Korea's TV industry ponders monetisation of online content

With unconventional and new entertainment media platforms emerging and disrupting conventional media platforms, the industry stands at a crossroads to change its traditional content business to one that suits the digital and mobile age.

A variety of experiments using traditional and new production methods have been tested to create and distribute content via new media platforms, including multichannel networks for digital consumers.

Some have been successful, like Netflix, which jumped into making original TV comedies and dramas such as "Orange is the New Black" and "House of Cards," but distributed them via its streaming platform.

On the other hand, "RocketJump: The Show" on Hulu, an online streaming service, is using unconventional production methods to reach wider digital audiences.

Against this backdrop, a forum in Seoul -- jointly organised by the state-run Korea Creative Content Agency and the Seoul International Drama Awards -- brought together local and international industry insiders to discuss the future of TV and creative content.

New breed of content creators

Milo Ventimiglia, who is best known for his role as Peter Petrelli on the American TV series "Heroes," said that the rise of digital content has allowed talented actors, directors, writers and producers to take charge of their own creative paths.

"For actors, it's always a terrifying prospect to wait for a job," he said at the forum.

"Now, you don't necessarily have to wait, you can just pick up a camera and make (content) yourself," he said. Ventimiglia, who first started out as an actor at the age of 18, has since branched out in his creative endeavours, which now include directing and producing. He is currently developing a mini Web-series for clothing brand American Eagle Outfitters.

As more content will be created for online and mobile amid faster Internet connections and lower production costs, the main question the industry is asking is how it will be able to develop a profitable and sustainable business model, said Marc Lorber, an international format consultant for Lionsgate Television, the fifth-largest television studio in the US

"A lot of people are making content today where people can develop and have their own channels and apps," said Lorber, who spoke at both forums. The question now, said Lorber, is how to monetise the abounding content.

In Korea and elsewhere, an increasing number of consumers are downloading and consuming content for free, and stars can be created instantly via YouTube and Twitter's Vine video-sharing networks.

Youku, often dubbed the YouTube of China and which also produces original content with partners, is contemplating offering subscription-based streaming services like Netflix.

"We are seeking to expand into other areas where content on Youku could be developed into other content such as games," said Frank Wei, president of Youku.

"What we hope to do is help monetise content made by producers."

Business model still elusive

But unlike in the US, where for-pay online channels such as Netflix -- which aims to enter Asian markets, including Korea, by early 2016 -- and Hulu have gained firm ground, in Korea, consumers still perceive the Web as a "free" space and are unwilling to open their pockets for its content, said Koh Chan-soo, a producer at KBS.

"Two things we tried were to create digital stars and garner attention, and further lower production costs," Koh said. "Also, we found that there was potential when connecting the two with multichannel distribution networks."

Local broadcaster KBS, for example, has created a TV channel called Yettie TV exclusively for the purpose of introducing online clips to TV viewers, he explained.

But despite Web series' affordability and their wide distribution to rising local online channels such as Naver TV Cast and Piki Cast, their profitability still remains below par, Koh said.

"Web series normally take up about 150 million won ($126,000) in budget," he said. "That's considerably less compared to TV drama series, which require at least 300 (million won) to 500 million won."

"We received funding from (various agencies), but were still unable to meet the break-even point with our recent Web series, 'Prince's Prince.' ... An effective profit model still remains to be developed in Korea," he said.

The key success to new media development is having a well-diversified business, said Eugene Choi, senior vice president of business development of Collab, which manages content channels and intellectual property protection for digital stars.

"The problem especially in Korea is that cost per impression and advertising rates are very low for creators," Choi said.

Participants said that there are immensely more opportunities to build an "empire" on digital rather than conventional media platforms.

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