Netflix is doubling down on Asia with K-dramas and mobile-only deals. But China remains elusive
The entertainment giant added 9.3 million paid subscribers in Asia Pacific last year, a 65% jump compared to 2019. Revenue in the region soared almost 62%, compared with 40% in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“We’re excited — massively excited, I would say — about the potential in Asia,” Greg Peters, the company’s chief operating officer and chief product officer, told CNN Business. “There’s literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of people that we’re still trying to find a great way to connect with and entertain.”
The winning formula relies in part on taking hit shows from the West and marketing or adapting them for other audiences. In 2019, it rolled out a special season of “Queer Eye,” where the cast performed makeovers in Japan. In December, it announced a South Korean version of “Money Heist,” a Spanish crime drama that has won critical and audience acclaim.
But the company has found that Asian audiences don’t just want to watch adaptations of Western shows.
When Minyoung Kim joined Netflix in 2016 as its first Asia-based content executive, the company “knew that local content was going to be a really important factor for growing our business in Asia,” she said.
“We just didn’t have … proof,” added Kim, who is vice president of content for Netflix in South Korea, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
Today, that’s no longer the case. Just as Netflix’s international shows have worked in different markets, the company has found that its Asian shows have appeal worldwide. Japan’s “Alice in Borderland,” South Korea’s “Kingdom” and “Indian Matchmaking,” which was shot between India and the United States, have all been breakout successes around the globe.
Two other factors have been driving Netflix’s growth in Asia. Last year, Korean dramas, or “K-dramas,” dominated its top 10 lists in Southeast Asia. Regional viewership for Korean content quadrupled last year compared to 2019. Regional viewership of Japanese anime, meanwhile, doubled year-over-year.
Building an audience in Asia also means that Netflix has had to expand the number of languages it supports. The service is now available in 35 languages, including Hindi, Chinese, Vietnamese and Malay. It is continuing to add more, including subtitling and dubbing options.
Peters said that Asian viewers have also helped the company develop new technology that it has since rolled out globally. Someone trying to learn a foreign language, for example, might want to watch a show in slower motion. That led Netflix to introduce the ability to toggle video playback speed, which is now available worldwide.
The difficulties of going global
In a letter to shareholders last month, the company acknowledged as much, saying it had been expecting more competition worldwide for years. “This is, in part, why we have been moving so quickly to grow and further strengthen our original content library across a wide range of genres and nations,” it wrote.
That line of thinking has allowed Netflix to build up an arsenal of new movies, series and documentaries, with more than 500 titles almost ready to launch. It even plans to release a new original film each week in 2021.
“One of the things that Disney/Hotstar has in India that they [Netflix] don’t have is live sports,” said Neil Macker, a senior equity analyst at Morningstar. “Their competitors are using other things [to hook viewers].”
To stand out, Netflix could partner with a wider range of players to find “some way of creating more value than just simply the [streaming] service itself,” Macker added.
Netflix has also had to contend with political headaches.
Asked how the firm dealt with demands for censorship, Peters pledged to support “creative freedom.”
“We don’t have a particular agenda we’re trying to push,” he said. “We are not looking to harm or insult any group of people, but we are working with a diverse set of creators. And those diverse sets of creators have a wide set of perspectives.”
“We’ve got no plans [to launch there] for the foreseeable future,” said Peters. “Really, we look at the opportunity outside of China.”
Even accounting for the company’s success elsewhere in Asia, though, Peters said it can’t afford to be complacent.
“There’s nothing I would say that I’m satisfied with. We have to constantly keep improving,” he said. “We’re connected with a lot of people around the world. But it’s not everybody, right? So we have more work to do.”