Public broadcasting in Asia embraces technology and faces challenges in press freedom

Nine insights after attending a two days media conference in Kuala Lumpur

Sanne Breimer
7 min readJul 7, 2019


Speakers at the conference from South Africa, The Netherlands, Norway, Great-Britain, China, Finland, Japan, The United States, Turkey and Malaysia.

“I hope this conference will be the bridge between Asia and the rest of the world”, with those words Asian Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) programming director Koichi Okumura opened #ABUDigital. A ‘conference-slash-knowledge sharing event’ with 25 digital expert speakers from 15 countries across 4 continents who came to Kuala Lumpur to learn from each other on the fields of new technology and digital approaches to content (strategies).
I was one of them and I gave a workshop about digital content strategy using mobile journalism. Let me share nine things that caught my attention during two days of meeting cool people, listening to all the talks and sharing ideas with people from different countries”

  1. ‘VTubing’ is the future
  2. VR is finally making sense
  3. Share our failures is necessary to change culture
  4. Curation is the new creation
  5. Innovation means collaboration
  6. ‘Open journalism’ is the new engagement
  7. It IS possible to differentiate yourself from the big platforms
  8. Public broadcasting in Asia faces the same challenges as in Europe
  9. Let blockchain open your eyes

VTubing is the future
Reusing content was quite a big theme in the conference if you look at the examples of gamifying popular tv shows and curating existing content. Japan takes it a step further and has created more than 6000 VTubers already, animated hosts who present television shows or real people turned into animated figures to share their stories. It made it possible to reach and engage a millennial audience with the story told by a war veteran.

An example of a VTubing television show in Japan, broadcasted by NHK.

VR is finally making sense
“Audiences are predominantly mobile, we need to respect how they behave on the different platforms and you gotta be thinking vertical.” That sums up Blathnead Haily’s (CNN) talk at the beginning of the conference. It triggered me that this was still an important statement to make, as we’re living in a mobile world for several years already. Haily showed us several interesting examples of how interactive storytelling for mobile devices works, like Global Warning. What surprised me the most was that the completion rate of the stories is quite high. I think this is a big difference with a few years ago, where interactives for desktop looked great but weren’t very user-friendly. The key seems to minimalize text and at the same time use lots of pictures and video.

Filmmaker and VR expert Aimone Bodini on the future of VR.

Another impressive example came from China Global Television Network (CGTN) who spend three days filming in a Kung Fu Shaolin monastery and spend months on aftereffects to create a VR version. The only speaker without a journalism background was Aimone Bodini from Proxima Milano. As a filmmaker, he got interested in Virtual Reality and in his talk, he emphasized how real-time storytelling needs a videogame approach, using multiple layers to build a storyline. This makes that VR isn’t just another tool to use, but really a product in itself.

Let’s share our failures
A refreshing perspective on innovation and failure came from Nicholas Sagau, manager at Media Prima Digital, the digital department of a Malaysian media and entertainment company. Sagau shared the building of 18 apps over a period of 12 months and ‘only’ 6 of them succeeded. I guess that’s still a respectable number.

“Sometimes we discovered people didn’t really need the app we’d built.”

What I found interesting is that Media Prima looked at one of their successful television programs and turned that into a mobile game, the Mak Cun Game. An initial success, with 100.000 downloads in the first week without any marketing. It shows how beneficial it can be to look at the treasures you have in the company, instead of inventing new content. NPR’s Tamar Charney told a similar story on how their development of smart speakers brought them back to thinking about what the NPR audience expects from the company instead of something nobody asked for.
At the same time, a culture change is needed, because in most large companies you don’t get praised for your accomplishments and at the same time you do get sacked for failure. While not everyone shared their failures on stage, people were happy to talk about failures during the breaks. If we want to create more space for failure in our organizations, let’s start by sharing them more on stage next year :).

Guide your audience through curation
“Curation is the new creation”, says Yusuf Omar of Hashtag Our Stories. Together with his wife Sumaiya he is building the media startup focusing on storytelling for millennials. What I didn’t realize so much before — I’m familiar with their concept — is that they use a lot of curated material. Coming from platforms like Reddit or user-generated through their own channels at Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook. It shows enormous possibilities for media companies to focus more on guiding their audience through all the content available instead of producing new content themselves. And, like always, Yusuf and Sumaiya show us the human side of world news, like refugees who also watch Game of Thrones. CNN’s “5 Things” is an example of a successful curated e-mail you can receive every morning. What does it mean though when a search platform like Google also curates more news for us? Gabi Conlin who is head of product partnerships at Google showed us advanced searching, with possibilities to ‘Discover’ new content and accredited content to fight fake news.

Yusuf Omar of Hashtagourstories

Innovation means collaboration, that’s for sure.
I think this is particularly important for big companies like a lot of public broadcasters are. To reach your target audience better, collaborations with companies that are already successful can pay off. Traditional media companies are used to doing things internally, but partnerships with brands like Grab, Mashable and Google are becoming more and more common.
And if you’re creating digital content, adding designers and software developers to your team is a must. So collaboration also involves looking at the formation of your team in a new way.

Open journalism is the new engagement
“Open journalism” was mentioned by Tatsuichiro Yasuda, senior producer at the Japanese public broadcaster NHK News department, as a way of engaging with the audience. What is kind of cool is that the station's program director tried to live without plastic for three weeks and shared his experience with the public. Constructive journalism could be another word for it. People want solutions to problems, not only reporting on what goes wrong in the world.

Slide in the presentation on how NKH in Japan transforms traditional live shows into the digital space.

It IS possible to differentiate yourself from the big platforms
Competition with the influential tech platforms and Netflix was ofcourse one of the topics. Interestingly enough the Malaysian Media Prima shows numbers of them overtaking Google and Facebook as the number 1 in the country for mobile content. That’s a game changer for lots of media companies. Caroline Izzard of Television New Zealand called Netflix ‘the benchmark in content, technology and user experience’ and pointed out the importance of finding ‘your own sweet spot’. For New Zealand it’s their ‘quirky sense of humour’, so they produced programs around that differentiation to find an audience Netflix can’t reach.

Post-it during my workshop content strategy about what NOT to do.

The challenges in public broadcasting in Asia
There are a lot of similarities between Asian and European broadcasters if it’s about media law restrictions on digital programming and a lack of experiment in the organizations due to size and bureaucracy. One of the learnings from the people in this conference was to focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t. From my own experience, I’ve seen how focusing on all the negative developments kills your creativity. At the same time, we shouldn’t close our eyes for the challenges ahead of us.

The eye-opener
The most eye-opening talk came from Mats Nylund who is principal lecturer in Media Management at the Arcada University of Applied Sciences. He thinks blockchain can help independent journalism to survive: storytelling based on cryptocurrencies. Dr. Nylund underlined the importance of free press, a topic hardly discussed in the conference. Even though in Asia press freedom is under high pressure. I asked the attendants in my workshop, for example, to think about what not to do, as a focus for their strategy. One of the post-its showed very well the challenges of journalism in Asia.
Of course, it’s important to share knowledge about the future of technology in journalism, voice activation, data driven personalisation, AI/machine learning, driverless cars, lenses, glasses and augmented reality. At the same time, it would be good to discuss how the power of technology can support media companies in securing press freedom and finding a sustainable business model. Looking forward to hearing more about those topics in the conference next year.

A slide in the presentation of Dr. Mats Nylund.

If you want to learn more, check my ABUDigital highlight on Instagram and search on #ABUdigital on Twitter.

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Sanne Breimer

Exploring the solutions to the lack of inclusion in journalism, focusing on decolonising journalism and discussing whiteness, Eurocentrism and objectivity.