These stories die if we don’t tell them: behind Discovery Southeast Asia’s new commitment to innovation and localisation

Discovery Asia Pacific show. 'Say Yes to the Dress'

Much like many well-loved media brands, Discovery Networks has changed with the times but the audiences and ecosystems around the brand are a bit reluctant to move on.

This is particularly true in Southeast Asia, where Discovery Networks has spent a lot of 2017 on a journey of self-discovery, investing heavily in innovation and localised content in order to build better relevance across its wide and varied audiences.

According to Bryan Seah, head of original content in SEA and Rohit Tharani, director of content curation in SEA, 2017 was a huge year for the broadcaster, as it switched from producing content that had commercial support, to having a pot of money to create new ideas. It is “entertainment that’s good for you” but it is always “entertainment-first”.

“Typically in the industry, the economics of a broadcaster will dictate that you won’t really make your money back unless it’s a fully ad-funded show. Take Project Runway for example, which has sponsors everywhere. That is fairly a-typical but in our case the investment is approached a bit differently. We said, let’s make the content and put it out there and work out how to monetise it and that’s radically different to everyone else. It really was a year of experimentation and since we have been putting the content out there, we are seeing lots of avenues that we can increase our reach and distribution. I would say we have carved out a chunk of money as a fund to find ideas and try things,” says Tharani.

The network had been, like many other networks in the region, focusing on a smaller number of big formats. In the first year of this strategy change, the number of commissions by Discovery Networks SEA reached 16, as the network took on smaller, more experimental ideas, as well as big brand content launches.

An element of this has been localising global shows, like 'Say Yes to the Dress', as completely new formats, such as a project to fund local talent called 'Jumpcut', which showed short format documentaries on Facebook. For both Seah and Tharani, a part of this stems from a passion to promote local talent, as well as an increased appetite for Asia-made stories globally.

“I have spent a lot of my career buying things from overseas, I want to make stuff here. There is a lot of talented people here and we can make good stuff. That’s why the ecosystem is so important from my point of view,” admits Tharani.

“In this new millennial world, they are all so exposed to Facebook, Youtube etc and different cultures are just a click away. It’s not the exotic Far East anymore in people’s minds. Now in a couple of clicks you can see someone doing a break dance on The Great Wall or doing amazing graffiti in Rio De Janeiro, world cultures blend so much more now and it is an interesting precursor for Western media market to be buying content from the East,” adds Seah.

From an original content point of view, local stories told by local talent is becoming necessary for global brands like Discovery Networks.

“There’s a sense of our region in SEA wanting to see their own local faces. Yes they want to watch and see far away experiences but they want to see what’s going on nearby too.They want to see what’s going on in Vietnam, or Surubaya or in Singapore. There’s a lot more interest, especially from the younger viewers, for stories about the world very near to them. In the past it’s always been about exotic places in the US or Europe, now there’s a lot of Southeast Asian pride about people and places and cultures,” explains Seah.

An example of this is a 'Jumpcut' piece about 'Chicken Beauty Pageants' in Indonesia and another piece about the Singapore professional wrestling scene. The style of the short online documentary is faster and younger than Discovery’s ‘traditional’ documentary style. According to Bryan and Rohit, this is starting to help its reputation progress, even within the more traditional production ecosystem.

Seah, explains: “A good story is still a good story. There is always that delicate dance when a sponsor is involved and how there is a chunk on money purely for editorial, it really frees us up to maybe go after edgier stories that are not as brand safe. 'Chicken Beauty Pageant' is a good example, it features chicken surgery, it’s not something that most brands would jump on, but we went ahead and did it on our own and it was a creative freedom that was nice.”

“It’s funny, when people pitch ideas to us, they still think of the traditional Discovery. So clearly we haven’t gone out there yet are much as we can, it’s not out there in the zeitgeist yet. But once they realise that this is a creative playground in which we can try things, we are going to get a lot of cool stuff,” says Tharani.

“It’s a good point to make because it’s not just about educating the viewer but also the production community about what we are doing. From 'Jumpcut', in terms of the types of films that came out, a lot of the producers who usually to do films for us, said ‘Bryan, I didn’t know you were doing films like that, you are really pushing the envelope, I want to pitch you a new idea’,” adds Seah.

In terms of the more traditional models, which Seah and Tharani make it clear that it is still very much a key part of the networks business, it has learnt some important lessons about localising content. Its recent success in 'Say Yes to the Dress Asia' showed that some different editing and stories needed to be taken, due to the differences in how reality TV plays out with Asian characters.

“The first big foray into that was localising 'Say Yes to the Dress', which is a big format from the US. They’ve done it in Holland, Poland, Australia and finally in Asia. One of the interesting things we found, versus the Western version, is that the brides in Asia tend to defer to the entourage a lot more. In the edit suite, we were getting some advice from our UK colleagues who had done about four or five seasons of it. They said, ‘does the bride ever say yes to it? We need her to say yes!’. But I was explaining that she does eventually, if you go through but for a good half an hour she is conferring, always conferring. In the western version the bride makes the call, in our part of the world you have the mum and the BFF [best friend],” explains Seah.

Tharani adds: “You always have concern when you do reality TV in Asia that people might be a bit intimidated but the families are awesome.”

In changing up the way it commissions and funds original content, Discovery Networks is forcing itself to learn hard and fast about what its audience wants in Southeast Asia. The jury is still out as to which formats stay and go, and alongside its peers in working out how to create long-term revenue around newer channels.

However, by putting these stories out into the world, they are able to learn about how they travel and get feedback about its important younger future audiences. Not only that but as the world gets used to watching content made in all corners of the globe, Discovery Networks will have already put itself firmly in the middle of the Southeast Asian content ecosystem.

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