Exclusive: How Southeast Asia is breaking format barriers

The Wall Duet

Southeast Asia may not be ready to challenge the dominance of North Asia’s TV format giants yet, but shows from Thailand and Malaysia are raising the bar across this fast-growing region, writes Marco Ferrarese.

Asian TV formats have travelled around the world for decades, with shows like Ninja Warrior, Iron Chef and Dragon’s Den becoming some of the world’s best known and replicated. But looking at their nations of origin, it’s either Japan, which has churned out dozens of TV formats for decades, or South Korea. K-dramas already sold very well in their original form and language, but the global success of MBC’s singing format The Masked Singer opened new avenues for the tiny nation of a million entertainment wonders.

However, Asia is a huge continent, and even though it is Japanese and Korean programming (plus their entertainment and music industries at large) that still lead the pack and maintain the strongest foothold in the West, there are new and interesting shows coming out of the East and from Southeast of Asia, in particular.

Without doubt, the country that has shown the most creativity in terms of both imagining and adapting formats, especially unscripted, is Thailand. The ‘Land of Smiles’ has a strong track record with TV and more open-mindedness compared to its immediate neighbours. Some of the most ingenious, inclusive and even touching commercials in the world come from Thailand and span everything from LGBTQ lip care to cancer charity and life insurance. Don’t forget that it was the elaborate masks used in the Thai version of The Masked Singer, rather than the South Korean original, that first caught the eye of a Fox executive who was vacationing in Thailand and which ultimately initiated the format’s global success.

“Thailand is the best place in Southeast Asia for format exports due to the competitiveness of their entertainment show ecosystem, higher budgets and production values, a more developed international sales infrastructure, and creativity, which includes a distinct sense of kookiness,” says Daryl Kho, a Singapore-based author and media veteran who recently headed formats in Asia for Banijay Rights.

Beat The 60 Seconds

Cultural connections

Leading Thai format-creating companies include BEC World, a broadcaster, distributor and producer, and production company Zense, which created Beat The 60 Seconds, a gameshow whose contestants have a minute to complete a random task in order to access to a vault full of prizes. It was adapted in Indonesia in 2020.

Because of similarities in tastes, culture and budgets, the biggest buyers of Thai formats remain in neighbouring Cambodia and Vietnam, but shows are travelling. The most impressive recent case is The Wall Duet (Rong Kham Kam Pang) made for Thailand’s TV Channel 23 by media firm Workpoint Entertainment.

Even though it’s a singing format, The Wall Duet is unique: can the participant recognise a person’s voice from their wailing and recognise who they are without ever seeing them? In each episode, three superstars are invited to duet with a mysterious singer who stays hidden behind a wall. They don’t know his/her identity, and are given clues to find out who that person is.

After being sold to Vietnam, The Wall Duet was first exported to Latin America and adapted by SBT in Brazil, and then debuted in Europe on New Year 2022 on Dutch broadcaster RTL 4, the nation’s most-watched commercial station, as Secret Duets. The Thai format has since been optioned across Europe including in Italy, Spain and France. It may be early days to hail another success with the calibre of The Masked Singer, but it’s an important achievement for Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia’s incredibly diverse and fast-growing entertainment industry.

Import-export potential

While Southeast Asian cinema, particularly from Indonesia, is earning increasing recognition at film festivals around the world and impressive viewership numbers on Netflix, other television industries across the region still lag behind Thailand. They have also tended to adapt international formats to add to their own successful local variations.

One such example is the well-travelled mystery music gameshow I Can See Your Voice, which aired first in the Philippines in 2017. Produced and distributed locally by ABS-CBN Entertainment and based on the South Korean format of the same name, it quickly became a local hit with five seasons.

But there are more global opportunities emerging: Malaysia’s first satellite television and IPTV provider Astro has already created some well-performing local formats that could be repackaged for international sales and adaptation, especially to Islamic nations.

One particular example was Imam Muda (Young Imam), a format targeted to the country’s majority of ethnic Malays, who are muslims, and which ran for three seasons. Produced first in 2010, this original Malaysian show focused on a group of ten young Malay men aged between 19 and 27 who competed to become the best Islamic scholar.

Because Imam Muda was the most-watched format in the history of Astro Oasis, a channel dedicated to Islamic programming, it could certainly appeal to other Islamic nations near and far, ranging from Indonesia and Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, or could even be exported to north Africa’s Islamic countries.

Other popular Malaysian formats with a wider, non-religious appeal are Raja Lawak, a comedian-based talent show that requires contestants to improvise their jokes based on a set stage theme. Another local Malay show that is rating is Gegar Vaganza, a singing format that sees professional, often famous and retired, Malaysian singers competing to win a cash prize.

Such IP reflects the range of formats on offer in Southeast Asia and the success of shows such as The Wall Duet looks likely to draw more attention to this rising world of vibrant, special and often quirky unscripted TV formats.

Read Next