Special Report on MIP’ Asia: Doing business in Asia

It's been said that 80 percent of success is just showing up, and in the case of doing business with Asian companies, showing up on their turf goes a long way toward building successful relationships....
December 1, 1997

It’s been said that 80 percent of success is just showing up, and in the case of doing business with Asian companies, showing up on their turf goes a long way toward building successful relationships.

The key to achieving that other 20 percent, say those who have had success, comes with demonstrating three simple qualities: respect, patience and commitment.

Cracking the Asian market is not nearly as difficult as it once was, but it isn’t as easy as some may think it is. Western companies face stiff competition from their Asian counterparts. Local programming will always have an advantage over imports, and with a large Asian talent base just beginning to develop, the days of companies coming to Asia solely to conduct program sales are slowly coming to an end. Cooperation and co-production are the new vocabulary.

In addition to developing interesting programming that will attract buyers, outsiders must learn the cultures, sensibilities and the sometimes snarling government regulations that can delay or curtail business activity.

‘We have to prove ourselves,’ says Louise Brown, director of international program sales for Discovery Communications. ‘You have to establish a certain level of trust to show you will be providing a consistent level of customer service.’

For Western companies, that means making the effort to see clients several times a year, and going to MIP’ Asia, even if it is just to keep up appearances. ‘It’s probably impossible to do anything if you don’t go there because they need to see that you’re willing to meet them on their turf,’ says Julie Fox, director of sales and acquisitions for Marina Productions.

‘You can’t handle Asia through a fax machine anymore,’ adds David Jacobs, regional vice president, Asia/Latin America for Children’s Television Workshop.

Here’s a look at how some companies have achieved success in Asia:

*Southern Star

Australian-based Southern Star is one of the most experienced companies working with Asia, having sold programming to the region for over 25 years.

‘People tend to think that the markets are difficult and much more confusing than they are, but they are very straightforward,’ says Catherine Nebauer, Southern Star sales executive for Asia and the Middle East. Sales to Asia account for over a quarter of Southern Star’s total revenue.

Such deep-rooted relationships have helped Southern Star forge groundbreaking co-production partnerships with companies like NHK in Japan, Central China Television (CCTV) and Shanghai Animation Film Studios on such series as Escape from Jupiter and The Magic Mountain, respectively.

Five years ago, Southern Star partnered with NHK in Japan on the series Escape from Jupiter, the first co-production partnership that NHK had done. The process of working with NHK required patience, says Ron Saunders, CEO and executive producer, because the Japanese didn’t want to jump into anything before they knew exactly what they were getting into. ‘You think you’ve covered all the ground, but there’s always something that you’ve presumed easy that turns out to be hard,’ he says.

For example, while developing Escape from Jupiter, Saunders and the series’ writers thought they had the approval of their Japanese partners on the story outline and the series bible. What they were to find out, much to their chagrin, was that while NHK had liked the broad concept of the series, it had many problems with the show’s specifics that it hadn’t articulated to Southern Star.

Southern Star was the first Western company to do business with CCTV of China on a 50/50 co-production, The Magic Mountain. Saunders says that children’s TV is one of the easier areas to work in with the Chinese because of the universality of themes in the genre.

Although Asian countries are testing the co-production waters, establishing these arrangements is still very much of a matter of Western companies initiating the contact. ‘We were the first to do it,’ he says. ‘It was like breaking the four-minute mile. Now it’s pretty easy. Every country has its differences. It’s not any harder with Asian countries. Working with America for us is just as different.’


Montreal-based Cinar Films started selling programming in Asia six years ago through a regional sales agent, but began distributing directly to the region four years ago. The Asian market was a natural extension for Cinar because it had already established relationships in the region through production service agreements with animation studios in Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines.

Louis Fournier, Cinar’s vice president of distribution and marketing, believes that having respect for Asian counterparts is the key to long-term relationships with Asian companies. ‘Even though they don’t generate high license fees, you respect them by dealing with them the same way you deal with a more lucrative market.’

What many Western companies are now learning is that as the Asian market matures, they cannot simply show up in the region with a bag full of programming and expect the markets to buy up their goods. The expansion of intra-Asian business and the growth of indigenous production is forcing Western companies to change their tactics. ‘Asian buyers have become more savvy and selective in knowing what they want and what works,’ he says.

When these buyers look to the West, they are shopping for quality programming with world-class production values that complements their local original production.

Cinar, which does 12 to 15 percent of its business in Asia (from a revenue standpoint), has been successful in selling programming like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Arthur and The Busy World of Richard Scarry.

Fournier advises companies new to the region to invest the time to meet the people and learn what the Asian buyers want. Then, he says, Western companies should tailor their offerings to meet Asians’ needs.

*Children’s Television Workshop

Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) has been selling its programming to Asian markets for 28 years. It has seen the slow but steady shift from program acquisition to local production.

Although direct program sales still represent 75 percent of CTW’s Asian business, the fastest-growing sector of its business involves co-production and format sales.

‘Localization is the key in Asia, and what we’re seeing is countries developing their own infrastructure for TV and creating their own local programming,’ says David Jacobs, regional vice president, Asia/Latin America for CTW.

CTW adapted its strategy early on to assist local broadcasters in developing their own versions of Sesame Street and other CTW shows. CTW teaches local producers the ‘CTW model of production’ on how to develop educational content and production elements. CTW library product cannot exceed 50 percent of the show’s content.

‘We’re finding that the more you can localize, the more of an ability-especially with educational programming-you [have to] reach the core values of children and their families,’ he says.

To avoid any watering down of the CTW brand, the company carefully seeks partners who must prove they are committed to children’s educational television. The driving force of the co-production is the curriculum, which is catered to the needs of the individual market. CTW is looking to extend that curriculum via licensing and other media, such as books, videos and music.

‘Asia is a series of many markets at different stages of development,’ says Jacobs. ‘The common thread is that the markets are becoming increasingly competitive. That’s putting pressure on broadcasters to produce better and more local programming. Western companies must be more flexible in their approach to this marketplace. To look at Asia as just a transactional-based sales business is probably being shortsighted.’

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