Fox’s programming honcho Joon Lee on branded shows, Turner’s troubles and the pan-Asian content conundrum

Joon LeeJoon Lee heads up programming for Fox International Channels across the region.

In this interview, FIC’s head of content and communications, Asia Pacific and the Middle East, talks to Mumbrella Asia’s Robin Hicks about branded content, how to create a show the works across Asia and why watching television qualifies you for his job.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Trying not losing my mind! We are a regional, multi-lingual, multi-media player. We’re deeply de-centralisted and localised, and there’s no wrong answer for each market. Different countries want different things. And as head of content for Asia and the Middle East, finding ways to stay balanced is tough. It’s hard to stay realistic about what we can and cannot do.

What’s the secret to creating a programme that is popular among audiences across Asia?

It’s almost impossible to create or find a show that works well in every single market, especially with English-language programmes. We would not expect an English show to be number one in every market. Korean and Chinese content seems to work best regionally. But even that has its limitations – it is less likely to work in India or the Middle East.

What are your favourite shows?

The cast of The Running Man

The cast of The Running Man

I’m a very sports-oriented person, so I’d pick Sunday Night Football on Fox. Not just because of the game itself, but because of the way it is presented. I believe it’s the highest quality weekly broadcast that exists.

Right now, I’m a fan of Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. I like edgy dramas. I also like a Korean show called The Running Man.

Who’s the best programme-maker you’ve ever come across, and why?

Ward Platt

Ward Platt

My boss, Ward Platt [the long-serving head of FIC’s APAC and Middle East operations, who is moving from Hong Kong to a global role in LA]. We used to work together, but we weren’t programmers, we were in business development. When he moved to Nat Geo, he asked me to join Fox. He convinced me that as long as you can watch TV and know what a good show is, you’re qualified for the job.

But perhaps David Haslingden [the former president of the Fox Networks Group, who left the group after 20 years of service in August last year] influenced me the most. I’m not Western and English is not my first language, but everything became possible for me because of the philosophy he instilled – don’t judge people based on their academic or ethnic background. You just need what it takes to be a good soldier, and a good creative person.

How much of Fox’s programming budget goes on producing locally produced shows?

This is something we struggle with on a daily basis. We started out as a 100 per cent acquisition company, using only other people’s content. But now we’re moving towards owning our own shows.

Star Chinese Movies

Star Chinese Movies

In Taiwan, we have a 95 per cent self-producing channel. We produce 1,500 hours of fresh content every year, and we’re trying to follow that approach in different markets across the region.

The Western entertainment group has been slower to self-produce, but channels such as Star Chinese Movies are moving faster in that direction. By the end of May 2014, we’re aiming to spend 10-15 per cent of our budget on making our own shows.

Last year, we produced 100 hours of factual content for National Geographic Channel, and we’re now shooting for 200 hours for 2013. Next year, we aim to produce 300 hours of our own stuff.

Have you come across branded content you feel makes for good programming, and if so, can you give an example?

Not really. Over the last 10-15 years, we’ve run a lot of brand-funded shows. We used to take them, just because they were free. They’re not all bad, but overall I don’t think they’re good enough.

I don’t discriminate against content because it’s brand funded, but we tend not to run it anymore. If it’s not entertaining, it won’t rate. It’s as simple as that. And if it’s not good quality and it’s not promoted well, everyone loses. We’re now trying to encourage advertisers to work closely with us to create stuff that’s good for their brand, good for our channel and good for the viewer.

The ApartmentA good example is The Apartment [an interior design show backed by property giant Sime Darby], which is now in its third season. I don’t treat it as a brand funded show anymore, as we were heavily involved in the editorial and the creative process. We consider it to be a genuine co-production, and work closely with them to make sure it works for Star World.

Watch an outtake from the second season here:

There has been a lot of change at Turner recently. What does that tell you about the health of the television market in Hong Kong and regionally?

The issue is not just with Turner. Legacy companies in pan-regional media used to have a comfortable time of it, but now that time is over. The market is evolving, and the digital era is dividing audiences. We need to understand the reality of the market. And we need to remind ourselves why what has happened to Turner has not happened to us, and be thankful.

What are your top priorities for the next 12 months?

ESPN Star Sports recently merged and rebranded to Fox Sports, and has expanded from one to four hubs in Asia. We want to localise the channel in every market, which is a massive project. I’ll be spending half my time on that. We also want to upgrade our digital offering, and we need to invest in local productions in factual, sport and entertainment.

I’m not a producer. I don’t produce shows myself. But I see the value in a structure that give us the opportunity to produce hit shows. And we’re working on that, especially with Chinese content. The future is important, but preserving what we currently have is top priority. We need to ensure we are the number one or two channels in every genre.

If you don’t protect the present, there can be no future.


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