Malaysia’s powerful free-TV network, Media Prima, has a lot going for it these days, not least of which is Malaysian superhero Ejen Ali; soaring content/IP sales as streamers jostle for local shows; upsized and monetisable content solutions; co-production successes; hopes for a TVOD business; and the expansion – once again in a long history of ups and downs – of online/streaming platform tonton, which is among Asia’s earliest digital video businesses.
And then there’s Zamri Zakaria’s prime-time drama, Melur Untuk Firdaus, about a young man whose parents give him 48 hours to persuade his girlfriend to marry him. If he fails, he has to marry the girl they have chosen. Clips from the series, which ran on TV3 from May to July this year, attracted more than 2.9 billion views on TikTok.
It’s all part of a reversal of fortunes for the privately owned media platform, which operates free-TV networks TV3 and 8TV, a vibrant audio business, production house Primeworks Studios, and a publishing business. In 2021, the company posted its first full-year profit since 2018 (2015 if you don’t count a property sale), including trebling content sales over 2021.
It’s also part of an evolving video and media environment. Audiences in Malaysia across TV and online are not judging a show based on whether it’s on TV or online, says Media Prima TV Network’s deputy chief executive, Nini Yusof. “There’s no discrimination. They don’t go, ‘oh, is it on tonton or is it on TV,” she says, adding: “It’s a matter of telling a story and making sure that… there’s incremental viewership.”
Media Prima looks like it has seen the back of a few horrible years. What are your content priorities now? “Providing content targeted to mass-market audiences, millennials and also Gen Z. And creating advertising solutions is key for a free-to-air service like ours.”
Although it competes for audience time and attention, TikTok has been a vibrant viewer acquisition platform for you... “We never thought Melur Untuk Firdaus would gain something like 2.9 billion views on TikTok. It was amazing. Normally our dramas range between 200 million and 800 million views... it’s simply because we focused on a target audience and Gen Z-ers came to TV and they started to produce content to share on TikTok. My daughter found out about Melur Untuk Firdaus when it was trending on TikTok...”
Has Melur Untuk Firdaus’ success changed the way you commission or produce? “Yes and no. For example, for the free-to-air audience, we are targeting the mass market. The content they watch will be quite different from Gen Z. So, for example, we focus on the dramas, we also produce documentaries, news is very, very important for us, and we are gaining in sports. When we talk about providing content for our TV audience & also for streamers... we try to meet halfway, to match our requirements with theirs in terms of, for instance, cast and plot. The story will be slightly different, maybe not so edgy… It will still attract a mass audience but with more diversified storytelling.”
Is linear free-TV still as important to you as it used to be? “Free TV gives accessibility. Our job as a free-to-air channel operator is to make good investments to create and produce shows that inspire and entertain the audience. Every country needs a very strong free-to-air channel and Media Prima’s TV3 is the one in Malaysia.”
Let’s talk about reality show Masters in The House, where you blended Korea and Malaysia. What led to that? “Masters in The House involves team members spending one or two day with a popular personality trying to gain knowledge and wisdom. The show is something TV3 has never done before; it’s our first real co-production with Korean broadcaster, SBS. The idea came about as an advertising solution for a Korean client who wanted a Korean series that could be on air for at least eight weeks. We obviously needed a show that would resonate with our audience and allow the sponsor to tell their story. We were very lucky to have two masters – BamBam, the Korea-based Thai rapper/singer from boy band Got7, and Son Sung Deuk, the choreographer for BTS. We had two episodes featuring Korean masters and the remaining six episodes featuring popular stars and personalities from Malaysia, including Siti Nurhaliza, Yusof Haslam, and Usamah Zaid, who directed Ejen Ali.”
Is it a challenge to tie up with talent like BamBam or Son Sung Deuk if your show is sponsor-funded? “No, because we have another group of local talent for the product integration and execution."
Have you done anything similar with other broadcasters in Asia? “We’ve worked with Nippon TV and Fuji TV in Japan in the past. One of the shows was Welcome To The Railworld Japan hosted by Henry Golding.”
How do you prevent your sponsor-funded shows from becoming one long commercial? “You have to pick the right show. Media Prime is free-to-air. The majority of our income is from advertising. If advertisers want to integrate their brands into a story, it has to be integrated well. The product placement has to be natural or the audience will be turned off.”
That’s probably easier to say than to do... “We were lucky because we picked the right product that could be blended naturally into the show. So, for example, we have ginseng, which can be consumed naturally throughout the show. Secondly, we had Samsung as a sponsor. Taking pictures, videos is natural. Number three, we had Lifebuoy sanitiser. This was during Covid. What is more natural than sanitiser? It’s expected. It looks natural. What I wouldn’t be able to do, for example, is accommodate a client with a product that needs to be swtiched on and off, like an air-conditioner because it wouldn’t fit. Brand integration is all about pre-planning, about really looking at the product, the cast and the setting of the show”.
Let’s talk about online platform, tonton, which has had its ups and downs over the past 10 years or so. What’s the current plan? “Tonton is in a very good place. Thanks to all the streaming platforms, people are more open about paying for content. For the moment, tonton is an AVOD service to support our offerings across Media Prima networks, including TV, digital publishing and also outdoor. As you know, advertisers keep saying, ‘okay, TV audiences are getting lower’, which is true. But audiences are watching our content online, they’re watching on tonton, they’re watching our content on our OTT partners. So it’s just a matter of telling a story and making sure that the audience from TV is going to tonton, and there’s incremental viewership.
“During Ramadan Raya, we aired a big movie on tonton. Viewership was big, and page views increased. When we aired it on TV, the ratings were still two million. Why? Because there are two sets of audiences – the ones watching on tonton, the digital natives – they are so used to watching on a tablet or on a mobile phone – and our audience on TV, because they appreciate the content. They don’t care that it was released earlier. They’re like, ‘okay, now I’m watching in the comfort of my home, watching on TV and the show is great’. There is no discrimination. They don’t judge by whether it’s on tonton or on TV.
“The business model for tonton is AVOD. We experimented with TVOD with the tonton cinema service [which closed temporarily in October 2022 after 18 months for tech upgrades; no resumption date as yet]. We might eventually, in 12 months or so, offer TVOD in a bigger way, but right now it’s all about AVOD.” [tonton cinema went live in 2021 with promo rates as low as RM1/US$0.21 with no subscription lock ins. Movies such as CJ ENM’s Parasite, Peninsula and The Battle along with local titles such as Dendam and Sirah Junjungan Tahajud Cinta, were available for 48 hours on up to five devices simultaneously].
In Q1 2022, Media Prima’s content sales revenue more than doubled because of demand from streaming services. In 2021, content sales trebled compared to the previous year. Has this massive pick up by regional and global streamers changed the nature of what you produce and the way you produce it? “Yes and no. The reason regional and global streamers acquire our content is because it works. It provides the eyeballs and the traffic. When we produce dramas, we know what our audience wants. Years of research, years of understanding what works, how certain stars work for a certain plot of drama, where we introduce the newbies... You know, like Melur Untuk Firdaus, the two leads were unknown. Before the drama aired, they had 150,000 IG followers. In 10 days, they had around one million. We know what works, whether it’s 7pm, 9pm or 10pm. For streamers, we need to change in terms of timelines and deadlines. They need time to promote the shows. And we still have to be sensitive to local regulations, so we’re never going to be as edgy as some of the streaming series.”
Will tonton affect Media Prima’s relationship with OTT platforms in terms of content sales? “There’s nothing to worry about. We have enough.”
What’s your relationship with neighboring markets, such as Indonesia, like? “We did our first direct acquisition from MNC/RCTI – Ikatan Cinta – in 2022. It’s a really a big hit in Indonesia and we thought the story would resonate with our audience. For the past 38 years, we have been airing contents from our neighbours, like Mediacorp in Singapore. This relationship with neighbouring broadcasters will continue, whether we buy directly or we buy through a third party. We have always established relationships directly with broadcasters in the region.
What’s the next step? “I’m really looking forward to doing co-production with our partners in the region”.
This conversation was originally held during the ContentAsia Summit at the end of August 2022. A version will be published in ContentAsia's print magazine for the ATF in Singapore in December 2022.