Bangkok, Thailand - January 8, 2018 : Netflix app on Laptop screen. Netflix is an international leading subscription service for watching TV episodes and movies (Photo by sitthiphong from Shutterstock).

Asian video streamers battle Western giants

by Sam Reeves

From Chinese behemoths backed by the likes of Baidu to Southeast Asian upstarts offering free content, Asian video streaming services are challenging Western giants seeking to expand in the region.

As more consumers in Asia get reliable internet access on smartphones and tablets, myriad platforms — including US outfits such as Netflix and Amazon — are vying to sign them up.

In a bid to appeal to audiences across the vast and diverse region, services are racing to buy local content, produce their own offerings and are taking new approaches such as free-to-viewer services with ads.

“The whole landscape is changing,” James Bridges, CEO and co-founder of documentary streaming service iwonder, which operates in Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia, told AFP.

“What is striking at the moment is that not only does the content range widely, but also the models — from ad-supported to subscription.

“The variety of all of those combined mean there is a lot of room for people to try different things.”

Audiences are the winners from the intense competition, with a flood of original content being made to cater to local markets.

These include Netflix’s critically acclaimed Indian-made thriller series “Sacred Games” and “KL Gangster: Underworld”, a collaboration between iflix and Malaysia’s Skop Productions.

Some services such as Malaysia-headquartered iflix and Hong Kong-based Viu are giving away content for free and making money from ads, while also offering a subscription premium service.

India’s homegrown (but Disney-owned) outfit Hotstar has established its dominance by luring in viewers through cricket match broadcasts.

Other services are seeking to appeal to niche audiences. Iwonder offers documentaries and current affairs programmes, sometimes paired with news articles about the same topic.

The landscape is set become even more competitive with Disney and Apple poised to launch streaming platforms along the same subscription model as Netflix.

Risks and rewards

While the risks of entering the fast-evolving scene are huge, the rewards can be too in a part of the world where economic growth is still strong even as much of the West remains in the doldrums.

The Asia Pacific online video industry will generate $27 billion in advertising and subscription revenue this year, up 24 percent year-on-year from 2018, according to a report from consultancy Media Partners Asia (MPA).

The region’s biggest homegrown platforms are in China, where outside players are largely locked out. The major ones are iQiyi — controlled by search giant Baidu — followed by Tencent Video and Alibaba’s Youku Tudou.

And in a potential threat to growth plans of Western platforms, they have started moving beyond the world’s number two economy, with iQiyi and Tencent expanding into Southeast Asia.

Key for the future of streaming in Asia is “what happens to the larger scale players,” said MPA executive director Vivek Couto.

“How do the Chinese platforms develop and operate?”

Meanwhile India, which does not restrict outside players to the same degree as China, has become a key battleground for streaming services.

Amazon Prime Video has made strong inroads while expansion in India is a priority for Netflix, which last year announced nine new Indian original productions.

The California-headquartered company also introduced a cheaper, mobile-only subscription in India in the hope of winning more customers in a highly price sensitive market.

Crowded market

Price is a key challenge for foreign players right across a region where people are less willing to pay for content than in more developed markets and piracy is rampant.

Netflix has taken other steps in Asia, including making its service available in more local languages and partnering with major telcos and internet service providers, but recognises there is a long road ahead.

“The industry is still just getting started in Asia… we have a lot more to learn,” a company spokesperson said.

In such a crowded market, industry insiders believe only companies with deep enough pockets to sustain losses for years and those offering really innovative products will survive.

“As competition heats up, there’s no doubt we’ll start seeing more M&A (merger and acquisition) talks and partnerships in Asia,” said Peter Bithos, chief executive of HOOQ, a streaming platform operating in Southeast Asia and India.

Netflix and Amazon are however unlikely to snap up local streaming platforms unless they have a decent amount of local content in a big market, said MPA’s Couto.

On the other hand, Chinese players and Hotstar may look at buying other services “at the right price, and the right time and with the right access to content”, he added.

– AFP