The health of television depends on viewer ‘apathy’ says HBO Asia boss

HBO Asia boss Jonathan Spink talking at Content Asia

Spink: ‘As much as we’re in this wonderful OTT world, TV viewing on traditional channels is still incredibly healthy’

The Asia boss of one of the world’s most revered cable networks HBO has said that traditional television audiences have been kept healthy partly because of viewer “apathy”, with many people prefering the easy option of being served scheduled, curated content in the comfort of their living rooms.

“Television does largely depend on apathy. And I think people want a nice easy way of finding things, and channels still do it,” Jonathan Spink, HBO Asia CEO said today at the Content Asia conference in Singapore.

Spink was talking in the context of traditional pay-TV players consolidating as internet-based players such as Netflix, HOOQ and Iflix enjoy banner growth as internet users migrate to consuming content on-demand.

He told his interviewer Janine Stein, editorial director of Content Asia, that HBO would not be reducing its linear TV presence to focus more on its OTT offering HBO Go.

“As much as we’re in this wonderful OTT world, TV viewing per se on [traditional] channels is still incredibly healthy,” he said.

“One of the first things people do when they get home is turn their TV set on, and they’ll sit and watch whatever happens to be in front of them.”

“So it’s not going away anytime soon. OTT is an addition to it. It gives more viewers more options on when they see things. They work together,” said Spink.

The typically tight-lipped executive said that HBO’s plan was “to keep both” going, adding that unreliable infrastructure in parts of Southeast Asia meant that linear TV had an advantage over OTT services in places with poor internet coverage.

Spink said there was no plans to change its approach to pricing, and the company has plans to gradually ramp up its production of original regional productions.

“In the markets where we’re premium we will remain premium and there are no plans to change that,” he said.

“Will we be buying regional content? No. Will we be producing it ourselves? Yes, of course,” he said.

Will HBO be rolling out its OTT offering HBO Go across the region? Spink said that the company behind shows such as Games of Thrones, Sex and the City, The Sopranos and The Wire would be doing so, but through its affiliate partners, with rights issues and censorship a barrier to a rapid roll-out.

HBO Go content has to pass the censors in Malaysia, where it operates through domestic pay-TV provider Astro, but is uncensored in Hong Kong, for instance. “That’s our preference, obviously,” he said, referring to the scenario in Hong Kong.

Spink commented that regulators around the region are beginning to accept the irony in the content of “proper companies” like HBO being censored while the content available on pirate sites – which enjoy wild popularity around the region – is free of any interference.

Stein suggested that Singapore’s R21 parental controls could be “a significant step” in dealing with the issue.

“It’s a very good step in the right direction,” said Spink.

“The MDA [Singapore’s media regulator] are very aware of the contractions with piracy, so it’s a very positive step,” he said.

Spink was also asked about HBO’s decision to exit India’s broadcast scene after an attempt to establish a premium channel in the world’s second most populous country. He was frank in his response, saying: “It’s bloody hard to make money”. HBO changed tack, selling its content to large domestic player Star TV instead.

“It’s a very tough place to do business. There are a lot of regulatory issues. There are some hugely successfully companies there, for instance Star and Zee. We took a very sensible business decision [to leave].”

“Was it a tactical retreat or a positive charge? Take your pick,” he said.


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