Renting East Asian Popular Culture for Local Television: Regional Networks of Cultural Production

Tania Lim. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Editor: Chua Beng Huat & Koichi Iwabuchi. Hong Kong University Press, 2008.


The rise of a visible circulation of East Asian popular culture from fashion, music, film, comics, to television dramas, has an impact on our everyday lives in East Asia. English-language and non-English language newspapers, magazines, talk shows, online gossip and entertainment news are often filled with stories about Asian celebrities or stars involved in various films, music videos or television drama productions. This signals both the increased marketing prowess that media corporations are attaining, mostly through ‘renting’ or borrowing icons or the most significant or representative figures, shows, styles or ideas, simply to turn a profit like any enterprise but also reflects how culturally relevant their output is to the people who consume them.

Concomitantly, the rise of an East Asian popular culture is a new angle to media globalization that fosters new conditions for the inter-play between local cultures and global markets in popular media products and services as never seen before. As Asian cities become exposed to more regional TV channels, newspapers, music albums, pop concerts and the regionally circulating stars that front them, cultural changes affect the mediascapes that local broadcasters operate in as well as the myriad of choices that audiences face. These changes are especially visible to broadcasters who see both structural shifts (that is, the increased impact of regional dynamics on local TV competition, the spectre of a multi-channel universe, digitalization-enabled new competitors and the problems of piracy) — and agency shifts towards greater control by consumers and intermediaries over media content (determining the shelf-life of media productions which are subject to the tensions of each cultural commodity being both public goods and commercial goods). In Asia, broadcasters now operate under the assumption of greater market fragmentation and the need to cater to niche audiences as they exhibit less consumption loyalty. Erstwhile, newer international TV channels are delivering more new titles rapidly, as governments become more responsive towards media industries, relaxing previous quotas, local content restrictions, and increasing media liberalization where these governments believe to do so would foster greater economic growth and market-oriented transformations in previously state-operated TV enterprises.

Faced with the reality of increased global media competition in the domestic marketplace and the prospect of mining a regional network of Asian media markets that have been aligned by the Internet, and international satellite and cable TV channels, local broadcasters, filmmakers, and other media producers are borrowing or ‘renting’ various forms of cultural capital that have popular currency in order to aggregate audiences in various ways. Television sets are historically one of the best-selling consumer products for audiences as they offer cheap entertainment. Therefore, unsurprisingly, an increasing volume of regionally popular Asian media productions have appeared on television where the most popular are often discussed and consumed both offline (i.e. video) and online as well.

This chapter will take a multidisciplinary perspective of the changing mediascape that the regional dynamics of media globalization have made on East Asian media industries. I will first discuss general trends in programming and consumption, and structural changes that have contributed to the rise of regional networks of cultural production in East Asia. Then, I will illustrate with examples how the Asian media productions form regional networks of cultural production that impact our everyday lives — culturally, politically and economically.

Next, I examine four modes of renting or renting strategies that media producers or local broadcasters use to circulate popular cultural commodities from the region, as responses to competition in the multi-channel universe of readily available international satellite TV channels, and digital entertainment. Of particular interest is how these renting strategies serve to extend the shelf-life of individual TV programmes within the networks of cultural production. Finally, the discussion will end with a brief reflection on the potential of East Asian popular culture as a mechanism for compressing space among the diverse East Asian cultures and cities as well as how a regional media culture can serve as a basis for furthering a larger and shared East Asian identity.

An East Asian Media Culture: Factors and Conditions for the Rise of Regional Networks of Cultural Production

There is clearly an impetus for change among East Asian TV industries, and every East Asian city’s mediascape reflects this by the sheer output of East Asian content scheduled on their local TV channels. Some trends in Asia have become factors and conditions that contribute to the growth of regional networks of cultural production and increased intra-Asian cultural trade.

Firstly, Asia’s television marketplace is huge. The CLSA/CASBAA 2004 regional report on the Asia Pacific cable and satellite TV market is indicative of its large size, raking in annual revenues of at least US$14 billion (Tanner, 2004), excluding the advertising expenditure on terrestrial television networks across the Asia Pacific. Asia makes up more than 50% of the world’s population, and the region’s rising affluence is attributable to the growing middleclass in these markets. With the growing expenditure carved out by urbanised and youthful demographics of an affluent East Asian region, the demand for more sophisticated productions and services will similarly increase, driving these markets to offer better quality TV productions and broadcasting services. Pricewaterhouse Coopers estimated Asian entertainment and media markets to grow on average about 9.2% per annum. This modest projection is expected to accelerate as some East Asian governments have shifted their economic policies to include media communications as part of their new ‘creative’ economies.

While Japan and South Korea, with plenty of global brands, have the strongest media advertising and sales markets for cable and satellite TV services in North Asia and Southeast Asia to date, Singapore, China and India media markets have influenced pan-Asian advertising budgets positively. This reinforces regional trends that indicate overall demand for local media content among East Asian consumers has been growing for some decades now (see Wang, 1993; Sinclair, 1998: 211-212; Chadha and Kavoori, 2000: 423-424). Combined with the rise and success of Star TV and other pan-Asian media channels throughout the 1990s and 2000s (see Chan, 1994; Langdale, 1997; Curtin, 2003) this builds a dynamic but lucrative regional cultural marketplace.

Furthermore, new deals involving media companies, owners of popular Asian cultural commodities and globalizing technology providers in the 21st century continue to be forged to expand audiences’ reach across multiple platforms and territories. From the growth of several pan-Asian news channels to genre-specific entertainment channels like VH1 and more recently, the successful launch of Animax, a fully dedicated Japanese anime satellite TV channel, in 2005, Asian media players are investing resources and capital to building regional production networks that offer lucrative opportunities for regional distribution.

Secondly, the somewhat organic growth of Asia-based networks of production and distribution offer great regional opportunities for trade in made-in-Asia music, TV programmes and films to local industries despite the global economic downturn over the last few years. The regional dynamics of cities linked ‘geo-linguistically’ to potentially lucrative markets like China, Japan and India have already begun to see results. In television, the trickle of Japanese TV drama exports in the 1980s has given way to huge waves of new kinds of idol dramas from TBS and Fuji TV in the 1990s and Korean TV drama tearjerkers from the year 2000 onwards. Arguably, one of the cultural shifts that the regional dynamics of media globalisation has brought about is the declining status of American TV programmes on East Asian TV schedules, accompanied by the rising popularity of East Asian TV programmes.

Moreover, past studies show that the Taiwanese mediascape offers similar if not more variety in not only foreign East Asian TV shows but also a large number of foreign and foreign joint-venture Asian satellite and cable TV channels from Japan and Hong Kong (see Iwabuchi, 2001; Liu and Chen, 2004) giving terrestrial local broadcasters strong competition for advertisers (see Liu, 2002).

It then follows that regionalisation and localisation appear to be favourite strategies among international broadcasters to aggregate more local audiences for their channels. For example, MTV Asia sought to galvanise Asian audiences by experimenting in the production and telecast of its first Asian TV drama series, Rouge (2004) which featured actresses from Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, and the United States as female musicians-turned-vigilantes (MDA, 2004). Others like Star TV attributed its increased viewership of its Hindi-language channel to TV formats like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (TV Asia, 2005), while AXN Asia picked up the license for a pan-Asian production of The Amazing Race for 2006 (Sony Pictures, 2005). Often format rights cost more than ten times the price for acquiring completed programmes (Winstone, 2001). Therefore, the decision by local broadcasters to produce a licensed format has to be a strategic move to increase flagging audience ratings or beat competitors in their respective markets.

These programming and scheduling trends may also reflect larger consumer tastes and demand that speak of wider identity issues — their audiences have more diverse tastes in TV programmes and are interested in popular content that is locally relevant, and regionally accessible. Relevance, and accessibility are key criteria that broadcasters are cognizant would appeal to their audiences when promoting new TV shows to them. With short-messaging-services (SMS) and now the possibilities of online gaming, watching dramas on 3G phones, relevance and accessibility are increasingly de facto elements in new TV shows — shows with an ‘interactive’ component supplied by the inter-operability of digitization and mobile technologies. Therefore it is no surprise to see a cultural shift in TV scheduling and an upsurge in regional content circulating in East Asia. Many more cultural businesses have emerged to produce and (more significantly) circulate their made-in-Asia cultural commodities, offering broadcasters and audiences a wider range of East Asian popular culture.

Undoubtedly the most visible examples of Asian media enterprises creating new markets are the Japanese from the Sony group to television players — Fuji Television Network, Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) and Tokyo Broadcast Systems. The success of Japanese creative industries provide a good working model for other Asian countries seeking to develop content and reach alternative and niche markets for cultural products and services. These cities aspire to move beyond merely ‘peripheral’ consumption spaces to become production centres that can capitalise on, and ultimately export into, lucrative overseas and regional markets in the East and the West (see Ng, 2002; Herskovitz, 2000; Hara, 2004).

Thirdly, economic regionalisation has shifted from manufacturing to service industries as major regional hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore position themselves as regional headquarters for regional banking, telecommunications and entrepot trade. Such regionally focused and developed urban centres attract the presence of transnational firms, from NewsCorp’s purchase of Star TV in 1993 (Langdale, 1997), and the proliferation of international cable and satellite TV channels focused on delivering content to pan-Asian audiences, to the onset of digital interactive services through TV and mobile phones as industry researchers indicate that mobile entertainment could generate up to US$47 billion in revenues for the Asia-Pacific by 2010 (Electronic Engineering Times, 2005).

While satellite television services made significant inroads across regions like East Asia and the Indian subcontinent through attempts at pan-regional programming and retrofitting smaller territories into regional markets, these external enterprises continue to face many uncertainties and limited local knowledge of various environmental and human resource limitations and constraints, banking idiosyncrasies and the complexity of building good business and social ties in these markets (Hesmondhalgh, 2002). The solutions these transnational firms adopted range from consolidation strategies establishing regional production networks with local media firms to lobbying Asian governments collectively on a range of issues from intellectual property to lowering barriers to domestic competition (see, 2006).

Complementing this is the range of free-trade agreements, and the articulation of regional themes in future planning exercises by governments in East and Southeast Asia. There are significant shifts in pan-Asian TV experiment projects like Friends (a six-episode Korean-Japanese-Hong Kong co-production telecast in 2002), as well as the acceleration in Asian-made animation from non-traditional sources — Southeast Asian and small east Asian countries — which previously shifted from government-endorsed educational animation filmlets in the 1950s to contracted labour for foreign animation studios from Hollywood or Japan in the 1990s. Recent years have seen a few commercialised made-by-Asian (excluding Japan) TV animations become exportable (see Lent, 2000; Osaki, 2002).

Despite the continual worries of economic globalization and cultural domination of the richer G7 nations over the rest of the world, it is interesting to note that governments in East Asia like Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have begun to take steps to engage in defining how globalization is impacting them by adopting a two-pronged strategy. Firstly, some of them have begun to form regional blocs already connected by an existing flow of East Asian popular culture, using such tools as Free Trade Agreements. Secondly, even their governments have recently adopted an economic imperative over their cultural, technological and social capital, mediated by globally circulating cultures of media production. Taking on economic challenges to build a viable creative industry has become common parlance among city governments such as those of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei that combine the notion of developing the traditional creative arts into media businesses.

A fourth trend in Asia is the proliferation of media platforms and consumption experiences afforded by digitisation and technological innovation. Asia is quickly adopting digital technologies in media productions from radio to digital cinema to basic interactive companions to TV format gameshows such as SMS technology; to mini-cinema and broadcasting services for content on 3G mobile phones that have recently launched throughout East Asia. Broadcasting services via satellite, cable and now internet-enabled broadband services offer the experience of a 1000-channel environment. Furthermore, Japanese and other smaller East Asian producers hailing from Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore and Taipei are also beginning to make their presence felt by offering the latest technical online and offline services as well as diverse content in Asian animations, films and television programmes. Hong Kong’s blockbuster film in 2005 was Kungfu Hustle (2005) which relied upon similar special-effects-aided martial-arts stylistic conventions set by Hong Kong choreographer, Yuen Wo-ping of The Matrix fame. Meanwhile, digital and mobile TV services in Asia drew much investment after a slow start in the last few years as industry watchers expect consumption figures for 3G telephony and mobile entertainment to climb rapidly in 2007 as more than 123 million TV-ready mobile phones are to be shipped internationally in 2006 (Agarwal, 2006).

Overall, potentially huge market sizes and new niche audiences, the rise of regionally successful cultural enterprises, buoyed by governmental shifts toward developing the media sector as part of a new economic policy (i.e., of the creative and cultural industries), and conditions of multi-channel competition, have spurred popular TV programmes to become vehicles for the proliferation of regional networks of cultural production.

From all these factors and conditions, one can surmise that successfully building a sustainable media production centre or ‘media capital’ (Curtin, 2003) lies in developing regional networks of cultural production that can reshape the contours of media globalization in East Asia. As global media corporations expand in the East Asian region by supplying imported television programs to national broadcasters and obtaining landing rights for their foreign television channels, local broadcasters have moved towards format adaptation of game shows and transference of Asian drama serials into geo-linguistically similar markets, reflecting the creative responses of local players to global competition. The next section will discuss examples of how popular TV programmes produced in particular East Asian cities form the base for regional networks of cultural production.

TV Programmes as Regional Networks of Cultural Production

Fiske (1987: 311) argued that television (TV) programmes, like other cultural commodities, circulate in two separate but related economies — cultural and financial. However, given their short ‘life cycle’ and the rapid replacement of popularity by newer TV programmes (Ryan, 1992; Chua, 2004), the overlapping cultural and financial economies create a larger incentive to go beyond local borders to regional cultural marketplaces and employ networked centres of cultural production. Indeed, the more an Asian media production is able to create cultural meaning, sale and circulation of stars and related merchandise that appeal to more than one cultural market, the more likely broadcasters, advertisers, and audiences will aid the circulation of particular TV programmes within the region. Often these regional networks of cultural production increase or sustain the financial economy of not only the programme exporters but also generate financial returns for the broadcasters (who show the programmes) and social change (such as increased cultural and tourism traffic).

What are some of the examples that illustrate how progressive flows of Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese, Chinese, and Hong Kong films and TV programmes have given birth to regional networks of cultural production? The appearance of many pan-Asian cultural commodities and a media-centric economy from TV-land is a strong indication of cultural change.

Meanwhile, alongside every newly popular TV drama series or gameshow or reality TV format launched in Singapore, a ready supply of programme associated merchandise (e.g., ringtones, stationary, and clothes) can be won from TV stations or purchased on Internet sites like Lifestyle products are endorsed increasingly by TV and film celebrities that have pan-Asian appeal (such as Jerry Yan of previous F4 fame as the recent ‘Oral B ambassador’ and Gong Li endorsing Osim’s healthy living solutions, or a motley crew of China, Hong Kong, Taiwanese actors and singers who were collectively engaged to advertise in a single Pepsi campaign in 2004) rather than international runway models. Many young men and women sport fashionable hair-styles that are constantly updated to look eerily similar to current popular TV drama heartthrobs or actors, across many Asian cities. Even young children are not spared as during the Winter Sonata fever in 2001- 2002, I spotted school-going elementary children sporting dyed-blond hair while vacationing in Seoul and Yong Pyong.

Moreover, while local TV broadcasters in Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and other cities can now produce a large output of local programmes, they increasingly associate with and cross-promote programming from foreign TV industries, that is, beyond the realm of Hollywood. By offering the latest pan-Asian TV shows, Asian broadcasters are realizing that audiences prefer to watch these compared to the latest Hollywood TV blockbusters. During MIP TV 2005, one of the largest, most established international TV markets, in April 2005, press coverage hinted at the growing phenomena too:

Stateside hits “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” are the hottest new shows of the 2005 ratings season in Australia, but don’t expect either to be anywhere near as compelling in parts of Asia, where homegrown dramas are dominant. Take South Korea, where “Lost” is relegated to a 1 p.m. Saturday slot on free-to-air web KBS2, with a rating of around 6%. Local dramas typically reap 20%-30% of primetime auds [audiences] …

Korean dramas are racking up record sales in Asia, including Taiwan, China and Japan, says Korean Broadcasting System global strategy exec Tae Ho Sung. Last year, Korean programming exports were worth $71 million, a 70% improvement vs. 2003, and dramas accounted for 92% of the total. KBS, which had six of the top 10 local dramas, clocked $26 million in sales …

The climate for selling Japanese films and programming hasn’t changed for the past few years, says Ricky Hashimoto, general manager of Tohokushinsha. “Good TV series or films always attract buyers and business opportunities.”

(‘Local pan-Asian fare pulls big numbers’,, 3 April 2005)

Indeed, what the above vignette reflects is that, unlike Kellner’s American audiences who experience a ‘media culture’ that is still somewhat Hollywood-centric, the rest of the world (at least those in East Asia) may be less enthralled. These trends in programming and consumption are linked to structural changes and mindset shifts among local broadcasters and producers in East Asian media industries over the last decade. Some of these changes include: the rise of transnational television; the emergence of web 2.0-enabled multi-channel platforms; the importance of local appeal as a necessary industry factor in successful local and transnational television productions, the digitalization and convergence of both old and new information and communication technologies.

Dae Jang Geum (2003) versus War and Beauty (2004)

To illustrate how TV programmes that circulate successfully in the region rely upon the ability of its producers, broadcasters or distributors to create a regional network of cultural production, let us take the examples of Dae Jang Geum (or Jewel in the Palace) and War and Beauty which used slightly different strategies to achieve this. Dae Jang Geum is a 70-episode drama serial focusing on the struggles of a young woman who became embroiled in the struggles of the backroom politics of the Korean imperial court — where women served in the royal kitchens and as medicine woman to the male imperial physicians — and became the first female imperial physician.

This MBC production was not only a television blockbuster for Korean audiences in South Korea where more than half of their audiences (57.8%) caught the telecast, but it was also a media feat in Taiwan as the most popular TV programme there. It also drew audience ratings on par with Hong Kong terrestrial broadcaster TVB’s largest blockbusters in 2004 — that is, War and Beauty (2004), a 30-episode courtly drama of power struggles behind the throne amongst the Empress and concubines, and To Catch the Uncatchable (2004), a family comedy, which recorded an average of 2 million and 2.1 million viewers, respectively (TVB Annual Report 2004: 9) — with a viewership figure of 3 million in Hong Kong (, 2005).

Certainly, the influx of popular Korean dramas like Dae Jang Geum have helped to revive the declining terrestrial television viewership in Hong Kong that started in the 1990s and slid further in 2000 (see Ma, 1999; Fung, 2004), eroded by the growing draw of multi-channel and new media competitors on cable TV and the Internet. The stars of Dae Jang Geum were flown in for televised interviews and promotional tour with TVB Hong Kong. Meanwhile, recent press reported that a ‘Dae Jang Geum theme park was opened in Yangju, Gyeonggi province’ of South Korea, drawing about 800 visitors daily. Also cited was the new appetite for Korean cuisine in Taipei where ‘Korean court cuisine has become immensely popular and sales of hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and traditional herbal medicine have skyrocketed’ (The Manila Times, 2005).

This example illustrates East Asian popular culture is rented not only by TV broadcasters domestically, but also regionally, leading to a wider ‘network of cultural production’ across territories and even in tourism, fashion and food industries. This is but one example of South Korea’s industry success where local TV companies using big budgets to create and market lavish drama productions are supported by their governments keen to export their culture overseas as cultural goods, trigger more intense regional dynamics for regional productions and distribution of East Asia TV programmes, music, and films. Exploiting its popularity, a whole range of Dae Jang Geum merchandise is easily available for purchase globally on (2005) from many box sets of the series in different languages, to Jewel in the Palace mugs, cell-phone cases, cell-phone accessories, acupuncture case key chain-holders, and picture frames.

In comparison to Dae Jang Geum, TVB’s post-telecast marketing efforts focused on locally issuing 3,000 copies of the limited DVD edition for War and Beauty after its telecast, of which 1,000 were reserved for TVB staff and selected copies with special serial numbers of ‘special serial numbers of 88, 333, 888, 1388 and 1688’ — numbers that reflect the Chinese cultural penchant for lucky numbers which sound like ‘fortune’ and ‘longevity’ — were auctioned at the Tung Wah Charity Extravaganza, a televised charitytelethon, in December 2004. This was followed by TVB’s closed circulation of its top-tier drama serial throughout its own distribution network of affiliated satellite and cable TV channels, and video rental franchisees in Asia, North America and Europe.

The key differences in circulation of popular drama serials between TVB and MBC lie in their structural advantages and environmental constraints. Relying on its well-established international brand name in drama serials, its familiar Hong Kong beauty-queen-turned-actresses, and its own internal content delivery system and dubbing facilities, TVB has a ready-made network of cultural markets in which to circulate easily and lucratively. However, this logic of distribution is designed to maximise profit for TVB as well as protect itself from piracy that most exported Chinese-language dramas face. Unlike TVB, MBC has to rely heavily on ‘cultural intermediaries’ and their marketing and publicity machinery to rent out its beautiful stars and unique Korean heritage, its huge production budgets and historical authenticity to show Dae Jang Geum to the non-Korean speaking world.

For the moment, Dae Jang Geum‘s publicity and marketing machinery has been very successful in extending its popularity overseas, and it joins other Korean drama blockbusters such as All In (2003), and Winter Sonata (2002) to add one more dimension to the regional circulation of East Asian popular culture. However, a quick check through the Internet on audiences’ views and fans’ inter-textual references to Dae Jang Geum reveal that its popularity is tempered by other popular East Asian drama serials that share the same audiences. For example, among avid viewers of East Asian drama serials, a mini-battle of sorts has occurred on the Internet discussion forums between MBC’s Dae Jang Geum and TVB’s War and Beauty where discussion of enjoyment is linked to production values (where both dramas had beautiful faces, costumes and settings), a difference of pace (where Korean drama was ‘more draggy’) and a sense of authenticity and loyalty. See examples of a recent discussion entered by audiences, juxtaposing the two drama serials in terms of their popularity and perceived quality on the Asianfanatics Forum (2005).

Seen in this way, East Asian TV programmes need to borrow or ‘rent’ intellectual property that is popular and regionally appealing in order to extend their life-cycle or trajectory when they cross to overseas territories, and in different media forms. While developing TV and film industries would feel greater pressure to rent popular culture to make their TV programmes and films on par with imports, such as in Indonesia and Taiwan (Kitley, 2004; Liu and Chen, 2004), geo-linguistic barriers and weakening global appeal would force even developed Asian media industries to co-opt popular culture in order to increase their export value.

Industrial Responses to Media Globalization: Renting Strategies

Earlier discussions about general trends across Asia argued that Asian television industries are inclined to mature as content producers and cultural businesses are sensitive to increasingly sophisticated consumers who have not only diverse tastes, but also access to a wider choice of local and foreign TV programmes, and content on alternative media platforms (such as film, online and mobile gaming, etc). Moreover, international satellite and cable TV channels that enter Asia continuously altering their programming and production strategies to tackle the competitive multi-channel environment (Moran, 2004) does spell stronger regional competition for local broadcasters in East Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei and Seoul, whose audiences can increasingly gain easy access to these international channels. What responses do local broadcasters make to these latest developments in regional dynamics of media globalization?

Acknowledging the fact that many Asian media industries share common stories, icons, talents and even histories, the tendency among media producers is to rent intellectual, cultural, and other forms of shared social capital that increase the chance of local (if not regional) circulation and financial success. Philip Kitley (2004) uses the concept of ‘renting intellectual capacity’ to describe how Indonesian television stations borrow the ideas and production process of TV formats — an industrial practice and form of strategic program development that fashions content for multiple markets systematically (Moran, 1998: 14-23) — to bridge the ‘creativity gap’ between training talents and producing a steady supply of popular programmes. For this article, I have extended the idea of renting intellectual capital to modes of production that can be grouped into four types of industrial responses. These responses are points in a local-global knowledge continuum that media producers can use as renting strategies: (1) localization of globally branded TV formats, (2) glocalization of local programming templates with regionally popular cultural commodities, (3) creation of media spectacles as ‘must-see’ television events that help market local programmes to domestic and overseas audiences, and (4) internationalisation of cultural productions via pan-Asian experiments and multi-country co-productions.

Of the four types of renting strategies, the first (i.e. localization of global TV formats) is the most conservative response, while the second and third are more ambitious as the programme-makers/broadcasters seek to sustain and circulate their content beyond their domestic borders. Meanwhile, the final response (i.e. internationalization through pan-Asian experiments or international co-productions) is the riskiest, as it requires heavy financial investments, considerable coordination and patience as international coproductions often involve different cultures of production, ethos or work habits. Cumulatively, these various kinds of cultural production not only boost the flow of Asian content regionally, but also increase the intersection of cultural identities and consumer tastes of people from different geographically bounded territories, that could form an abstract ‘taste continent’ that is distinctively East Asian. The following illustrates briefly each of the industrial responses with current examples.

Localization of Globally Branded TV Formats

One immediate response that East Asian local broadcasters took readily can be observed in the rapid infusion of global brand names in TV formats on local TV schedules. Formatted game shows, reality shows, and talent competitions over the last two to three years across Asia have come and gone, depending on the contexts the local broadcasters faced (see Moran and Keane, 2004). For example, the global format for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? circulated quickly in the region, mostly as a stop-gap measure to increase audience ratings, boost advertising revenue for the channels and provide terrestrial broadcasters a marketing and branding exercise that could (briefly) endear audiences to the channel vis-à-vis their competitors. In Hong Kong, Asia Television Limited (ATV) used the format to pull up its viewership figures during its initial first season, jolting its competitor TVB into acquiring a global format of its own, The Weakest Link, in order to compete with ATV.

While the most recent examples of successful TV formats have come from the West in the form of re-invented game show formats like The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or new hybrid reality TV formats such as Survivor and Big Brothe r; the rapid uptake of such imported TV formats has also given rise to small experiments in ‘made-in-Asia’ TV formats. Some examples originating from East Asia have capitalized on popular global format ideas, such as Discover Australia (Singapore’s answer to Survivor), Enter Shangrila (China’s epic multi-provincial reality TV game show), Everyone Wins (Singapore/Hong Kong’s answer to Millionaire), and more perennial variety show formats like Super Sunday (Taiwan’s landmark variety show modeled after Japan’s variety entertainment shows). In November 2005, Singapore’s MediaCorp TV announced the sale of its first TV format rights, to a neighbouring TV station in Malaysia, 8TV. The programme, entitled Project Superstar, was a highly successful local singing talent TV show that promotes local talents employing Mandarin popular culture. Indeed, the format sale has translated into a joint production of sorts between the Singapore and Malaysian broadcasters as they take the talent search show across three cities in Malaysia (The Star Online, 2006). It appears MediaCorp is aiming to build even larger regional networks of production, aspiring to sell the format to Vietnam and China, entertaining hopes of an ‘Asian Project Superstar’ (Channel, 2005).

Glocalization of Local Programming Templates with Regionally Popular Cultural Commodities

Another response is the practice of using icons of East Asian popular culture in local programmes. Iconic figures from manga to martial arts novels, stars of the latest popular Cantopop to Korean-pop-music albums, film or television series — are often used in short interstitials to full-length media cross-overs. Designed to draw audiences to watch the channels’ programming, this practice enables some highly successful ‘glocal’ productions to be exported overseas. Some examples from Singapore can be found on MediaCorp Channel 8 which scheduled variety shows and entertainment news, where guest appearances by the hottest Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese or Hong Kong stars become familiar faces on local TV during various ‘waves’. In 2002-2003, MediaCorp Channel 5 mimicked its sister Mandarin-language channel (Channel 8) and began commissioning English-language comedies that paired local comedians with famous Hong Kong TVB female veterans headlining local productions — Carol Cheng in O Carol! and Lydia Sum in Living with Lydia. In 2001, Comic Ritz Productions in Taipei adapted a famous Japanese manga into weepy Taiwanese melodramas for a new niche market — youths — and created a new genre with Meteor Garden, a Taiwanese teenage idol drama (Lin, 2002; Liu and Chen, 2004). Popular Japanese dramas have also been re-adapted after format sales to Asian broadcasters in South Korea. Some examples include Yojolady (A Lady of Refined Manners) 2003, a Korean remake of the Japanese TV drama, Yamatonadeshiko (see Lee, D-H, 2004), and Seoul Broadcasting System’s A Spring Day (2005), which is a remake of the very popular Japanese TV tear-jerker, Heaven’s Coins (Hoshi No Kinka) (1995).

Creation of Media Spectacles as ‘Must-See’ Television Events That Help Market Local Programmes to Domestic and Overseas Audiences

Kellner (2003) refers to Debord’s original work on the ‘spectacle’ (1967) as the starting point for his articulation of the concept of ‘media spectacle’: a spectacle ‘unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena’. A spectacle involves acts of cultural production that include the packaging, promotion, and display of commodities and the production and effects of all media. As spectacles emerge from a media culture, they reflect society’s values, normalizes, dramatize, and rationalize how social norms impact everyday life. Some examples of spectacles:

… include media extravaganzas, sports events, political happenings, and those attention-grabbing occurrences that we call news — a phenomena that itself has been subjected to the logic of spectacle and tabloidization in the era of the media sensationalism, political scandal and contestation, seemingly unending cultural war, and the new phenomenon of Terror War.
(Kellner, 2003)

Kellner extends Debord’s use to a more specific usage of ‘media spectacles’ as defining moments in a collective or society’s life. Kellner further elaborates that ‘major media spectacles of the era dominate news, journalism, and Internet buzz, and are highlighted and framed as the key events of the age’. His examples of what he refers to as ‘megaspectacles’ included Princess Diana’s wedding, death, and funeral, the extremely close 2000 US presidential election, etc. While Meteor Garden (2001), Dae Jang Geum (2003) and other new forms of TV shows have been groundbreaking for their respective industries, they certainly became media spectacles, if not ‘megaspectacles’ for audiences when they made guest appearances in various East Asian cities. These further the consumption and popularity of these particular East Asian TV programmes.

Thus, as an alternative to using big budget marketing, which few East Asian media productions can compare with Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ television titles, some East Asian producers and distributors have developed renting strategies that allow them to create media spectacles to raise the profile of their productions. Such spectacles include staging lavish concerts and road-shows in the largest cities around the world, advertising for global brands as a signifier of their success as a pop icon, and generating lots of news and more likely rumours of love triangles, rivalry and other kinds of stories that stir the public’ imagination, feelings and opinions about the stars behind the shows.

Designed to set public agendas and negotiate some importance in people’s everyday lives, a classic example of how East Asian popular culture leverages on media spectacles is the phenonmena surrounding F4’s good-looking foursome. Their inability to act or sing and dalliances with agents, would-be girlfriends, or rudeness in music events, are juxtaposed awkwardly against their concert tours, birthday celebrations, and celebrity appearances at mega-events and their huge fan following from 2001 to 2003. Indeed after Meteor Garden‘s success, an F4-merchandising and advertising empire appeared briefly around the four boys that comprised the group. The hyper-capitalism that drives news and entertainment TV channels, press and Internet sites to feed on rumours, tracking the boys on their career moves (successes and failures) had the net effect of increasing F4’s popularity up until recently. It also had the impact of extending Hana Yori Dango‘s serialization in the Japanese comic book market as well as in the translated Chinese version, thus extending its life cycle as well.

Also drawing upon the earlier case study on Dae Jang Geum, it is noticeable how the Korean governments have used popular Korean dramas as ‘media spectacles’ that leverage upon their popularity as publicity and marketing drives for Korean tourist destinations. Through the aggressive promotional activities of the Korea National Tourism Organization, Korean stars are constantly linked to news of their next big TV or film appearance, and the continuous reporting of Korean popular culture in the news media of most Southeast and East Asian cities fosters an evolving network of cultural production. The network that emerges relies on virtuous re-cycling and borrowing of popular culture, resold overseas, therefore bringing more financial returns and reputation to the original producers. Besides government or overseas marketing campaigning, some TV programmes and films rely upon juxtaposing their cultural productions with significant international events, historical moments and figures, as well as associating with global branded genres, to grow their cultural marketplace abroad. The Chinese government heavily promoted Zhang Yimou’s first martial arts cinematic piece, Hero (Ying Xiong) (2002)  set during the era of the notoriously ruthless but sympathetically portrayed the first emperor of China, Qin Shih-Huang. Hero was clearly targeted for global release and used the successful formulaic genre that earned an Oscar for martial arts film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Internationalisation through Pan-Asian Experiments and International Co-productions

Finally, there are yet other ways in which local broadcasters have attempted to compete with international flows of culture. Firstly, they prospect talents from the region who are celebrities or regionally co-produce TV shows that garner not only local audience but hopefully regional ones too. A recent example is Friends, which is a joint TV drama co-production between Korean broadcaster MBC and Japan’s Fuji TV Network that was shot partially in Hong Kong, during the year of the World Cup in 2002 when South Korea and Japan jointly hosted the finals. Subsequently, the two broadcasters also worked on two more mini dramas, Sonagi (An Afternoon after Showers) (2003) and Star’s Echo (2004) (see Lee D-H, 2005). Obviously, international co-productions are set to grow as in January 2006, the Tokyo Broadcasting System aired its first 11-part love-themed co-production drama series entitled Rondo (2006), starring Japanese hearthrob, Yutaka Takanouchi, and Cho Ji-Woo, Korean drama queen of tears (and of Winter Sonata fame).

Hong Kong’s film industry is no stranger to international co-productions, as companies from Shaw Brothers to MP&GI  have worked with Japanese film directors and international casts across Asia and North America since the 1950s. South Korean filmmakers have been moving steadily to capitalise on the perceived benefits of international co-productions. There was Musa (2001) involving China’s Zhang Ziyi and a string of Korean film stars, but among more recent films is Daisy (2006), a Korean film that is directed by Hong Kong filmmaker, Andrew Lau Wai-keung of the Infernal Affairs trilogy. Daisy stars Jeon Ji-Hyun (My Sassy Girl), Jung Woo-Sung (Musa), Simon Yam (Moving Targets), Lee Sung-Jae (Public Enemy), and Cheon Ho-Jin (The Big Swindle) and is described as ‘an urban melodrama about a woman, the police detective she loves and a killer from whom there is no escape’. Shot entirely overseas in Amsterdam, Daisy is produced by South Korea’s Ifilm (see Giammarco and Paquet, 2006; Russell, 2005).

Earlier international co-productions and Pan-Asian productions such as the recent collaboration between Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong TV industries in the latest installment of Jin Yong’s martial arts novel-turned-drama serial, Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre (2003). Meanwhile, Singapore MediaCorp TV’s English and Chinese-language channels are focusing on including popular Asians from the region in their dramas and variety shows. In some senses, local broadcasters whether in Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul or Taipei, all hope to move beyond a limited and fragmented regional marketplace that characterises Asia, to capture other large cultural markets. Still, as present programming trends and rising ‘consumeristic’ behaviour among youths in Asia suggest, the strongest dynamic for circulating their local productions overseas is the regional and East Asian.

Capitalizing on the diverse and higher demands for Asian content, all these experiments have arguably opened up new networks of cultural production for Asian producers from interactive game shows or SMS-linked game shows galore, classical imperial and martial arts drama serials from Hong Kong and Seoul, the first-ever East-West children animation show in Singapore, to the most popular teenage pop-idol drama serials to have emerged from Taipei. These TV industries are just beginning to explore the possibilities for developing tradable formats and renting within their own TV industries so as to capture new and perhaps regional/global audiences and new revenue streams.


This article argued that the complex processes of media globalization in East Asia are driven by localization and regionalization, mediated by the inter-operability of new media technologies. What is globally compelling about the cultural output of East Asian cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul and Taipei is that they express the nostalgia, experiences and aspirations of overseas and migrant Chinese and other geo-linguistically similar Asian populations (like the Vietnamese, and Thai) through contemporary popular culture. Furthermore, the success of a few items of East Asian popular culture can co-join with politics to break through previous political barriers between ethnic groups.

An example of the political cleansing power of East Asian popular culture is how, after generations of anti-Sino discrimination, Indonesian youths seem fascinated by Meteor Garden and developed F4 fever like many youths across Asia, readily watching Chinese faces on Indonesian television — normally Indonesian faces in drama serials tend to be Eurasian. It is all the more surprising because in the Indonesian TV industry, local consumers are normally prejudiced against the expression of Chinese culture in their public domain (Bachtiar, 2002). In a political economic twist, these cities’ cultural output can also participate in the international television programme trade, forming part of intra-Asian and contra-flows of popular culture that articulate the cultural experiences of migrants who are globally dispersed and share common ethnic Chinese and southeast Asian origins.

Thus we see that the concurrent forces of media globalization and localization (see Wang, Servaes and Goonasekera, 2000) are reshaping how television industries operate in modern Asian cities. Setting the stage for a very crucial development in the new contours of media globalization, our everyday lives are ever so shaped by an ‘East Asian popular culture’ (see Chua, 2004) where East Asian music, television, film, fiction, stars, new media and fashion circulate regionally and internationally.

The increased cultural output and flows of culture in Asia are responses to: policy shifts from cultural welfare to cultural and creative industries that are increasingly defined by a new ‘cultural geography of creativity’ (see Flew, 2002a: 137); the identity politics of youths as they move from basic to selective but highly sophisticated consumerism (see Chua, 1998; Chua, 2000:13-14) and from elite to mass education (Flew, 2002b: 163); and the general rise in affluence of the region, driven largely by the Asian ‘middle classes’ living in industrialised cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, and recently, Shanghai and Beijing (Chua, 2000).

Such synergies of the marketplace, technological developments and changing state policies towards promoting popular culture are aided by what Harvey (1990: 240) explains as the instantaneous power of media communications. Affordable global satellite communication and the Internet offer a ‘time-place compression’, where the world as we know it is getting smaller and what happens in one place often has instant impact on others economically, politically, technologically and culturally.

The renting strategies described in this article suggest that local broadcasters are more than willing to leverage on substitutes or local popular icons to attract viewers and advertisers, by renting various icons of popular culture for the East Asian TV productions associated with their channels. In the process, the daily exhibition and scheduling of appearances of stars, news and talk shows that feature foreign Asian actors, actresses, and singers, directors, etc would tend to be regulated by audiences with varying degrees of cultural proximity to their own cultural identities in terms of how authentic or relevant the TV shows are to them.

This gradual and continuous network of cultural production that sustains the cultural output of East Asian programmes on local TV channels fosters a climate where individual consumers can create an imaginary and flexible East Asian identity when regionally dispersed audiences can relate to them as fans or acquire tastes that consume these hybridised popular cultural commodities as part of their everyday life. This generic identity is circulated not simply at consumption, but also increasingly at the production aspect of the network of the cultural industry. Future studies could explore the processes by which specific regional networks of cultural production are inter-connected to the wider societal processes of globalization, reflecting the complex yet interdependent relationships between East Asia’s diverse national and regional cultures in the increasingly media-centric world.