Laureen Ong: Programming Asia is a Diverse Challenge

Former National Geographic Channel president Laureen Ong  has been serving as COO of Star, News Corp.’s Asian satellite TV operation, since last May. In a recent interview with Shirley Brady in Hong Kong -- Ong’s first since making the move from Washington, D.C. -- she discussed, among other things, the differences in programming in the States versus Asia, and the challenges, the greatest of her career, and the opportunities that exist for TV executives abroad. An edited transcript follows and you can read more in the 'Content' department of Monday’s Multichannel News.

MCN: Laureen, how have you found being a programmer in Asia different from your experiences as a programmer in the U.S.?
LAUREEN ONG: Fundamentally, programmers around the world are looking for the same thing – relevance. And that means an in-depth understanding of what viewers want, what works from market to market. 

But what is exciting and challenging about Asia is that it is not one homogenous market. Star’s key markets include India, Greater China, Indonesia, the Middle East, and South East Asia and we also reach the diaspora in the U.S. and the U.K.    

Tastes can vary widely and even under one national flag, there can be any number of cultural, religious and linguistic differences and sensitivities. Working in Asia requires a relentless focus and understanding which requires us to go deeper into the regions we serve and offer content that truly reflects its complexities.

While the U.S. also has regional nuances, the degree of differences is not so extreme and ultimately it’s one country, one language and broadly one culture.

MCN: A lot of people in the U.S. are familiar with News Corp.’s Fox TV empire, but not with Star. How would you describe the company and its corporate culture?

: Star is a leading media and entertainment company in Asia. What distinguishes us from other players is the scale and depth of our local offering and the unrivalled reach of our services.

Today we create and broadcast over 60 channels in 10 languages covering all genres. Every day, over 120 million people in 53 countries in Asia and beyond watch at least one of our channels and in essence, have let us become a part of their daily lives.

We are also one of the most diversified media companies in Asia with investments in content production, cable systems, DTH (direct to home satellite) and new media.

Star is a growth company. In order for us to evolve in this highly competitive market, we place a high value on creativity and entrepreneurship. We constantly ask ourselves to reinvent and remake what we are doing in order to stay ahead of the curve. The culture today at Star is one that embraces an entrepreneurial spirit with a strong focus on goals and results.

MCN: Describe the scope of your role as Star's COO -- and how it differs from your previous role founding and running NGC.
ONG: Where do I begin? The differences are immense. Launching a big iconic channel brand like National Geographic in a very competitive market had tremendous challenges. However, in tandem with a great team and the strong support of shareholders, we achieved remarkable results quickly. While I am very proud of our achievements at NGC, that was still only one channel.

Contrast that with Star, which covers 53 countries in Asia with over 60 channels in 10 languages. We have 3,000 employees with key operations in India, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Dubai, UK and our newest office in Los Angeles. 

The mere scale of Star versus NGC is not comparable and I would say the same when comparing my roles in each instance.

MCN: What attracted you to this opportunity? Has it proved to be what you imagined — and what has been the highlight of your time so far at Star?
ONG: Anyone that knows me well understands that I enjoy challenges. My career has been built on creating or fixing broken, messy situations. The situation at Star as laid out to me had all the ingredients I find appealing. 

Of all the opportunities I’ve had throughout my career, relocating to Hong Kong to join Star truly is the most challenging one, and it is already proving to be the most rewarding on both a professional and personal front. 

And on a personal level, the opportunity to connect with my cultural roots is truly gratifying. The highlight thus far has been the realization with what I would have missed on so many levels if I had not come to Star.

MCN: Has there been a steep learning curve for you, given the size of Star's footprint throughout the region?
ONG: Yes and no. I have been involved in all aspects of the TV broadcasting business throughout my career – from programming and ad sales to distribution and marketing.   

The learning curve really lies with an understanding the countries we operate in; the culture; value systems and the marketplace — the competitive landscape and the opportunities; as well as the way to connect our clients with their targeted consumers through our platform.  

MCN: What are the challenges facing Star in Asia, and what areas present the most upside for the company — and you?
ONG: Star is at an inflection point. The biggest challenge for the company is to keep reinventing ourselves to increase our channels’ relevance to the consumer. We have such strong brands in the market. How can we further strengthen and monetize the brands going forward? How can we fully capture the growth opportunities in this burgeoning market? 

And the challenges for me thus far have been finding great talent. The upside definitely comes from the content side. And hence Star is committed to creating and developing more proprietary content for both linear and digital platforms.

MCN: I know you’re keen to recruit more U.S. talent to follow your lead and advance their careers by moving to Asia and working for Star. What’s your pitch to any execs contemplating making such a move?
ONG: Coming to Asia has been broadening for me, both personally and professionally. The opportunities for talented people are endless. Much of that is due to the fact that Asia is a booming and growing media market. 

Just think about it, the Asian market includes nearly 4 billion people accounting for nearly 60 percent of the world’s population. The media landscape is ripe for television executives that want to leverage their experience and broaden their skill sets.

For TV execs, what can be more exciting than working in a booming and vibrant market that has the fastest growing number of consumers of content and target groups for advertisers?

MCN: What kind of positions, skill sets and talent are you looking to recruit? 
ONG: Creatives of all kind, sales executives, digital media, finance, people with legal backgrounds that want to use the skill in a more operational role, Asian diaspora who have spent some time working in the U.S. media and want to come home, programmers, researchers, production skills, engineering and marketing.

MCN: On a more personal note, how have you and your husband adjusted to living in Hong Kong?
ONG: The move to Hong Kong was amazingly easy. This is like New York on steroids.

In many ways life is better as Asia understands “service”. Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world, and I would also add clean and efficient.

Every morning Richard and I go for our “morning mountain challenge.” We run up a big steep hill and come back through Hong Kong Park. We see the same people every morning doing Tai Chi or other forms of exercise. Most are elderly and very friendly. As we come home through the park we hear the birds in the aviary waking each other up. 

There are only two things we miss from the U.S. My husband and I are avid bikers. Can’t do that in the middle of HK. I also miss American television! 

MCN: That’s certainly one of the biggest factors for anyone contemplating relocating to Asia — how their partner and family adjusts to the move...
ONG: The move for my husband has been easy. He has always wanted to come to Asia and now he is busy learning the language and traveling. Many of the expats that have joined Star recently have also had very positive experiences with their moves. Obviously, you have to be open to the experience and embrace the differences.

MCN: Anything you'd recommend people should read to get up to speed on Asia and the Asian TV marketplace?
ONG:Far Eastern Economic Review, a Dow Jones monthly magazine on Asia, offers some good insights on Asia’s business and political development. Its website is — and there is a number of informative and analytical Asia-based online media news services to keep abreast of the media scene in Asia.