Viu continues to cherry pick the cream of Korean drama, has shattered rights barriers in Japan and – among other initiatives across the region – has turbo-charged production in Indonesia, upsized content alliances in Thailand, set its sights on bigger social TV initiatives, and is on the verge of pushing play on a broad ranging slate of local originals. Virginia Lim, Viu’s chief content officer, talks about what she would like and how she’s going about making it happen.
Regional streaming platform Viu heads into the new year with a firm hold on Korean drama rights, the victor in a fierce rights battle for dramas-of-the-moment True Beauty and Mr Queen, a front-runner in regional digital rights to Takuya “Kimutaku” Kimura titles out of Japan, and ready to enter the post-Covid environment with a slate of originals that includes new Thai drama Voice in the Rain along with the possible return of original scripted adaptation, Pretty Little Liars Indonesia.
Viu’s chief content officer, Virginia Lim, has spent her first year on the job juggling 2020’s unprecedented viewership and demand with unprecedented programming supply challenges, and focusing on imprinting her own signature on new product. Any day now, Lim is expected to unveil a robust line-up, likely focusing on Viu strongholds in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia and a mix of deeply local shows and bigger series with regional relevance. These will be the first originals developed under her watch, which started in Nov 2019 when she joined Viu after more than a decade at Sony Pictures Television.
While Viu had not released details of its 2021 original production at press time, the new year dawns with the regional streamer retaining its position as the only OTT platform in Asia with output deals with all of Korea’s major studios, including KBS, SBS, CJ ENM and JTBC. In addition to True Beauty and Mr Queen (tvN), Viu in 2020 had first run rights to Dr Foster adaptation The World of the Married (JTBC), which is the highest-rated Korean cable show in history; Lie After Lie, an unexpected hit for cable service Channel A; sci-fi thriller Alice (SBS); suspense drama Flower of Evil (tvN); The Penthouse (SBS); Tale of the Nine Tailed (tvN); Zombie Detective (KBS); and Hera, The Goddess of Revenge (TV Chosun).
Lim also acquired long-term exclusive rights to Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, a 2016 SBS/NBC Universal time-travel historical drama she resurfaced because... five years on, when it looked like everyone else had forgotten about the one-time hit, she hadn’t and the rights were available. Towards the end of November, Scarlet Heart was in the top 10 on Viu in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, right behind new Korean dramas The Penthouse and Tale of the Nine Tailed and Criminal Minds: Korea.
It’s all part of the mission to continue building a destination for Asian content.
The acquisition of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryo also speaks to a much-changed rights environment, where the no-holds-barred scrum for first/ exclusive rights and elastic windows has been joined by the hunt for library titles with viewer pulling power... and rights availability.
The three latest new Korean titles – Hera, The Goddess of Revenge (22 Nov), True Beauty (9 Dec) and Mr. Queen (mid-Dec 2020) – with which Viu closes the year speak to the regional streaming platform’s continued ability to deliver high-end Korean series in the face of wild competition and deep-pocketed rivals such as Netflix, which has a stake in CJ ENM’s Studio Dragon; and Chinese streamers iQiyi and Tencent-owned WeTV. Both iQiyi and WeTV are building out their Southeast Asian offerings with aggressive bids for Korean content, such as Backstreet Rookie (iQiyi) on the back of strong Chinese drama titles such as The Blooms at Ruyi Pavilion (iQiyi) and Twisted Fate of Love (WeTV) as well as Southeast Asian IP such as Yowis Ben: The Series (WeTV) and Thai drama Daughters (iQiyi).
With all the latest competition, is it viable, practical, or even possible for any one streaming platform to try and dominate Korean content acquisitions?
Lim acknowledges heightened demand for Korean content and a more competitive environment, but says that there’s also “a lot of content from Korea to go around”. Viu, she points out, created a position in the market from the get-go as the go-to platform for Korean content “and we’ve built upon that to become the OTT platform in the Asian content space”.
Today, the platform is about 70% Korean, with the balance of acquisitions split between Japanese, including the first-ever streaming rights to a dozen Takuya Kimura titles, Chinese and Thai, among others. The November 2020 line up included, for instance, Chinese dramas Lost Romance and Oh! My Sweet Liar; Hong Kong‘s We are the Littles; Thailand’s My Forever Sunshine; and Indonesian original Assalamualaikum My Future Husband.
Local relevance is a priority in each market, which means acquisition or co-production partnerships with producers such as GMM, AIS and BEC World/JKN Global Media in Thailand, Mediacorp in Singapore and Primeworks Studios in Malaysia.
Viu Originals continue “to be one of our key and most important initiatives”, Lim adds.
This includes adapting scripted drama from the U.S., Europe and Asia, such as Warner Brothers’ Pretty Little Liars, Black (Korea) and The Bridge (Europe). In addition to Assalamualaikum My Future Husband out of Indonesia, originals developed by Viu include Thai romcom My Bubble Tea (2020), about a magic love potion gone wrong; Indonesian film Kenapa Harus Bule (2018) about a 29-year-old woman obsessed with marrying a white man; 13-part Indonesian drama Knock Out Girl (2018), about a shy girl who tries to save her father’s boxing club; and A Date with Cha Eun Woo (2019), which follows Korean idol Cha Eun Woo on his travels around Hong Kong.
The originals decisions will continue to be powered by a mix of scripted format acquisitions and series development, driven by deep data insights available from Viu’s 41.4 million monthly active users (as of end Dec 2019). By the end of June this year, Viu had an estimated 2.2 million paying subscribers in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, according to analysts Media Partners Asia’s (MPA) AMPD research from April to June 2020.
Viu had 17% share of a total of 107 billion premium content streaming minutes in Q2 2020, driven by Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
The percentage split between content from countries and categories is constantly shifting. “We don’t really have a weightage,” Lim says, adding: “We look at projects for what they’re worth and that best suit our market”. She describes the approach as “adventurous and open-minded in populating content” such as, for instance, programmes out of Viu’s Middle East operations. “If we think Arabic content is relevant in multiple territories, we will make it available in multiple territories,” she says.
The primary KPI for originals is performance in its home market. But shows also need to be able to travel and audiences are increasingly open to all kinds of content they may not have had access to in the past, Lim says, describing her approach as “game to try out all content across the 16 countries where we operate”.
Emil Heradi’s adaptation of Pretty Little Liars, for instance, was produced for Indonesia in Bahasa Indonesia “with every intention to make it popular across our footprint... and it has proven itself”. Season one was among Indonesia’s top shows, and did “really well” in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
Viu, like the others, does not disclose engagement data.
The exclusivity built into originals balances shifting sands on acquisitions.
“Everyone wants exclusivity and it’s still very valuable... the reality is in any business you need to balance the costs and the returns. With so much more competition, we all have to look at exclusivity differently. It is very much about where do you best put your dollars and what kinds of exclusivity is important to you,” Lim says.
“The head start that exclusivity gives you is important because viewers want to get to a piece of content as soon as it is released. But does one-year still matter? In the OTT world, everything is so fast... it goes back to how much you are willing to pay and what makes sense for the business. There’s no one-size-fits-all and no straight answer to this question... The way I look at exclusivity is, if it gives you enough returns and there is a good strategic reason to do it, that’s what we will pay for.”
There’s no confirmation on unscripted formats yet but these are on the agenda to follow No Sleep No Fomo, a 2019 social TV initiative with a format from The Story Lab. Social TV formats are, Lim says, “interesting because they can be developed virtually from different locations” – a Covid-19 friendly benefit. “These are something we are actively looking at,” she says.
While drama is the driver of the premium TV engine, Lim lists Korean reality-variety show Running Man among Viu’s top performers. “Reality still has its space,” she says. Viu’s involvement in a reality show of its own “will be something premium, probably well-known at a regional level. I think that would be something that would be the right direction for us.”
One of the bigger issues in Southeast Asia is the state of local production infrastructure and how fast creative industries can – or are – ramping up to meet regional/global television demand and standards. Or, as is already happening, how film industries can redirect and apply better-developed skills to television series.
“Production teams are stepping up,” Lim says. “I’m a believer in the creative industry. When there is a demand, there will always be a supply. Now there is more demand, and the market is more competitive.” Referring to Indonesia, she highlights the wealth of talent. “Is production at its optimal at this point of time? Maybe not yet. But will it get there? I think definitely. A lot of interesting production is going to come out of Indonesia.”
Film directors crossing into TV, like Emil Heradi did for Pretty Little Liars, is not happening only in Indonesia. Across the region, higher TV budgets are drawing veteran filmmakers attracted by the opportunity to develop premium content in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Co-productions and strategic partnerships, such as the Viu-AIS partnership on original Thai romcom My Bubble Tea (May 2020), are important “not because they allow us to produce multiple shows simultaneously, but also because of the distribution channels and the broader 360-degree collaboration,” Lim says.
Lim is also a firm believer in long-tail content. “There’s definitely life left in classics, in libraries,” she says. “Ultimately, people go for good content at specific destinations, which is why Viu is built as a destination for premium Asian content. We keep building upon that because that is the destination. It is a go-to platform for Asian content.”
Published in ContentAsia's December 2020 magazine