Malaysia’s dominant subscription video platform, Astro, has a well-documented transformation plan that stretches from becoming the home of a wide range of 3rd-party streaming apps to commissioning the first local adaptions of U.K. premium drama Liar and French series Call My Agent. Content director, Agnes Rozario, talks about new approaches, changing consumption habits and Astro’s evolving relationships with Malaysia’s production community.
The premiere of what would become an iconic show, "Akademi Fantasia", in 2003 was a milestone moment for Astro. When the Malaysian platform returns its local adaptation of Korean format, "Masked Singer", for a third season just before Christmas this year, it bookends 20 years of musical reality shows that gave artists like Vince Chong, Mawi and Stacy Anam a new stage, and proved the genre’s pulling power.
The new season goes live as Astro marks major shifts in tech and services along with a changing of the guard as long-time boss Henry Tan steps into a role as content advisor and Astro Awani chairman from the beginning of February 2023 and Euan Smith takes over as group CEO.
Astro’s debut as a full internet service provider in May this year along with upgraded boxes rolled out over the past few years have not changed the platform’s content DNA as much as they have user engagement, says content director, Agnes Rozario.
Discoverability and relevance have improved because of the new recommendation engine, and the platform has, thanks to digital tech, unprecedented insights into where and what its viewers are up to. “Audiences spend over 70% of their time on the Astro platform and over 70% of their time watching our local shows, both on demand and linear,” she says.
Astro has also integrated multiple streaming apps onto the platform (15 are promised by early 2023), and has over the past two years upped its local content game across all language groups. This includes spending more on originals such as Alfie Palermo’s "One Cent Thief", based on the true story of a Malaysian man who stole millions of ringgit, one cent at a time but was, ultimately, undone by greed and ego.
“It took a while to get there [but we are now] able to focus on differentiated storylines, innovation, production values and really target audiences through different platforms and also different belts, different types of content,” Rozario says.
The effort was not without much soul-searching. “We had to recalibrate how we thought about production and ideation, both in scripted and non-scripted... we now have a different view of what’s relevant,” Rozario says. For example, until two years ago there was no regular supply of Indian/Tamil drama. There’s also a new local scripted Chinese belt, and telemovies.
The evolving approach has involved closer ties with Malaysia’s production industry. “We’ve always been part of that local production industry but more so now as we start producing in addition to commissioning our local scripted content... the local industry is the backbone for our content pipeline today,” Rozario adds, listing Malaysia’s production royalty, including the late Mamat Khalid on the "Kampung Pisang" franchise, Skop, Infinitus, Red Communications, Radius One, Nu Ideaktiv...
Astro is also bringing new long-form filmmaking talent into its fold. For example, "Take Control", about children taking control over their parents’ lives through a video game, and Grim Film’s show about a body swap. Grim Film is best known for short films and branded content. Early projects include Alpha47, which has become a regular contributor, including producing last year’s "Projek: Anchor SPM". One of the latest projects from newbie creators is dark comedy, "Murder By Moonlight"; the eight-episode whoddunit about a female detective and 12 suspects trapped on an island was created/co-directed by Mien Ly in her first TV series. Astro Shaw produced "Murder By Moonlight" with Iron Hill Media and Passion Pictures.
Astro’s latest environment is “really about flexibility. We had to optimise business models to encourage producers and showrunners to want to collaborate with us,” Rozario says.
Streaming competition has little, if anything, to do with Astro’s newest content initiatives. Rozario points out that Astro was experimenting in the premium space as early as 2015/6, with "Dosa", "Sembilan", "Sepenggal Puisi", "Mandatori" and "Gantung". At the time, the local market was “probably not ready”. Fast forward some seven years and “we’re seeing new engagement” with these titles. “Once you create something that’s good, it adds library value,” she says. Meanwhile, a new class of writers and showrunners has emerged. “It was about us taking stock, of seeing what we needed to work on and where we needed to be,” she says.
Services like streamer sooka, which Astro rolled out in mid-2021, and e-sports brand eGG have pushed Astro in new directions as well. eGG, launched in 2016, has, for instance, created a show called "Dongibab", rooted in a community that doesn’t have to think about what that word means (Ed’s note: ‘don’t give up’), which is working well on sooka. There’s also eGG’s gaming-related "Mata Kerbau" (2018), which is working for sooka’s viewers.
Sooka shows, targetting younger audiences, tend to be more edgy than Astro’s premium originals, which are primarily meant for Malaysia’s traditional pay-TV audience. “It’s very much about the target market,” Rozario says. Sooka audiences are less interested in subscription contracts “but might come in very regularly to watch sports or other content”.
Astro’s new partnerships include an adaptation of Wattpad coming-of-age story, Shieyruna’s "Kau vs Aku", a sooka original directed by Shamyl Othman and produced by Lina Tan’s Red Communications. "Kau vs Aku" is the first Wattpad story adapted for Astro. A week into its run, digital extensions had topped 33 million views, Rozario says. “That wasn’t even the actual show,” she adds. Viewers were commenting about not having seen anything like this before in Malaysia, “so that is encouraging”, she says.
The same goes for "i-Tanggang Mother of All Lies", which deals with mental health, and "Projek: Anchor SPM" about academic cheating. “We’ve really focused on innovative concepts... on differentiated stories and storytelling, and higher production values.
Malaysian murder mystery, Helmi Yusof’s "The Maid" (2021), also forged new paths for Astro; the original half-hour series by Juita Viden for Astro Ria about a man, his four wives and their maids, was the first Malaysian show acquired by Philippines’ free-TV network, GMA, for its June 2022 schedule.
Rozario says Astro has exported its content for years, primarily to Indonesia and Singapore. Co-production/co-investments are also part of the mix, including involvements with Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s latest film, "Mencuri Raden Saleh"; "Rally for Love", a co-production with Taiwan’s Formosa TV; and "On Your Mark", Chiu Keng Guan’s mainland China directorial debut, which Astro Shaw distributes in Singapore and Malaysia. “We’re very flexible about our business model,” Rozario says. “We’re constantly looking for partners in a way that’s beneficial to all parties,” she says.
While it keeps eyes wide open for new ideas, Astro remains faithful to long-trusted tried-and-true properties, like reality shows, led these days by singing competition "Gegar Vaganza", which has audience reach of close to seven million on linear and also drives non-linear Astro Go viewership.
Rozario says these play a key audience engagement role and dominate the still-important linear space. “They are highly local and relevant and, because they are live or slightly delayed, they allow us to be responsive to the sentiments of the day, or to things that are going on around us,” she says. During 2021’s floods, for example, Astro raised flood relief via a collection in each of the competitors names. Live comedy franchises, such as "Sepahtu Reunion" and "Maharaja Lawak", are also huge crowd-pleasers.
Home-grown shows will live on alongside format adaptations, restarted in 2020 with "Masked Singer", which returns on 23 December, and Banijay Rights’ "All Together Now", adapted from the U.K. original, which had a reach of 5.4 million when it aired in 2021 and is returning for a second season.
“In order to feed a lot of these reality competitions and the thousands of hours that we produce for our platform, we also need to create other shows to discover new talent. Through our collaboration with Nu Ideaktiv (a JV between Astro & Karangkraf), we successfully discover new talent all the time for our shows... And to think this all started with "Akademi Fantasia" in 2003.”
This feature appears in ContentAsia's December 2022 print magazine