have – for better or worse, but in a clear effort to make sense of a new normal – made significant changes to their linear packages. As it added fresh new brands such as CuriosityStream, Hits Movies and Gusto TV to its linear line up, StarHub dropped the entire Discovery/Scripps bundle this year, and changed its relationships with programme rights holders such as Hong Kong’s TVB. Singtel, which added some Discovery channels, also disappeared Toonami/Toonami On Demand, Mezzo Live, Trace Sports Stars, Showcase, !nsert, Bioskop Indonesia, along with three Fox services, Channel [V] Taiwan, Eurosport, Eleven Sports 1 & 2, ASN, Discovery Eve and Discovery Kids.

Whether this year’s efforts are working – or not – will become clear when the platforms report their full year 2018 financials. We’re not holding our breath. 

 

Streaming/OTT

Much more encouraging is Singapore’s online/streaming environment, which MPA forecasts will grow 15% CAGR from 2018 to 2023. There’s no shortage of companies with their hands up for a piece of this. For now, growth is being driven by Netflix and Viu, but others will rise as the industry – including players like Singtel and HBO and even Hong Kong’s TVB – shifts online.  

“That 15% growth could be much much higher,” says MPA executive director Vivek Couto.   

Singapore has the full range of global/regional streaming services and then some, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Go, Viu, Apple’s iTunes (music/movies only, no TV), India’s ALTBalaji (launched in April 2017), South Asian global platform Spuul (launched in April 2012) and Yupp TV (launched in May 2015), Taiwan’s Catchplay On Demand, Malaysia’s dimsum and Fox+, some of which bill through domestic providers and all of which offer direct-to-consumer interfaces. Most are not customised for Singapore. 

The big excitement is freemium newcomer TVB Anywhere SG, by Chinese programming giant Television Broadcasts Ltd (TVB). TVB Anywhere SG rolled out in October 2018. The direct-to-consumer mobile streaming plan seems to be (although no one is saying it like this) part of a reworked (and we believe not as lucrative as in the past) licensing deal with StarHub.    

Made-in-Singapore services include two from dominant telco Singtel – aggregator app Cast and full-fledged AVOD/SVOD streaming platform Hooq, a joint venture with Sony Pictures Television and Warner Bros. Singtel’s mobile video portfolio also includes legacy service, Singtel TV Go, a companion app to the set-top box TV package and offered only to Singtel TV subscribers, and the mobile-only StarHub Go, which can be bought independently from the set-top-box TV subscription.    

 Singtel launched Cast in July 2016, aggregating on-demand and linear channels as well as regional streaming services such as Hooq and PCCW Media’s Viu. Singtel had 114,000 OTT subscribers (combined Singtel TV Go and Cast) at the end of September 2018. 

Singapore’s dominant press group, SPH, runs a free video portal, SPH Razor, made up largely of low-cast videos and bits of streaming.  

Despite programmers’ best efforts, Singapore – annoyingly – also has a healthy and visible trade in Android boxes along with a vibrant VPN market that opens up access to everything everywhere. 

 

Production

Singapore isn’t short of a production house or three, underpinned in days gone by a marvellously generous (if incomprehensible to some) government subsidy structure that doled out many millions to entities like Australia’s RGM Group. That regime was ushered out ignominiously in 2010 in a blaze of undelivered projects, unrecovered loans and scathing public comments from Singapore’s Auditor-General.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of that 2008/9 low point when, in a shocking report, the Auditor-General listed embarrassing lapses by the then Media Development Authority (MDA). The list included less-than-stellar admin of the S$40 million/US$29 million Microfunding Scheme to grow the interactive and digital media sector and lapses in administering the Scheme for Co-Investment in Exportable Content.  

The report said grants had been given to ineligible companies, pointed out conflicts of interest in evaluating funding applications, noted a “lack of rigour and vigilance” in funding approval, and cited the MDA for “laxity” in giving advances to mentors. The co-investment scheme fell down in not collecting estimated revenue of just under S$10 million/US$7.3 million from 46 completed projects; failing to recover S$460,000/US$335,000 from a production company that had sold a film; and not conducting post-project reviews to ensure the films had met job creation and local spend criteria. As of March 2009, MDA had given out a total of S$45.57 million/US$33.2 million for 157 projects, the report said.  

10 years on, how has Singapore’s production industry fared? 

On the face of it, fine enough, although the common feeling is that the commercial model is broken, there’s not enough money to go around, and producers are scrambling in a horrible cycle of low budgets and not enough ownership of the IP they create. Nevertheless, most of them seem to keep their doors open, with the exception perhaps of Make Productions, which closed for other reasons. 

Our list of production houses to watch in 2019 includes:  Beach House Pictures, which specialises in factual programming, did a good job on MasterChef Singapore for Motion Content Group/Mediacorp, and now has its eye on scripted. The new scripted projects, announced in October this year, are a modern TV reboot of Singaporean super spy Cleopatra Wong, star of three cult 1970s/1980 films, and the adaptation of teen horror property, Mr Midnight, by Jim Aitchison (aka James Lee). 

Also expanding into new areas is activeTV Asia, this time in the direction of the Asian Academy Creative Awards, held for the first time in Singapore in December 2018. activeTV’s production credits include two seasons of automotive reality entertainment series, Celebrity Car Wars, for A+E Networks’ History and Caltex, infotainment series The Food Detectives on Mediacorp Channel 5, and stand-up comedy specials with Asian comedians Harith Iskander, Kevin Jay and Fakkah Fuzz for Netflix.  

Content distribution and production company Bomanbridge Media is pushing forward with its support for original Asian production, most recently backing a series that follows adventurer Ash Dykes on his record-breaking bid to travel 4,000 miles on foot along the length of China’s Yangtze river. 

Short-form, social-media video, branded content/marketing, digital/online video are a big deal for a burgeoning number of specialist shops, including Eye Creative, which set up in Hong Kong in 2015 and in Singapore the following year, and BDA Creative, which has migrated in recent years under Paula Mason from a branding/promo producer into a long- and short-form production house. The Eye Creative Group’s most recent entertainment projects include digital content for Asia’s Next Top Model season six. Coconuts TV  is also on the short video case, highlighting Asia’s weird and wondrous factual stories and distributing them online. Refinery Media is holding steady as the production house of choice for Asia’s Next Top Model most recent two seasons, which were backed by Subaru.  

Scripted/premium outfits driving activity out of Singapore include IFA Media. Production credits include Bardo, a Netflix Original series from Taiwan. IFA Media was also behind HBO Asia’s first Mandarin original series, The Teenage Psychic, a co-production with Taiwan’s Public Television Service (PTS). HBO Asia kept Infinite Studios in the headlines in 2018 with eight-part period drama Grisse, created by Infinite Studios’ boss Mike Wiluan. At the top of the pyramid is mm2 Entertainment, part of the Singapore listed mm2 Asia group that also owns Singapore’s iconic Cathay Cineplex chain. Headquartered in Singapore with a presence in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, mm2 Entertainment produces films and TV/online content, including the Mandarin-language version of singing talent show The Voice for Singapore and Malaysia. mm2 has co-produced and/or distributed more than 100 films across Asia since 2008.

TV production stalwarts include indies such as The Moving Visuals Co, which makes shows such as the seven-part Business As Usual (“Can money buy everything? Quirky and usual trades around the world... from leftover food, friends and animal poo”) for Mediacorp’s Channel U and Toggle. Oak3 Films is another domestic favourite. 

And then there’s animation, a nascent sector led by One Animation, a CG-animation studio best known for its Emmy-nominated dialogue-free comedy series Oddbods. Oddbods has 2.9 million YouTube subscribers (Nov 2018) and video views in the hundreds of millions. Last year’s Baby Bubbles is in Trouble, for instance, has almost 60 million views. The most recent video, Trespassing, had 577,000 views in its first 10 days online. Broadcast partners include Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon as well as streaming platform Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

Going forward, predictions are that Singapore could potentially be a hub for animation development, marketing and distribution. Animation production? Maybe not, mostly because of the cost. But that doesn’t mean the country’s strengths can’t be leveraged as a magnet for censorship-friendly kids animation creators from around the region, with production outsourced to less-costly neighbouring centres. Part of the opportunity is rising demand for animated/kids content from streaming players looking ahead to the time when Disney and WarnerMedia turn off their supply. Netflix is the most significant force in this space right now, with new global features such as Over the Moon from China’s Pearl Studio and Guillermo Del Toro’s stop motion musical Pinocchio

Will this have any kind of knock-on positive impact eventually for Singapore? No harm hoping.  

 

Telcos

Big excitement coming in 2019, with the launch of Singapore’s fourth telco. Yes, it has been pointed out that there are only six million people in the whole country... TPG Telecom joins M1 (204,000 fixed fibre customers and 1.95 million mobile subscribers), Singtel (624,000 fixed broadband subs, of which 616,000 are fibre broadband and 4.13 million mobile subs), and StarHub (473,000 residential broadband and 2.2 million mobile subs) and Australia’s TPG Telecom, which won a telco licence in December 2016 with a bid of S$105 million/US$73 million. The original plan was to launch 4G mobile trials by the end of this year. No word on that so far other than that there’s a four- to six-month delay. The rest of the telco industry, apparently, heaved a sigh. For now, that’s a sigh of relief.