Discovery has ramped up content creation in China and Korea in a series of partnerships and funding alliances with the Shanghai Media Group, Alibaba/Youku and Korea’s KT. Is it enough for the global network to reclaim its standing in Asia’s future video entertainment environment? The network’s newly appointed head of East/SE Asia, Tony Qiu, talks about the JV studio in Seoul, plans in China, and the region’s participation in the evolution from a factual channels business into an end-to-end content hub.
Over the last seven years, Discovery in Asia has taken a leadership position for whiplash management changes, with more bosses than in the previous 18 years since its 1994 launch; shrivelling linear prospects, shrinking affiliate revenue and guesses that annual profit is nowhere near the US$150 million of days gone by; streaming platforms up and running in Japan and India, and coming to the rest of Asia, but with no official timetable as of early November and some doubts about its ability to drive a direct-to-consumer business in Asia...
Meanwhile, original production is led by China, with recent shows like First Man Out season two, and India, where a few solid performers like Into the Wild with Bear Grylls and Akshay Kumar have replaced the overblown, inflated, unrealistic and ultimately unachievable ambitions of Discovery’s previous India plan. Southeast Asia, once the home of landmark shows like Tim Lambert’s The History of Singapore (2005) and the hub that gave rise to Man Made Marvels Asia, has pretty much dropped off the originals map.
Enter Tony Qiu, part of a new team charged with the next phase of the U.S. network’s long history in the region. Qiu, promoted in September this year to SVP and GM – East & Southeast Asia and head of global location based entertainment business, is one of three Asia heads now reporting into Asia-Pacific president, Simon Robinson, in the U.S. The other two are Megha Tata for India/South Asia and David McDonald for Japan.
Announcing the latest reorg in September, Robinson said consolidating Discovery’s East and Southeast Asia roles was a simple one, designed to “prioritise simplicity and speed of decision making, new digital capabilities, and efficiencies that will enable further investment in our two most important priorities: content & products”.
The new structure runs alongside a freshly minted US$40 million-US$50 million partnership with Alibaba/Youku and Shanghai Media Group (SMG) in mainland China to build a food-related ecosystem, as well as the launch on 1 September of Discovery’s joint venture channel with KT in Korea. Qiu, who joined Discovery in 2018, drove both. What’s the plan now, we asked...
What’s the plan for Korea? “Discovery has been in Korea for a long time... the most obvious change over the years has been Korean content, which travels really well and is widely accepted across Asia. Over the last year, we have worked with our Korean partner, KT, to establish a channel owned by Discovery but distributed by KT, as well as a production house, Studio Discovery Korea, jointly owned by Discovery and KT. The channel launched in September and Studio Discovery is already in production for four original titles.”
Why now? “Traditionally, Discovery is better known as an apparel brand in Korea. However, our media business has never taken off. Six or seven years ago, we attempted to establish a locally operated Discovery Channel in Korea. It was positioned as a pure factual channel with not much entertainment content and no local original content, so it wasn’t a huge success. In the past year, we have found a very strong local partner – KT – who can distribute our channel, and we are now determined to invest in local content in Korea, so we are in a much better position to launch the channel and to expand our content business in Korea.”
What genres is the studio focusing on? “At the start, the studio will primarily be serving the need for the local channel because we need original content, which will primarily be factual-based entertainment content. But we are not ruling out any possibilities. As we go and as we expand our linear business in Korea into digital, we may need to incorporate more genres.”
What level of output are you looking for from Studio Discovery Korea? “At this stage, we are looking at over 100 hours a year. In addition, we have locked down co-production contracts with other local platforms and partners, so that could bring over 200 hours a year.”
Where else will you distribute your content? “Our partner in Studio Discovery is KT, which owns a number of channels in Korea. So those channels could be a source for distribution. And in addition, we are locking down contracts with other major channels and platforms in Korea and the content could be distributed across their platform.”
You have four shows in production already... “We have survival shows, which are traditional Discovery type of programmes, with a Korean element, food and reality, with and without celebrities. All are skewed towards entertainment, that’s the content direction we will be taking in Korea.
Are you obliged to utilise Discovery’s formats? “Our priority will be to leverage Discovery’s existing formats across all our channel brands, including TLC, Food Network and HGTV. We will also develop original content.”
Is there an option for you to work with production houses elsewhere in Korea or in the region? “Absolutely. Our studio in Korea is a full-fledged production house, but we have the ability to bring in other producers. We are also very open to co-productions. That model has been going on successfully in China for a number of years.”
You’ve got significant new investment in China, with Alibaba/Youku and Shanghai Media Group. What does your expanded China business look like? “The joint initiative between Discovery, Alibaba/Youku and SMG is for food-related programming and production, and is probably the largest food content initiative in China or even across the region for a long time. The China business is trending very healthily. Even for this year, we are not impacted much by the Covid situation. In some areas, such as branded solutions or content co-production, we are seeing mid double-digit growth. And that’s been the case for almost three years in a row. We are investing quite heavily in people, in digital initiatives and also content.”
How much money is involved in the new initiative? “US$40 million to US$50 million over the next three years, including this year, from 2020.”
How will the food programming commissioning/production work? “The three major partners will manage the pool of funds to be invested in food-related content and there will be opportunities for production house partners to work with us on this initiative. The setup is almost like a JV where the decision is co-made by three parties in terms of how the money is going to be spent, what shows we are going to do and which partners we are going to choose.”
Is the venture’s investment confined to China? “ It’s not going to be just limited to China. We want the content to work both in China and outside of China as much as possible.
You talk about the joint food initiative as more than programming... “We are doing this as an ecosystem play. An ecosystem that consists of long-form series and also mobile short-form, live shows probably and instant clicks and buy via e-commerce, offline events, and IP derivatives on multiple screens in multiple territories at a global scale as well. It will offer a compelling marketing and sales tool to our content sponsors as well as better monetisation opportunities for partners. This is about building up a food-related ecosystem.”
How are you exploiting the IP rights to the new content coming out of North Asia? “Primarily the content will be output to Discovery family networks in other parts of the region, both linear and digital. We are also considering distributing the content on other platforms across Asia. It could be a second window or a same-time premiere, that’s up for discussion. We are also looking for formats that we could work elsewhere in the region”.
Published in ContentAsia's Issue Four 2020, November 2020