INTERVIEW: Loke Kheng Tham, Chief Executive, Mediacorp (Singapore)

A different Mediacorp has emerged in the last two years. And in the last six weeks, Singapore has seen things on screen no one can remember ever having seen before. The national broadcaster’s chief executive, Loke Kheng Tham, talks about going big, bold and X-ish rated for the first time... and why. 

In the past two years, Mediacorp chief executive Loke Kheng Tham has reconfigured the public/commercial broadcaster’s place in Singapore’s media world, expanding online alliances and subscription options, signing onto YouTube’s publishing platform for the first time, encouraging different types of production partnerships, digging into the nation’s roots for content inspiration, consolidating broadcast channels, and rocking radio. And now what?  

The obvious place to start is with All Is Well, 128 Circle and Last Madame. All three original Mediacorp productions break new ground for a national broadcaster with many masters and objectives (not all of them commercial) in an hyper-served, English-proficient market with access to anything and everything and the ability, if not always the will, to pay for entertainment. 

The push beyond comfort zones is Tham’s rallying cry. “Go big or go home,” she says. “There’s no point being average.” Clearly a new dawn.

All Is Well, which premiered on Mediacorp platforms and on Taiwan Television (TTV) at the end of August, is an ambitious Mandarin co-production with Taiwan’s Eightgeman. The 40-episode (2 x 20 episodes) series weaves together an ATM hacking incident in Taiwan and a murder in Singapore in two separate but parallel tales. The series stars Blue Lan, Pets Tseng and Joanne Tseng from Taiwan, and Elvin Ng and Zoe Tay from Singapore. Executive producers are Wang Xiaodi (Taiwan) and Leong Lye Lin (Singapore). Although Mediacorp has not disclosed the production budget, it says the drama is among its most ambitious projects to date.

The multilingual 128 Circle is another ground-breaker for dipping into Singapore’s range of languages and dialects, commonly heard on the city’s streets but rarely – maybe never – on a single free-TV screen. And that’s at the heart of Tham’s bid to reflect a real and relatable Singapore. 128 Circle is set in one of Singapore’s ubiquitous food centres, and follows a varied cast of characters that own stalls, work and eat there. 

And finally, Last Madame, which debuted on 26 September and is as bold a move as Mediacorp has ever made. The 12-part half-hour series for streaming service Toggle is about Singapore’s last brothel owner and her great granddaughter. The English-language show by Singapore writer Jean Yeo opens with an auction for prostitutes, including a virgin who sells “to the lady in red” for $500. The series was produced by local indie, Ochre Pictures. 

Like other broadcasters in the region, pushing content boundaries, thinking differently and collaborating in new ways is part of a bigger strategy to do different or die. “We need to collaborate a lot more and we need to break out,” Tham said.   

The new approach doesn’t necessarily mean Singapore’s government is giving Mediacorp a lot more money than usual. Tham says resources are shifting in line with content goals that are more relevant in an age of disruption and competition. “It’s about taking a step back and looking at what consumers really want,” she says. 

Mediacorp produces about 2,500 hours a year of original content, excluding news. About 40% of output is commissioned from outside producers, and the balance is made in-house. “We’re now wanting to take that resource and experience and partner a lot more with different players in the region to create much more interesting story lines,” Tham says. All Is Well is just the beginning. Mediacorp is also working with Singapore-listed Spackman Entertainment (Default) on Singapore-Korea drama Equity of Love.

Part of the new content thinking is about releasing creators from what Tham calls the “tyranny of the programming grid”, which shackles them to fixed slots and channels and can hamper the ability to appeal to consumers wherever they are. “We are not a platform company. We are a content company and we should be very focused on what our consumers want,” she says. New targeting combines television, radio, online. “We have a range of platforms but rather than thinking of each one of the platforms individually we should be looking at how consumers interact and engage with us on a daily basis, and how we optimise that”.

“When we say we think about our consumer and we don’t think about the grid it really means understanding how we can grow our audiences and also understanding how we take IPs and engage across the different platforms,” Tham says. 

The new Mediacorp is not shying away from potential controversy, like shutting down kids linear channel Okto. “We’re not afraid of making those hard decisions because we need to move forward,” she says. The Okto decision was about being consumer focused. “Let’s not kid ourselves, if you are four to 14 your primary platform is not television, it’s YouTube or online platforms. As long as the TV channel is there we are going to be thinking about 23-minute programmes. We shouldn’t be. We should be thinking about programmes of any length that tell the right story to that right target audience.” 

Tham is dead against protecting one platform over the others, and so far audience results validate decisions like partnering with YouTube. “There was some concern about canibalisation,” she says. The concern has proven to be needless. “So far we’ve seen that it’s accretive,” she says. With some adjustments perhaps. A recent public service broadcast dialect drama commissioned by Singapore’s Ministry of Communications targetting seniors had an interesting response on Toggle and YouTube. “We took a leap and dubbed it and put it on prime time with a window on Toggle, where it did about a million views. When we put it on YouTube, it gathered another four million”. 

“It was a good story. It had a great cast. It stood the test of dubbing into Mandarin for prime time and it stood the test of an OTT exploitation on YouTube and on Toggle as well. That showed us that it’s definitely accretive. Everything we’ve done across the different video platforms, including YouTube, has shown us that it’s accretive. All you need is great content.”

Published in ContentAsia Issue Five 2019, 3 October 2019