The dejà vu was strong. At my third media conference (over four years) in Hong Kong the sequence of events seemed predictable. The CASBAA Convention in the last week of October is an annual event organised by the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia or CASBAA. It is a logistical marvel that reflects the city in which it is set. On most days, Hong Kong epitomises vibrancy, efficiency and a politeness that London never quite manages. The list of speakers - from the global head of investment at Omnicom to the head of one of China's largest online video firm Youku Tudou - is impressive. And almost all of them speak well. There are numbers and insights, especially for people like me from the outside. It is wonderful to get a glimpse into markets as varied as Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines. The event runs to schedule, there is no confusion, no mix-ups and no faux pas.
Yet, I left the conference with the same sense of dissatisfaction that I have had in the earlier events in the region (including Bali and Singapore). There are two reasons for this. One, there is no real debate, no discussion. In fact, corporate plugs are freely allowed and politely borne (note that in business-to-business events it is perfectly normal for a sponsor to also be a speaker). But nobody questions a speaker if he or she is talking through their hat.
When I mentioned the lack of lively debate to the hosts at CASBAA, there was polite acceptance of this "instructive criticism". And later, while chatting with senior people from several large firms in the region, the response was focussed on my perspective being "Indian". We just debate and argue so much that if there isn't enough of that in any conference or event, we feel as if we haven't got our money's worth.
But the most interesting response came from a senior (Chinese) manager from a largish TV firm. He said that there was "no negativity" in the discussions in Hong Kong. And it hit me that this was true. Nobody was trying to score a point, pull the other person or his company down, unlike in India. While this kind of courtesy is true for London too, there is always a huge amount of debate, discussion and healthy disagreement. There was none here.
But then that is Hong Kong for you. It is, after all, a city that is disagreeing so sweetly and reasonably with its rulers over how to choose its own government.
The second odd thing is how little India is represented on any discussion - whether it is on content, pay TV or online video. Except perhaps for Viacom18 India CEO Sudhanshu Vats and senior managers from a few other firms, there were very few Indians from India (there were several from other parts of the region).
India is the second-largest TV market in the world by volumes. It is also the biggest success story for every major global broadcaster - 21st Century Fox, Viacom, Sony and Disney. China has been a disappointing broadcast market because of its tight governmental controls (on the flip side it is, therefore, a booming market for online video). Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are interesting markets, but they are a fraction of India on most parameters. The absence of India then gives most media conferences in the region a South East Asia flavour that is not fully representative. The answer to the "why so few Indians" question has remained consistent for the last four years - Indians simply do not participate. They accept speaking assignments and ditch at the last minute. Many of them simply don't make the effort.
A lot of the investment into the Rs 83,000-crore media and entertainment business in India comes through Singapore and Hong Kong, the two major financial hubs in the region. If Indian managers and the success stories in Indian broadcasting are simply not on display at some of the biggest media events in the region, it shouldn't surprise anyone that investors do not know what to make of the market. Later that week in Hong Kong, I had a long chat with an investment banker based there. He specialises in media and was full of questions on India. How is digitisation going, what segments of the media industry are interesting and so on.
Go on guys, tell your stories, the world wants to listen to them.