Singapore Start-up Sees Gold Mine In Foreign Language TV

By Sam Holmes, OCTOBER 21, 2011, 5:53 PM SGT
Viki, the Singapore-based web startup, makes foreign language television content accessible to historically untapped audiences.

Singapore has long struggled to incubate a home-grown Silicon Valley-style startup scene. But at least one new Internet outfit in the city-state has succeeded in attracting a lot of eyeballs – and some venture capital, too.

Called Viki, the Singapore-based web startup pools the linguistic talents of thousands of its users to help push world television content into markets historically impenetrable to all but a handful of foreign-language productions. It screens premium licensed content in much the same way Hulu does in U.S. markets, but from a much wider range of providers than its larger U.S. counterpart, many of them from Asia.

The service relies on an active community of translators proficient in 158 languages to caption the footage, and in doing so helps remove language barriers that have typically stopped all but a tiny sliver of non-English speaking and non-U.S. television content from crossing into foreign markets.

“For the first time people in Egypt are watching Korean drama in Arabic and that’s a growth market for us surprisingly,” Viki chief executive and co-founder Razmig Hovaghimian says.

The translation community creates and edits the subtitles in much the same way Wikipedia’s user base collaboratively creates and polices its content. Mr. Hovaghimian says the volume of user activity is now such that the turnaround time for subtitling some clips can be a matter of hours.

For instance, the Taiwanese TV drama “Drunken To Love You,” also known simply as “Love You,” is one of the most popular television shows on Viki and has been translated into 26 languages.

With about 5,000 hours of video content and a membership base of close to 600,000 people — of whom about 10%-to-20% are active translators- the site is becoming a go-to point for the growing fan bases of Asian language television now emerging outside the traditional domestic markets of these media.

While Japanese animation has long commanded the passionate affection of fans outside of Japan, the vast improvement in production values in Korea’s entertainment industry in recent years means it is now also establishing much wider loyalties, even beyond Korean diaspora communities.

And Viki’s own internal data show some interesting trends that would challenge many marketing paradigms: Venezuelan novellas have a strong following in the Philippines while 70% of viewers watching Korean drama in the U.S. are not Asian — in fact, 20% are African American and 30% are watching in Spanish subtitles, Mr. Hovaghimian notes. Meanwhile, Arabic ranks as one of the top-five languages that content is translated into despite there being only a relatively small amount of Middle Eastern content on the website. Indonesian horror movies have also found surprising success in the U.S., according to Viki’s viewing stats, which also show the number of unique monthly viewers at around 10 million, up from three million late last year. The site picks up some fees and revenue shared from distributors such as Hulu and Netflix, which run some of Viki content. It also has some ad revenue share agreements with content providers.

Mr. Hovaghiminian, who previously worked at NBC Universal in both the U.S. and Singapore, describes the process of taking the prime-time content from each television market to foreign markets beyond the traditional distribution channels as “content arbitrage.”

“There’s a billion people watching premium content online and 85% of what they’re watching is not from Hollywood – we’re going after that 85%,” he says. The company currently has content agreements with TV networks and content providers such as Hong Kong’s TVB, South Korea’s SBS, Japan’s Fuji TV and Russia’s Amedia.

Viki exited its beta phase late last year and has just completed its second round of venture capital financing, securing US$20 million from its existing investor base and new investors BBC Worldwide — the British broadcaster’s commercial arm — and SK Telecom’s mobile spinoff SK Planet.

The group has also struck a suite of agreements with English-speaking content providers such as BBC Worldwide, NBC Universal and A+E Networks, who are keen to see their programs reach wider markets through Viki’s translation community.



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