MTV and Nick grow into tricky Asian regions

Viacom's footprint across Asia is getting a whole lot bigger, as the company unrolls ambitious plans to spread its MTV and Nickelodeon franchises across the region.
October 1, 2001

Viacom’s footprint across Asia is getting a whole lot bigger, as the company unrolls ambitious plans to spread its MTV and Nickelodeon franchises across the region.

Viacom’s MTV Networks Asia announced in July the launch of a 24-hour channel in South Korea with local partner ON*Media, which had previously broadcast just four hours of MTV programming daily. The new localized MTV Korean channel follows on the heels of MTV Philippines and MTV Japan–two 24-hour nets launched in January. In addition to their core geographic targets, the trio of 24-7 channels is also now able to reach into India, Southeast Asia and Mandarin-speaking populations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

Despite an economic downturn, MTV is aggressively pushing to make its mark in Asia because youth audiences there are voracious viewers of music fare. In China, roughly 28 million kids between the ages of four and 19 tune into the MTV lineup at any given time, while about 25 million watch in India. But the Japanese and South Korean regions–both of which are major advertising markets–are particularly attractive to the company.

‘The decision to expand Korea to 24 hours was made because the country is the second-largest advertising market in Asia,’ says Harry Hui, executive VP and managing director of MTV North Asia. In fact, ACNielsen pegs annual advertising spending in South Korea at US$2.1 billion.

The web of stations across the region also makes it easier for advertisers to orchestrate a pan-Asian buy, says Hui. ‘The economic climate could be better… but we are a good youth platform. Advertisers can’t do terrestrial buys in every market, so this cable network is more cost-effective.’

Although Hui won’t reveal exact sales figures, he says MTV Asia’s advertising total grew seven times last year, and revenue for the first eight months of 2001 (not including Japan) equals the total for all of 2000.

In addition to the company’s aggressive move into Korea and Japan, MTV’s access in China is as good as it gets for foreign broadcasters. Despite the impending WTO agreement, the Communist Party in China still strictly prohibits foreign ownership of channels or telecommunications enterprises. The best deal foreign broadcasters can hope to forge is to either sell their programs directly to Chinese cable operators or strike distribution deals with local partners. No market in Asia is trickier to navigate.

Nevertheless, MTV’s marketshare in China is slowly growing. Six hours of MTV programming are now carried on 40 major cable operators in 200 cities, reaching 57 million homes. ‘And about 62% of our entire broadcasting schedule is aired [in prime-time viewing hours] between 4 p.m. and 11 p.m.,’ says Hui.

MTV is not the only Viacom franchise making inroads in China. In May, the mother corporation struck a distribution deal with Beijing’s Tanglong Culture Development Co. to dub some Nickelodeon shows, including Kenan & Kel and Clarissa Explains it All, on 100 cable networks across mainland China.

But while Viacom Asia has structured good deals that get its shows airplay in China, branding properties is proving to be a stickier matter. MTV faces a serious image problem in China because most people don’t know that MTV is a television network. The majority of viewers think MTV means music television in general or music videos. Even music videos on rival channels are called ‘MTVs.’

‘People assume we are just a company that produces videos for CCTV,” says Yifei Li, managing director of Viacom Asia. The end result is that Chinese cable operators get credit for the sexy U.S. programming.

As a result, cross-promotional events have become important tools of the trade on the mainland. For example, MTV has begun to sponsor independent events and concerts, as well as co-brand more music concerts, including this summer’s MTV Summer Beat Concert and the J & J Clear and Clean Campus Tour, both of which feature hot local acts. It is also sponsoring the MTV-CCTV Mandarin Music Honors award show.

For the first time, MTV has contracted the show opener and stage design to a hot young Beijing graphics company called Frontline, in hopes that a local designer can better tap into the pulse of the market. Last year, the creative design for this new program originated in Singapore, but ironically, the concept was considered ‘too Chinese,’ says Li. She believes Frontline is a better ambassador of Beijing cool and has approved a visual campaign featuring terracotta-stylized characters that are constructed from cubes and chips and placed in a futuristic Forbidden City–digital meets the Qing Dynasty.

In addition to improving its music award show, MTV has devised a number of additional ways to promote its brand. The most obvious has been to better incorporate the MTV logo into show titles. In the U.S. and other parts of Asia, the name ‘MTV’ might be incorporated into the show title about 80% of the time. In China, all locally produced programs, including MTV Village of Heavenly Music and MTV English, feature the ‘MTV’ prominently in the program title. Along with show titles, the MTV name is inserted in the bumpers (promotional teases) at the end of a show.

And then there are the subliminal messages. Listen hard to MTV stations in China and you’ll notice that the video jockeys pepper their speech with the word ‘MTV’ many times more than their American counterparts. Also, MTV’s on-air presenters in China wear T-shirts with the brand emblazoned on the front.

The branding issue for Nick was a little trickier, however Li negotiated a compromise with the censors at China’s State Administration of Radio Film and Television. For the series that Tanglong dubbed into Mandarin, the name Nickelodeon won’t be part of the show title. Instead, it has been transformed into Chinese characters–’Ni Ke’–which sounds a little like the beginning of Nickelodeon and roughly translates as ‘knowledge paradise.’

This Chinese version will be printed inside the familiar orange splat that is part of Nick’s regular logo, and will appear in the upper right-hand corner of the screen all the time. To top it all off, the regular English-language Nick logo will flash on the screen every 15 minutes, along with information that explains the channel’s mandate–a little promotional note for viewers who are unfamiliar with the brand.

Viacom’s tricks of the trade may be seeping through to the Chinese public. They are becoming more savvy and can distinguish Western programs from their Chinese counterparts simply from their originality and flair. And that notion is not lost on the broadcasters. As MTV’s VP of programming, talent and artist relations Michal Varma states: ‘You’ve got to use creative license where you can.’

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