Q&A with Turner Asia boss Ricky Ow

Ricky OwRicky Ow is just shy of a year into his role as Asia president of one of the region’s largest international TV broadcasters, Turner, the owner of CNN, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Adult Swim, TCM and others.

In this interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks, the Singaporean former Asia EVP and general manager of Sony Pictures Television talks about his priorities for the year ahead, the aftermath of Turner’s “huge” restructure, and the prickly issue of pay-TV measurement.

So, it’s been a while since you talked to the media after taking the top job at Turner…

I told the PR department that I don’t want to talk to the press for six or seven months after I started. The focus should be on Turner, not on me. I had a plan for the company, but I wanted to have executed that plan before I spoke to the media.

What sort of boss are you?

I’m a boss who I think is approachable to all staff. I want it that way. I don’t want people to be afraid to approach me. I see myself as someone who can roll up their sleeves and take a very pragmatic approach to problem solving – a no bullshit way of getting answers to a problem. If I have to do the heavy lifting, I’ll do it. And I expect the same of my staff. I’m someone who likes to think ahead, in the long term, and that defines my approach.

What do you see as the biggest challenge you face in your role running Turner in Asia?

I started on January 13, which is about 11 months ago. So now is a good time to be talking to you. When I first came to Turner, we had two strong pillars – one in news with CNN as the leading channel in the region, and the other in kids programming with Cartoon Network. The third pillar that I want to bring to Turner is in entertainment. Turner has a strong entertainment offering elsewhere, but not in Asia. Here, we’re starting from ground zero in a crowded market. That’s a challenge, and the current climate does not make things easier. Pay TV has been growing, but not at the same speed this year as previously. There’s a lot of stress for people launching new channels, on top of the ongoing challenge to continue to deliver value to customers and viewers.

There has been a lot of change at Turner in recent months, particularly last year when the company retrenched one in three of its staff in the regional HQ in Hong Kong. Is the transformation process complete, if not, what is there left to do to ensure the company is pointing in the right direction?

We went through a big restructure last year – it was huge. It’s an ongoing process, but now we’ve done most of what needs to be done. The goal for the company was to continue to be lean and efficient, and the search for efficiency is still there.

Turner’s Ricky Ow and MBC’s Kwang Han Ahn

Ow with MBC’s Kwang Han Ahn for Oh!K launch

I think it was a very bold decision to take, and I applaud the management team for taking it. The story that did not come out is that after the restructure was complete, the money saved was invested back into the business. We’ve since created a new entertainment unit, and launched Boomerang in Australia and then Southeast Asia, Warner TV, Oh!K in Korea and we’ve also introduced catch-up TV services.

You have spent much of your career at Sony. What are the key differences you notice between the two companies in terms of culture?

I can’t really comment on that other to say that, as a company, Turner has a news, kids and entertainment offering, each reaching different audiences. especially in Southeast Asia, where as Sony is more focused on entertainment.

Have you achieved everything you wanted within your first 12 months at the helm?

My first job was to get an A team in place, which I’m now very happy with. It’s a very diverse team. I hate to manage them because they are such strong-minded high-achievers, but I love having such a talented group. We have Phil Nelson handling commercial matters in an expanded role as SVP and MD for Southeast Asia Pacific and North Asia. We hired Greg Ho from Sony to head up corporate communications and marketing. Marianne Lee re-joined me after a stint at Universal Networks in April to head up our entertainment unit, and Shitiz Jain, previously the CFO at Discovery Channel, has come on board to lead our finance team. They’re very talented people who know how to get things done.

The second thing has been to re-engage and re-connect with the market. The only way to get business done is to meet people, and we’ve been spending more time engaging with the advertising community, especially in Southeast Asia and particularly with Cartoon Network. Phil [Nelson] and Awantika [Sood, hired in October to lead ad sales for Southeast Asia for Turner’s children’s channels] lead our engagement with advertisers. We’re also working a plan to have an on-the-ground digital component tied into the TV offering.

What are the key things that give media owners need to give them a competitive edge in this era?

The pay-TV industry is expected to grow by six per cent over the next five years, so it’s still an exciting place to be. But there are many obstacles out there, such as the need to have digital extensions of your services. That’s why catch-up TV and TV everywhere is critical for media owners. But we do not want to have a situation where the consumer watches your content on TV legally, but not legally through certain digital avenues. If you’re watching Cartoon Network, there should be no difference if you’re watching it on a TV or an iPad. You must have the ability to watch – and also pay for – content in whatever way possible. Some operators have done a good job at devising a strategy for this, some have not. We have to move the mindset of the consumer away from thinking that content sourced through the internet should be free – which is a marketing issue.

How hopeful are you that consumers will eventually learn to pay for the content you and your peers produce online?

There are people who will part with money for a pay-TV subscription and also for content they can get online, and we need to defend that group. There’s a group who will pay something for content, but won’t subscribe to the TV channel. And there’s a group who do not want to pay for anything. We need to work on ways to make that group smaller, and the first group bigger. But it’s not a situation where OTT [over-the-top services] is competing with pay-TV – the latter is part of the pay-TV eco-system. We need to find the right balance between the two.

Which pay-TV firms have done a good job of convincing people to pay for their content, and which hasn’t?

HBO has seen great growth in the US, even in subscriptions in the last year. They’ve shown that people will pay more for quality content. In Asia, I’d put Astro in that bracket too. They’ve done a wonderful job in how they have innovated to allow their customers to consume their content whenever they want, for instance in premiering Malay movies on video-on-demand services. I’ll leave you to figure out who I think is in the latter camp.

At the CASBAA Convention, there was interesting discussion between yourself, Astro COO Henry Tan and GroupM CEO Mark Patterson on measurement. Since then, have there been any follow-up developments on ways to improve the measurement system for pay-TV? What would you personally like to see materialise from the advertising industry on that front and, for you, what does the measurement utopia look like?

One thing is for sure – measurement has not caught up with technology and how people now watch TV. The good news, at least, is that there is a general recognition and desire to change and find a new formula – for instance, Kantar is now measuring out-of-home TV viewing.

I’m hopeful that all this debate will lead to a solution, although every company involved in the process has a different agenda, and I’m not sure CASBAA is in the right position to drive it. Mark’s [Patterson, GroupM’s Asia CEO] biggest problem is funding. He needs to get funding from all members. And we must understand that not everyone has dual revenue model – for some it’s just a subscription model with no reliance on advertising, so there’s less need to get into the numbers game. It’s a very complex issue as we all have different needs. But what is clear is that ad dollars are not moving to pay-TV as they should be, based on the audiences that we’re getting for advertisers. Yes, spend is shifting, but not as fast as it should be.

How confident are you that 2015 will be a good year for media in Asia?

We have a good momentum going into 2015, although there will always be headwinds in some markets. Asia is still a better place to be in than a lot of other places. We’re quietly confident.


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