Emily Tan
Oct 30, 2012

FormatsAsia: Are brands, not channels, driving original local content?

HONG KONG – “Too much work for too little” was the feedback producers gave channel owners at yesterday’s FormatsAsia conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong.

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Mark Erder, founder of APV, has even given up working with channels following an “insurrection” in his production company. “We’ve been putting in too many man-hours for too little when producing content for channels,” he told panel moderator James Ross, CEO of Lightning International.

For the past year, Erder's company has been focusing on corporate projects, producing work such as a documentary on Oman featuring Zhang Ziyi for Shangri-La.

Ricky Ow, executive vice-president and general manager of Sony Pictures, acknowledged that the channel was happy to run branded content if it had “wow factor and relevance to channel brands”.

“If the show comes funded, we are happy to help production houses and put it on the channels," Ow said. "Not a model we're against.”

Sony Pictures action and adventure channel AXN has, however, produced original content, as in the case of Cyril Simply Magic because it “fit the brand” even though, according to Ow, “Magic doesn’t come cheap.”

Nevertheless, Fotini Paraskakis, director of Content Asia for FreemantleMedia, pointed out that recently “more and more of our revenue has come from AFP [advertising-funded productions]”.

“In terms of traditional broadcasters, competition is tight and driven by ratings—it’s hard for them to take risks and create new content,” Paraskakis said. “You suggest new ideas but they just go, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, can we just talk about X-Factor again? Can you tell us about a show that’s been in 20 countries?’ That’s what they’re interested in.”

Riaz Mehta, founder and president of the Imagine Group, now draws inspiration for original shows from what “brand partners are looking for in the market, what they want to promote”. Inspiration gained, the group comes up with a format that answers that need and only then looks for network partners.

For example, Mehta got the idea for for property and personality makeover show The Apartment – Style Edition, from Malaysian property-developer Sime Darby. “They asked me, ‘Can you create a show around property?’” recalled Mehta.

After partnering up with Star World, which, along with Sime Darby, helped fund the programme, the property makeover show expanded to incorporate personal style makeovers to better suit 18- to 34-year-old female viewers, an elusive demographic the channel was interested in attracting.

According to Mehta, it’s common for a show to be jointly sponsored by a brand and a network because, “when you want to create quality shows of international calibre, it takes money".

Erder acknowledged that channels are far more open to accepting branded content than ever before. “They used to just laugh at you," he said. "Now they listen.”

Mehta later added in an email interview that his production group has, as yet, not managed to have a network fully fund a project and underwrite the risk, especially with regards an original format. "Even for internationally successful proven formats, networks have rarely fronted up the cash to make a localised version- except in one or two instances that I am aware of."

The risk of this, he said, is that it "inhibits fresh ideas from coming to life as networks have historically not taken a risk with big ideas (they obviously cost a lot of money to execute)". 

Fox International Channels has been encouraging in indicating to Mehta that they will fully fund a show if they really like it. However, he said, "this is yet to be tested."

This article was updated on 31 October to include further comments provided by Riaz Mehta via email. 

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