Special Report on Mip Asia: Mip Market Maneuvers – With its billions of viewers, Asia is being touted as an untapped market with unlimited potential, but some distribs are saying sayonara to Mip Asia this year.

December 1, 1997


Barely half a year after the Brits gave Hong Kong back to China, the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre – site of this summer’s handover ceremonies – plays host to the forth annual Mip Asia, running this year from December 4-6. A unique gathering of buyers and sellers from the East and West in Asia, last year the market hosted 1,072 companies from 54 countries, half of which came from the Asian community. This year, the market shares its venue with the Cable and Satellite exhibition, as well as the CASBAA (Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia) conference, assembling the largest-ever Asian gathering of broadcast professionals with a premier satellite and telecommunications technology exhibit.


At first glance, a market in the heart of Asia seems the ideal opportunity for foreign companies to make inroads into the Far East. Asia is brimming with billions of viewers, but unlocking that potential wealth is not a feat easily accomplished in three days, which is what Mip Asia affords attendees.

Many European and North American distributors and producers assume the divisions between East and West are mainly geographic, but while physical distance does make intermarket communication difficult, the social and political divides are the biggest stumbling blocks to cracking the Asian market. ‘Our subjects are often inappropriate for Asia because of differences in culture, religion and attitudes,’ explains Jenny Cornish, director of sales at Sydney, Australia-based distributor Jenny Cornish Media. ‘This is particularly true of social issues documentaries. We don’t allow for different attitudes to such things as sex, marriage, family support, male and female roles, and consider the western paradigm superior.’

These societal differences comprise the first obstacle for non-Asians trying to sell into the market. Asia accepts certain content only under specific conditions. Violence is generally acceptable if it is contextual, or if it is competitive in nature. Sexually explicit content is strictly taboo, and even brief nudity may kill a deal in some territories. That said, big-budget American action features sell best at Mip Asia, and pornography does thriving business through non-market channels.

China is particularly circumspect about foreign content. While children’s programming, documentaries and animation are exempt, all other programming must pass government censors who tend to use a great deal of latitude when it comes to interpreting censorship laws.

As well, China’s sensitivity toward political criticism extends beyond its own borders; at press time, the Chinese government had placed a ban on Disney, mgm and TriStar as a result of recent projects by the major studios which the government felt took a negative political stance toward China.

Added to all this are more mundane impediments to success. When it comes to narration, American accents are generally preferred, as English and especially Australian ones are harder to understand. Series tend to do well across the board, with the exception of Japan where over 90% of broadcast content is domestically produced, and available multi-episode slots are few and far between.

Each Asian territory has also levied foreign content restrictions which reduce the amount of non-indigenous product a broadcaster can air, ranging between 15% and 70%. China leads the way with the most severe protectionist quotas. Stations and services there may bring in only 20 hours of foreign programming each year, and primetime hours can contain a maximum 15% non-Chinese programs.

But the differences between markets is particularly apparent in the corporate cultures. ‘The main thing about dealing with Asian countries is that their way of business is quite different from that of the West,’ observes Cornish. ‘The Western ego and demand for instant action is not something Asian buyers respond to.’

To be successful in the Asian marketplace, a company has to be perceived as viable and reliable. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been doing business in Asia for decades and understands the danger of appearing to be nothing more than another stand at a trade show. ‘This market is one that really requires relationship building,’ says Christina Hajek, deputy director of international coproductions, sales and acquisitions at the CBC. ‘You have to have a good relationship, and offer a stable presentation to your Asian buyers for them to feel comfortable with what you’re presenting. And you have to understand the mandates of their schedule.’


Mip Asia was the market meant to address these difficulties. By assembling buyers and distributors in a venue in Asia, organizers hoped the event would become the forum where East and West could meet to do business, but it hasn’t been working out that way. Big name distributors like London, U.K.-based Chrysalis and Itel, and the cbc, are not planning to attend this year, and most were openly critical of the market’s ability to produce worthwhile results.

The cbc does good business in Asia with a number of its in-house series, among them Fashion File and The Nature of Things. They’ve found the direct approach is the best way to get to their target buyers. ‘I don’t want to sound very harsh in my assessment of Mip Asia, but I will be very honest,’ says Hajek. ‘We took a look at the market, at what it costs to attend and to participate in, and with our limited funds as a public broadcaster, we decided our money would be better spent doing direct sales trips.’

Véronique Verges, the CBC’s senior sales executive responsible for the region for over six years, has attended each Mip Asia, but she won’t be going this time around. ‘The first two years I attended, I was really pleased with it. I got some great results and did some great deals. Last year, it was too soft.’ This criticism of the market seems to strike a consistent chord: It was well sold to the sellers, but not to the buyers.

At last year’s Mip Asia, the Chinese, Koreans and Taiwanese were largely invisible, and the Japanese, although present, were buying only the small quantities required to fill their limited slots. It’s hard to sell to people who aren’t there, as Verges observes, and ‘some countries seemed to vanish into thin air.’

Chrysalis is not going to this year’s Mip Asia because, ‘You have to go where your customers are,’ points out marketing director Christina Willoughby. It seems Asian buyers, like others the world over, prefer to go on sales trips to exotic places, and Chrysalis is finding their Asian buyers at mipcom and natpe.

‘We really felt that [Mip Asia] didn’t deliver the buyers,’ says Willoughby. ‘The buyers they had on the list – particularly the ones from China, which was meant to be the new target area – didn’t turn up and honor their appointments. I met more people from southeast Asia at NATPE than I did in Hong Kong.’

At last year’s MIPCOM, Willoughby was surprised when an unexpected visitor to her stand who had been ‘prowling around, clutching a glossy’ bought over 30 hours of programming. He turned out to be a representative of ttn, the Travel and Transportation Network in Korea, a station Chrysalis hadn’t even known existed. ttn bought every episode of Airport, a series based on daily events at London’s Heathrow airport, the option for future series, and all of their Clive James travel series.

As well, Chrysalis was at the centre of a bidding war between five Korean broadcasters for their Wilderness natural history series. While the usual price for that style of show in a similar Asian market is us$2,500 an hour, Wilderness sold for $50,000 in Cannes.

In contrast, with a dearth of buyers and no lack of vendors, Mip Asia belongs to the broadcasters, which translates into license fees as low as $750 an hour for non-drama programming (some broadcasters have been paying $750-$1,200 an hour since they began buying programs decades ago).

The absence of buyers is hurting the market, but so is its timing. Doing the pre-market prep – researching, scheduling appointments, travel arrangements, shipping stand material and follow-ups from the previous market – can easily take a month or more. That’s almost an impossibility between mipcom and natpe, and since those markets have been delivering the right customers, there’s little reason to travel to Hong Kong every December.

Still, distributors face a dilemma when explaining their choice to the producers they represent. ‘When we’re touting our services to all the indie producers, we say we go to all the major markets,’ says Willoughby. ‘And because Mip Asia does get a lot of exposure in our press, producers think it’s a major opportunity.’

In previous years, distributors have gone to suss out the market and keep up appearances, but that isn’t a compelling enough reason this year. The story seems to have become who’s not going rather than who is.

For some U.K. distribs, this year’s significant scale-back of government and producers’ association grants, which paid for over half the stand costs and almost all travel expenses in previous years, added to the decision to stay home.

Consensus is that money is better spent specifically targeting buyers through sales trips, where time isn’t limited by your ability to keep someone’s attention at your stand and valuable relationships are more easily built. As Verges points out: ‘It’s absolutely based on relationships, because there’s a lot of product out there, and what makes the difference is if they trust you and feel comfortable doing business with you or not.’

In this report:

-Mip Market Maneuvers

-Country Profiles: From China to Thailand, what to expect

-Distributor Profiles: Examples from distribs who’ve made the sale

-Rate Chart:: How low can you go?

-Korean Market Etiquette: Phil Yoon of Samsung does Miss Manners

-Pointers from an Asian Market Success Story – Sport International hits big in Asia

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.