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Japan a key battleground for BBC’s expansion in Asia

by Elizabeth Kerr

Special To The Japan Times

Judging from the activity on the floor at February’s BBC Worldwide Showcase in Liverpool, England, television is most definitely not dead. Over 700 buyers and distributors descended on the BT Convention Centre to investigate what was new (“The Game,” “The Musketeers”) and what was returning from the world’s second-largest content provider behind the United States. The BBC is a recognizable brand, but that doesn’t mean the British broadcaster isn’t facing challenges as it continues its expansion around the globe.

Last April, the BBC’s global strategy took a turn when its reporting lines switched to a regional model, signaling a new emphasis on global markets as quasi-independent entities. That policy has been honed even more, with a broader focus on brands such as BBC Earth (the umbrella for its natural-history programming), flagship series such as “Sherlock” and “Doctor Who” and channels BBC Knowledge, BBC Entertainment and CBeebies among others.

“Strategies only work if you’ve … looked organically in the market in the country and you marry the two,” explains BBC Worldwide’s president of global markets, Paul Dempsey. “I think it’s naive to say we have an ‘Asia strategy.’ That implies India is the same as Japan as Indonesia.”

He notes that premium content, the channels themselves and reengineering the BBC Worldwide website as the principal direct-to-consumer portal are the three streams BBC Worldwide is concentrating on for the coming years.

Japan is the BBC’s oldest Asian market, and as the most mature, creativity is key to continued growth. Between 2012 and 2016, the BBC projects the Asian media market will grow 10 percent (behind emerging markets in the Middle East and Africa), but only around 3 percent in Japan. With no channels of its own in Japan, a crucial factor for growth, the model has to shift.

“Our main business is really driven by selling programs to local media,” begins Ken Munekata, president of BBC Worldwide Japan. Broadcasters such as NHK have been the traditional buyers, but Munekata is starting to consider other options.

“We’re looking at working with existing channels that might be rebranding. … Not all the channels are doing that well. The next few years will tell,” he says. “But at the same time we’re looking at branded block services; the cost associated with that is much lower. But my concern is that if our programs are not recognized as BBC programs, how do you draw people to the service?”

“Branded blocks” are a common strategy in television, where a content provider, such as the BBC, partners with an existing outlet in a new market to showcase linked or branded content for a fixed period of time each day or week. BBC Worldwide’s first block experiment will begin May 5 with Wowow’s BBC Earth branded block, launching with nature series “Hidden Kingdoms.”

A local BBC channel would be ideal for Munekata, as it would afford greater control over both content and branding, but new licenses are few and far between.

“What may open up some opportunities is the Japanese government trying to make better use of the limited bandwidth on satellite by introducing new technology that will make it possible to transmit high-quality programming with less bandwidth,” he says. “If some of that is freed up it might be open to new licenses for additional channels. Of course, the process of how to get access to that bandwidth is the big mystery. Everyone wants it.”

In line with Dempsey’s overall strategy, Munekata is looking at how best to exploit online access. The BBC is revamping its site (www.bbc.com) over the next three years to create a more comprehensive experience, but the Internet isn’t necessarily the final frontier in Japan. Mobile use is more widespread, and demographics and infrastructure need to be addressed.

“What we’re finding in Japan is that most televisions are Internet connectable, but only about 23 or 25 percent of those are actually connected,” Munekata points out. “To me that says the digital-media path to the target audience is very narrow.”

Users of smartphones and tablets are more likely to watch entertainment, not the visually rich, television-friendly BBC Earth. Nonetheless, “the greatest opportunity of the digital age is that we don’t have to be prisoner of the gatekeepers — the networks or the pay channels. The cost of accessing the audience is lower, and it’s direct,” Munekata states.

Dempsey agrees that’s the way forward in Asia. “In the big markets — India, Japan, Korea, China even — there’s no doubt that digital is our opportunity to leapfrog beyond linear pay television.”

Asia is one of the BBC’s fastest growing media markets, and China, not surprisingly, is the big fish. Media revenues in the PRC (where, like Japan, there are no dedicated BBC channels) are expected to increase to $71 billion between 2012 and 2016, and the BBC’s content sales rose nearly 7 percent last year to $471 million. BBC Worldwide expanded to Indonesia and Cambodia in 2013, and this year will begin rolling out the scripted content-focused BBC First and the male-skewing BBC Brit, which vice-president of commissioning Tracy Forsyth refers to as “mentertainment,” to go along with Earth.

Localized content will remain a major component in some markets. Regional spins on premium content — “Top Gear Korea” and “Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa” in India (based on “Strictly Come Dancing”) — have proven effective in bringing eyeballs to the BBC (except in Japan, where the local version of “Strictly Come Dancing” fizzled). The BBC’s programming will remain niche content in Japan for the foreseeable future; the ways in which its audiences access it will drive its long-term strategy.