Asian Streamer Viu Puts Korean Spin on Thai Original Series 'My Bubble Tea'

'My Bubble Tea' Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Viu

The Hong Kong-headquartered company, now second to Netflix in Southeast Asia, plans to use phenomenally popular K-dramas as the blueprint for its local country originals.

Hong Kong-based streamer Viu has to a large extent built its business on the quick delivery of popular Korean dramas to other Asian markets, feeding a seemingly insatiable demand for shows like My Love from the Star and My Lawyer, Mr. Jo. This model has helped Viu become the second biggest streaming player in South East Asia after Netflix, and the company is leaning into the fundamentals of K-drama for its own offerings of regional original series. 

The Viu Originals brand has had a rapid start, announcing 80 titles this year alone and has underpinned the company's strong growth. As of June 2019, Viu had 36 million monthly active users across 17 markets, a figure that has almost doubled from a year ago. 

Thailand is one of Viu's fastest growing markets and with potential to become even bigger. According to Datareportal, as of January 2019, 98 percent of the total 57 million Thai internet users watch videos online. For Viu's local Thai content offerings the K-drama blueprint is the guiding principle. 

“Data from our 36 million MAUs gives us a lot more insights into what kind of content our audience likes to watch,” Viu’s parent company PCCW Media Group managing director Janice Lee told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “Not only in the content we distribute, but also in the kind of content we should invest in, the genre, and the specific preferences in different markets. We’ve learned with our Korean dramas, which are popular inside and outside Korea. And now we can see that Thai series are also gaining popularity outside Thailand, such as in Indonesia and Malaysia. That made us look deeper into Thai products and how far they can go, whether they have more than a single market.”

Lee pointed out that Thai series have the potential to make it big outside of Thailand. “The production quality of Thai series is very high, which you can see onscreen. Also, Thai artists are gaining international popularity,” she said.

One of the major titles in Viu’s Thai slate is My Bubble Tea, which is very clearly replicating the success of K-dramas. Starring Nichkhun, the Thai member of popular Korean boy group 2PM, the title is inherently Asia — bubble tea the drink originated in Taiwan more than three decades ago and has since caught the world by storm. “Nichkhun, whom we have cast in My Bubble Tea, became famous through 2PM. It is a trend that is getting more and more common — you can find Thai talents in many Korean boy or girl groups these days. So Thai artists do have a wider appeal than confined within Thailand.”

The platform follows this vein in casting the series — based on the actors’ cross-culture appeal, and their social media followings, which are massive. In My Bubble Tea’s case, the leads have a combined following of 11 million. “Nichkhun has a following on both China’s Weibo and on Twitter, so it shows he is popular even in China. That is the path we’re taking with our Viu Original IPs — not only is the IP able to attract local Thai audience, but it also has the appeal to travel to other markets.”

More importantly, the streamer now has an established following that it can leverage. “When we first distributed Korean dramas, we were starting from zero. But now we are a platform with 36 million MAUs. So we think we are able to bring our Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian productions to a much wider audience base.”

The original series represents one of the three types of contents under the Viu Originals banner. Adapted from a popular online fanfic, My Bubble Tea is under the category of adapted IPs with an established online presence. The streamer is producing licensed properties including an Indonesia version of Pretty Little Liars with Warner Bros, as well as the second season of The Bridge with HBO Asia, a remake of the Nordic crime thriller for Malaysia and Singapore. Then it also has original IPs that it creates from scratch, but those require a longer lead time. “As we are aiming to achieve a certain volume in our original productions, we have to strike a balance,” Lee said. “Original IPs take time to develop, so it would be slower to build up the volume. We’ve adopted a two-pronged strategy: in addition to original IPs, we would also explore IPs that are readily available.”

As a streamer born in Asia, Viu has now surpassed its regional competitors and is now coming head-to-head with the mammoth streamer Netflix in the Southeast Asian market, but Lee said it is not an all-or-nothing scenario. “The Asian market is very large, comprising some sizable individual markets such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. So I think it’s definitely big enough to accommodate more than one player. But we are a homegrown Asian service, so we hope we can continue to have advantage with our local insights. After all, the audience is local,” she said.

And the local touch might just be what it takes to come out on top. “Whatever we do is to respond to the local audience’s nuances, cultural difference and technological landscape,” Lee added. “Including the data usage and pricing of mobile data plans, all of which have a bearing on the penetration and reception of the service. Both our content and go-to-market strategy take a locally-relevant approach.”

As Hong Kong enters the fifth month of social unrest and sees billion-dollar worth of investments relocating to other parts of the world, Lee reaffirmed that Viu, a subsidiary of the telecom company PCCW and has operations and offices in 17 market globally, will stay put with its headquarters in Hong Kong. “We are a Hong Kong homegrown company, and we have free TV [ViuTV] and pay TV [nowTV] operations here as well,” Lee said. “Our roots are in Hong Kong, but the market here is small. So we’re using our experience of the past 15 years in running a media business to expand our business internationally.”