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Mark Eyers

Chief Content Officer | 03 Jun 2011

The commitment to development and activity that we are doing in Asia Pacific is unmatched compared to other International brands. One of the key sayings we have is that it is better to have more ideas than money. The focus on development – working on collaboration partners locally and regionally is absolutely cornerstone to our strategy. Keep the ideas coming, so that they bubble up and we spend time green-housing these ideas so that they grow a little bit. That itself is part of the strategy.

Mark Eyers joined Turner in August 2004, working with the creative service department, looking after branding and on air strategy. By the end of 2006, Eyers took on few portfolios, from programming to programming acquisitions, and by end of 2008, original production was also added to his mandate. In Eyers’ words, “Content is king in Turner’s overall global strategy and Time Warner itself is a content company”. Eyers is committed to this strategy in Asia Pacific as well, and soon after Turner created the role of Vice President, Content for the region, later expanded to Eyers’ current role of Chief Content Officer, Turner Broadcasting System Asia Pacific, Inc.

In this interview with Noor Fathima Warsia, Eyers speaks on the consumers’ changing media consumption and content consumption patterns, and what can be expected from Turner Broadcasting System APAC in 2011.

Q. What are some of the milestones you have observed in the last seven years in content intake of people, some highlights when there were clear shifts in patterns of consumer content demand?

I would sum that up in two-three phases. Asia in general is seeing continued growth. If you include China, from a subscription TV view point, Asia Pacific as a whole will probably exceed half of the world’s subscribers in the last seven years. That is very important, and is a continuing trend.

Also, Asia is coming of age, it is not just one market, but multiple markets. It’s like a crisp salad with very identifiable parts, tastes and flavours, and I expect various markets becoming mature in themselves soon. We are also seeing market shifts in terms of content generation. For instance, in animation content, which is what I specialise in, as important as Japan is, we’ve seen countries such as India, Singapore, Malaysia and Korea come up as IP generators and content creators.

The other big thing is localisation. Within Turner, in 2006, we started Snaptoons project. We’re continuing that commitment to development, working with local partners. I see that as a major milestone, and which is why there is a dedicated team for content expanding. That would include the appointment of Silas Hickey, who is the Creative Director of animation, and Rick Fernandes, who is the Executive Director of original production and development, and the recent promotion of Vishnu Athreya as Executive Director of acquisition. Vishnu has also added to the team Lila Lewis. I’ve seen the team expand to meet those challenges.

Q. Disney, where you have worked in the past, and Turner brands enjoy great perception in the kids/ youth entertainment space. Given your experience at Disney, how would you compare the two brands?

I have had the experience of working with one of my key competitors and that is always important as a learning, keeping the appreciation for the competition. One key thing that I would share, and we should remember, is that both are global brands. It is important to realise that Cartoon Network is a brand in itself and Disney is a corporate brand. I would use that as a differentiating factor. For example, Cartoon Network is the No. 1 kids channel in all of Asia Pacific, leading key international competitors by at least 50 per cent. That is the takeaway - our commitment to that audience of 4-14 years. A lot of the competitors have interest in a lot of other areas, which makes them a powerful competitor and to be respected, but I would classify it slightly differently.

Q. In the last four years, the market has seen a lot of competition with players like Disney and its channel Hungama and Nick. What is the evolution of your content strategy in India in the last four years?

Competition is welcome and is important because we need to grow the category. It has already grown up to 6.3 per cent of the overall TV pie and Cartoon Network’s shares in India will be number one through this shift in years. In fact, absolute shares in 2010 have been higher than that of 2006. So what we have seen is that competitors add to the category and we welcome that.

As far as change in the content strategy is concerned, fundamentally it hasn’t shifted the focus from being true to the audience. One would have noticed that from 2003 or so, from when we first started investing in local content, that effort has ramped up. But having said that, we have a three-pillar strategy for content and India focus is very heavy on that. It is based upon having local content for your market, whether it is India, Australia, Japan or Korea, and having regional content that could work in your home market and across the region. A fantastic example of that is ‘Arjuna and the Ice Lotus’, which is a TV movie we have made specifically for India. We will also be playing in South East Asia on a regional level. But, I don’t believe in just having fantastic local content. ‘Roll No 21’ was a most recent success. It reached up to 1.4 TVR in March, since its launch in November last year.

Then we have international content like ‘Ben 10’, ‘Tom and Jerry’ and the rest of them. Across these three pillars, we’re staying very firm. India to me is on the global stage as anyone else. We see this regional content continuing. We don’t believe in hired guns. We create the content; we want to own it and move into a 360 degree brand experience with it as well.

Q. You have explained that there can be local content which can be played at regional levels, but how difficult is it to have content coming from India that makes sense to a wider audience? Does that really happen?

It does, if you have a character-driven story that can relate to people not necessarily from the same cultural background. To be honest, we face challenges in the region, like writing can be a challenge in development when we talk about having stories of travel. We’ve worked with it in India at the local level – like I would go back to ‘Arjuna...’ or ‘Roll No. 21’ -- if you have a strong character, and Arjuna was a key character, it will travel. We’ve also proven this in some of our developments.

From Snaptoons, we have worked on a number of projects that are grown in India as well. For example, ‘Kulveera’, which was a very successful show. And we are looking at it as a potential show to move further. You are going to see more announcements from Snaptoons proving that local-developed content would move regionally. In fact, we would be announcing the shortlist for another whole wave of Snaptoons content that will be developed in Malaysia with a regional aspect. It’s not official, but it’s what I sometimes call an I-O (in & out) strategy.

There’s another rule which works well, which we call the 20 per cent rule. Take a great story, change it about 20 per cent to make it regional and it will work. Character-driven stories, which are the fundamental backbone of our development philosophy, will make sure content travels. Look at our ‘Desi Toons’ strategy – it is basically the character should have an outlook to the world, but it can have a desi nature as well. ‘Roll No 21’, ‘Chhota Bheem’ and ‘Krishna and Balram’, ‘Kumbhkaran’ are all Desi Toons.

Q. In India specifically, animation has not yet picked up with the youth TG. It is still very kids...

I slightly disagree. Cartoon Network, particularly in India, has lifted animation to a family entertainment option. I speak from a regional point of view and proof points are absolutely undeniable. From an all-audience standpoint for a 1+ reach, we are the number one international channel, hands down, in Asia Pacific, across 23 markets and nine languages. All-ages, number one channel again. When the 15+ audiences come into the view, you have things working on two levels. That is why we have a TV movie strategy, which is again part of what we want to do here in India with Desi Toons. I’ll go back to another collaboration which we have with ACK, we’ve lifted that to general entertainment. If you see the industry as a whole, and you see the plethora of 3D movies, international releases, in fact, a lot of Indian production companies are investing in their own initiatives of going to the 3D space. Sometimes they are using public domain and IP and working with partners. I think it has reached a completely general entertainment level.

Q. The other question is on digital. Digital in terms of distribution has done very well in India. Right now it is looking really good. Any benefit of that to Cartoon Network and Pogo as brands, or do these things not really matter that much?

I think DTH in India will be bigger than that of the US by 2014. The quality of signal will be better. It’s all about the audience at the end of the day. When I am talking of digital, I am not talking of the entire plethora, which includes mobile, because don’t forget, in India the Internet has got ways to go. There is such pent-up demand in the whole digital space – it is offering much more choice to the audience. So it’s important that we are on all these platforms. With DTH and now with 3G coming in, even kids have access to handheld devices, through which they can access content. It’s an additive thing. In our experience, TV remains No 1, but these digital platforms become the second and third screens, which will become an added experience to the brand.

What will become important for broadcasters is to be in that space where kids are moving to. The trick is to make sure we adapt the franchise, which works on 360-degree ways.

Q. How are you ensuring that?

Whilst for competitors and a lot of people, it’s about taking video and sticking to the website, that’s not what we are about. We are about a 360-degree brand experience. Cartoon Network is about surprising; that’s what we want to deliver to our customers on different platforms. It’s just not repurposing content -- there will be some of that, as some people want that. But there will be things like gaming. We need to ensure that we have immersive, engaging, compelling content on every platform and that is what we are doing.

Q. What are the challenges you face in co-production?

Partnerships and collaborations are imperative to any successful content. We are like a virtual studio model, whether we are working with the writers here, with a studio in Malaysia or with a script director in the US, we make sure we are taking advantage of the digital world and the global village to increase the content and the exchange of ideas everywhere, be it Mumbai or Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong or Los Angeles. We don’t see this as a problem at all.

We have worked with studios. When we were working with ACK, we were working with a studio in Malaysia at the same time working while we were doing development here. We have a strong creative team based in Mumbai here, we have creative directors in Hong Kong; it is not a challenge at all, but a pleasure and an enjoyment to see the exchange of ideas.

Q. What can be expected from Cartoon Network and Pogo in 2011?

More Roll No 21 - we are ramping up production. You will see more TV movies from us this year that are a combination of home-grown stories and regional sensibilities. When we roll these out in South Asia, they will be in Mandarin, in Bahasu, in Thai. Like when we take this content out of India, Arjuna will be shown in English, in Mandarin, in Bahasu, in Malay and Thai. We are confident that the story we have created about Arjuna and his brothers will work and people will watch it. It is a beautiful example of Desi Toons, in a nice Indian execution. If content is king, story is God, so more Roll No. 21, Kumbh Karan, Chhota Bheem this year… in short more local content.

And the continual investment in content itself. The noteworthy thing is not only taking that investment locally, but ramping up that three-pronged strategy of working on regional, local and international at the same time. And further commitment to development. I want Cartoon Network to be the first point of call when someone wants to develop something in animation. That’s our commitment. You’ll see more Snaptoons come out of India that will be in long form. The commitment to development and activity that we are doing in Asia Pacific is unmatched compared to other International brands. One of the key sayings we have is that it is better to have more ideas than money. The focus on development – working on collaboration partners locally and regionally is absolutely cornerstone to our strategy. Keep the ideas coming, so that they bubble up and we spend time green-housing these ideas so that they grow a little bit. That itself is part of the strategy.

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