Media Future of TV

Dubbed or subbed? The power of subscription video to break down language barriers

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By Hannah Bowler | Journalist

October 21, 2021 | 7 min read

As part of The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive, we look at what the recent success of foreign language originals means for video streaming platforms expanding around the world.

Earlier this month, South Korean dystopian drama Squid Game became Netflix’s most popular series of all time drawing 111m views in just one month. The show has picked up fans from all corners of the globe and led to debates on social media over ‘dubbed or subtitled’.

Netflix’s success with Squid Game was proceeded by French original Lupin, which drew 70m views in its first 28-days, and the Spanish thriller Money Heist, which netted 65m.

French Netflix original Lupin among Netflix's top originals

French Netflix original Lupin among Netflix’s top originals

Foreign language programming has finally broken into the mainstream as a positive consequence of the US streamer’s global ambitions. What started out as a marketing tool by Netflix and Amazon to grow subscribers in new territories has led to foreign content becoming genuine global hits.

Walter Iuzzolino, curator of foreign language VOD platform Walter Presents, says that when he launched he was “fighting the notion that international subtitled drama was a niche, sophisticated, snobbish pastime”. Now, he says, “the fear of the foreign is gone and we are all global consumers of global telly”.

It’s a phenomenon of the last two to three years. Previously, streaming companies were overwhelmingly distributing US content and acquiring bespoke local productions to bolster libraries. But as Netflix and Amazon embedded within new territories, they identified the best local talent and set up thriving local production hubs.

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Iuzzolino calls Netflix’s local production strategy a marketing ploy that meets R&D. “In a progressive infiltration of a market you have to give the voice of that market relevance.”

TV and online analyst at Omida, Matthew Evenson says local language content is vital to broaden the appeal of a service as it enters a new market.

“There will always be an audience for English language shows that form the backbone of the service,” he says. “But local language content is needed to appeal to audiences that are accustomed to watching shows featuring local talent or telling local stories.”

Along with the marketing benefits, the streamers are under increasing pressure to commission shows locally – the EU, for example, has a 30% quota for Europe originated content. For the streamers to grow subs and be welcomed in a territory, they now must be seen as part of the TV ecosystem.

The new streamers

The likes of HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock have benefited from observing Netflix and Amazon forging their way into new markets and have seen how local language is key to that, says Evenson.

HBO Max announced its European rollout in October and during the launch event made clear its local productions were an integral part of its strategy, sitting complimentary to its English titles.

Upcoming European originals at HBO Max include Kamikaze from Denmark, Spanish originals Todo lo Otro, Venga Juan and Garcia, along with Ruxx from Romania.

Meanwhile, Disney+ has commissioned 12 European originals with plans to produce 50 EMEA shows by 2024, while in APAC it has green lit 18 originals so far.

While newer streamers will continue with local original content, however, Evenson says it will be harder for their non-English language shows to breakout at the moment. The general model for local programming to become global hits is that it travels first within its geographical region, he says. Take Squid Game – it benefited from Netflix’s substantial Korean subscriber base (around 5 million) and then expanded into the APAC market again because of Netflix’s significant presence there. Only then did it break through and hit other markets.

The senior vice-president of drama at Cineflix, Tom Misselbrook, says for the new entrants to match Netflix’s globalization efforts, they need to ramp of their scale of local production. “They have a lot of catching up to do.”

According to him, Japan and Korea are the two most developed markets, ripe for mining local production and with thriving VOD markets. After Japan and Korea, China and Europe are the next biggest territories and Misselbrook is especially optimistic about the Spanish production market, which has been ramping up in scale and catching the interest of global players.

Cause for optimism

Having long been dominated by the US, the globalization of content has forced the TV industry out of its comfort zone to embrace different types of content, says Julien Leroux, executive producer of the Israeli Apple+ series Tehran. “This is the really positive side of globalization – we can watch stories from anywhere in the world and they can be universal to everyone.”

The biggest surprise for Leroux is how foreign language has managed to breakthrough in the US. “The market there has always been heavily protected. It used to be impossible to enter it, but now we’ve seen the likes of Squid Game become a massive phenomenon, which is something I’ve never seen before.”

Leroux, who has spent the past two decades producing and selling non-English language programming, says appetite is stronger than ever and advises the streamers to seize the opportunity and invest even heavier.

His comments were echoed during The Drum’s Digital Summit by Peter Blacker, chief commercial officer and head of DTC of NBCUniversal Telemundo, who said the US has historically been difficult to crack when it comes to foreign content.

“We’re seeing those walls are melting,” he says, “and we’re going to continue to see that wall of language as a barrier completely melt.

“For a company that makes original Spanish content, we’re finally seeing that content can travel all around the world dubbed in multiple languages. I’m an internationalist at my core and to see that happening is really exciting.”

For more on how technology and trends are bringing the world together, check out The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.

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