Maaduu.com is where you can watch Korean dramas 24/7. Siti Syameen Md Khalili talks to the men responsible for stirring up this online craze
YOU may know a few guys who may cry over a football match. But have you seen a man in tears after watching a Korean drama?
At Maaduu.com, you may likely find more than a few new male friends who will, without qualms, admit that they have cried after watching Korean soap Snow Queen.
This is the kind of experience and interaction that you are likely to find at Malaysian-based video-on-demand site, Maaduu.com.
Maaduu is the first and only legal, free Video-on-Demand (VOD) online TV channel in the country that hosts Korean dramas and live performances of K-pop stars, brought to life by Play TV Asia Sdn Bhd (Play TV). The five men responsible for this believe people should enjoy content when, where and how they want it.
None in the group, comprising Dennis Lee, Syed Yazrine Shahab, Azizi Ismail, Lim Swee Mein and Low Soon Chew, looks like he's a Korean boy band wannabe.
They are not in their 20s. They do not dress, sing or act like Lee Min Ho, Rain, Kim Hyun Joong, Kim Jae Joong or Top of Big Bang, the latest Korean boy band.
Yet, these guys know everything about the Korean trend that is hitting us and the rest of the region.
Lee, founder and chief executive officer of Play TV, Syed (co-founder and managing partner) and Azizi (director) are 45-year-olds and childhood friends.
“We live in the same neighbourhood, only a stone’s throw away from each other. We grew up together. We know each other's families and we go to each other’s house almost every other day,” explains Syed of their close friendship.
“We know each other’s idiosyncrosies too!” chips in Lee.
“We go ‘minum-minum’ together every other night,” adds Azizi, who adds that if the team had not ventured into e-commerce, they would most likely have started a food business together as they were all foodies.
“Back then, we never imagined we’d start something like Maaduu, but we’ve always dreamt of starting a business together.”
Lee says he met Lim, Play TV’s chief operating officer and Low, Play TV’s chief technical officer, over a decade ago while working in Singapore on an SMS-based service project. Both 37, Lim and Low met at National Service Camp and went to the same university after that.
The five men went on to start an e-learning business together, but in September 2010, they founded Maaduu to capitalise on the Korean wave which they believed would reach tsunamic proportions.
“We were already in cyberspace, doing online streaming for e-learning,” recalls Lee of the early days. “I’ve always shared this idea for streaming videos, but looking at technology in those days, the bandwidth alone was too expensive to support the kind of infrastructure required. But the idea to make entertainment easily accessible on demand was sparked earlier in year 2000,” says Lee who notes that Japan had overtaken Hong Kong in terms of content popularity at that time.
The VOD model was seen to be the perfect formula, as far as the Play TV team was concerned. “We could see the changing lifestyles. We no longer have time to follow broadcast channels or scheduled programming. People are on a fast pace, mobile... so an on-demand model works well but what was required to provide that kind of on demand service was infrastructure and bandwidth. Our streaming technology helps,” says Lee.
According to Lee, the experience gathered while doing e-learning projects led them to the development of a unique digital compression technology that enabled compression of high quality source files into much, much smaller files.
This resulted in Maaduu’s capability to smoothly stream full-length programmes to viewers without buffering.
“Typically a reasonably good quality video would be streaming at 1 or 1.5Mbps, but we compress it to 300kbps. We can even reduce it further to accommodate 3G connectivity. How? That is our trade secret,” says Lee with a smile.
Nearly 85 per cent of Maaduu.com viewers are females 18-35 years old. Syed points out: “Interestingly, they are well spread throughout the country. We have viewers in places like Tenom, Jengka and Pasir Putih as well.”
So one of the challenges is being able to deliver the videos in totality, emphasises Lee. “If we have high bandwidth all the time, there would not be any issues, but we don’t. So we’ve removed this obstacle by compressing the video size. That’s the advantage technology brings — we make the service available to viewers in places where Internet connection is poorer as well.”
Between acquiring content and making sure the site works, RM2 million was invested to set up Maaduu, which finally went online on Sept 9, 2010, says Azizi.
“It was a huge risk, considering we had no viewers to begin with. Okay, maybe we started with five viewers. When we launched in September, we thought that by the end of the year, in four months’ time, we’d like to have 50,000. That would be our milestone. We had no benchmark. But in three days, we had 20,000 viewers. We couldn’t believe it. We thought there must be a bug somewhere!” says Lee.
“It was exciting because the numbers kept jumping,” adds Syed.
Today, Maaduu.com has close to 1,700,000 followers on its Facebook Page and 800,000 registered viewers.
What’s next? “The numbers are great, but what’s more important is the repeat views, that people are coming back to spend, like four hours a week on Maaduu. That is the satisfying part,” Lee says.
Having forayed into e-learning before, team Maaduu could not help but compare the two industries. “It’s more glamorous!" notes Lim. He says the team’s first experience of attending a Hong Kong film festival for content acquisition at the beginning of the Maaduu venture nearly two years ago left them in awe.
“We had to learn rather quickly about the industry and what was required. We chose the right partners, those in the business and I think we did rather well. For advertisement sales, we partnered with a market leader to gain market insight and to leverage on its good relationship with the media as well,” reveals Syed.
Lee says: “The biggest lesson is the business model, transiting from e-learning to an entertainment. In e-learning, it is really hard to get even a dollar from your end user, but that’s subscription basis. The challenge was getting people to get on. Maaduu is and will be free forever, so you can imagine the massive adoption rate. So one of our challenges is scaling the site really fast.”
Low says the next step is to ensure mobile users are getting the same great experience on Maaduu as how they're enjoying it on their notebooks and desktops. Right now, the Maaduu apps for Android and iOS devices are ready, but other viewers using devices of other platforms can still access Maaduu via Flash-enabled browser.
To access Maaduu via devices running on other platforms is still doable. “You can still watch it through the browser but with an app, the site is more conveniently accessible for mobile devices,” explains Lee who also recommends that viewers choose WiFi connectivity for a better experience.
“We give the videos on demand for free and we get revenue based on ads. Besides a proprietary video compression method, we have also developed our own ads serving technology,” says Lim.
Lee further explains: “There’s an algorithm behind how we serve the ads. We filter, profile and target the ads and we can further customise it.”
The team is also happy that many big brands have come onboard and looks forward to get more. “When we got DiGi as our first advertiser, it was an endorsement for us. It made absolute sense to us, and looking at the results, there was no turning back for us,” says Lee.
While video compression method and ads serving technologies are proprietary, Play TV has plans to commercialise and license the technology. “Though the method is designed internally for our own use, we’ve received inquiries and demands for it, so we think it may be be a new business source for us,” says Lee.
The Korean trend here started in early 2002, when Winter Sonata was shown on TV. "Before that we had already a few good ones like All About Eve and Autumn In My Heart. But after Winter Sonata, there was no looking back. People are still watching Winter Sonata today,” says Lee.
Romances aside, the good news for Maaduu team is that their viewers love just about anything that is given to them, especially long sagas. Lee explains: “In Korea, dramas have a chance of getting poor ratings. But outside Korea, it is a different story. At Maaduu, we can give our viewers anything, and they will watch it. For example Boys Over Flowers received poor ratings in Korea, but at Maaduu, this title is always on our Top 5 list.”
“It’s because of the pretty boys. Many of our viewers are female and they love pretty boys,” claims Syed with a laugh.
Lee also believes Korean content, especially dramas, are more engaging. “It is also about the emotional connection with the story and the characters. Some viewers feel that when a drama series ends, it is like their life has ended.
They want more, they don’t want the story to end. So one of the interesting things we’ve found out through our statistics, the longer the drama is, the more viewership we get. We have titles that span four or eight episodes, but these are the least watched.”
One example is Jewel In The Palace, a drama series which has over 50 episodes. “Jewel In The Palace actually reduced the traffic in Teheran by 20 per cent! At Maaduu, this series is also on our Top 5,” says Syed. The team has not ruled out Iran as a potential market even if Maaduu’s target market for the next year or so is Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
The reason for the Korean-only content focus at Maaduu.com is not without heavy research. As Lee notes, the Korean fever is getting stronger by the day.
As an online business, Play TV also exploits various analytics and multiple sources including Google. “We can see the sites that have massive traffic, where people are flocking to, has to do with the Korean entertainment scene,” Lee points out.
“Furthermore, when you go to the content market, Korean content is offered at a premium as it is demand. At exhibitions, the Korean booth is always buzzing,” says Syed who claims he has seen a Korean fun fair in Bangkok, on one of his trips to Thailand.
Lim says Maaduu is now in the midst of talks with other Korean distributors and cable companies to get more content for the site. “These companies are producing their own dramas,” he says.
Lim and Lee may be the biggest two Korean content avids, but it was Azizi who admits that one of the dramas reduced him and one of his three sons to tears. “It was Snow Queen, you should watch it. It is a great story,” he says.
On the other hand, Syed says that while he is not a big Korean drama enthusiast, he's known as the Cool Dad to his kids’ friends.
“I do think some of the dramas are too predictable, but my kids and their friends enjoy them. Some of them saw me on TV promoting Maaduu and they told my son,’ Hey we saw your dad on TV. Is he really doing Maaduu.com? That's cool’. Turns out they were already fans of the site.”
Lee quips: “Korean dramas are for men too, especially those with sensitive soul, like me. I enjoy a good cry and a good laugh. Syed thinks he is an intellect so not all of them are suitable for him.”
Syed protests: “I think Time Slip Dr Jin is quite a hot item. It's about time travel.”
Noting that the production quality is high, Lee also highlights that the soundtrack and K-pop music are pretty spectacular too. “When you listen to a Korean track, you don’t have to understand it to know it is damn good,” he says.
“Maaduu is now a community. We and our viewers are like family. Since we started, we’ve always put ourselves as viewers who want to enjoy a good drama and a great concert. We would love to do a Maaduu state-to-state roadshow, if we have the time.”
Syed says: “Viewers tell us what they like and comment on the videos they’ve watched. They ask us for other titles, and we try our best to give it to them.
“We’re just happy to know they enjoy Maaduu. They saranghae (Korean for I love you) Maaduu. That is, in itself, absolutely satisfying for us, knowing that we not only enjoy our own product but that people are enjoying it too. That’s a wish come true.”
Maaduu will be launched in Indonesia within the next quarter of this year followed by Singapore at year’s end. The Philippines and Thailand will also get a dose of Maaduu next year.
Sweet ride with Maaduu
“The name Maaduu was based on the Malay word ‚madu‘, which means honey. So the intention was to get viewers attracted to us like bees to honey. Maaduu.com is free and will forever be free,“ promises Dennis Lee, founder and chief executive officer, Play TV Asia Sdn Bhd.
At www.maaduu.com, it is easy to get a dose of Korean content of your choice. Viewers only need to register using a simple online form, then start watching. Just like free-to-air TV and radio, watching K-drama and K-pop clips is totally free with a dash of advertisement in between.
Play TV has 25 people who are subtitlers, translators, copy editors and engineers, and not all of them are based in Malaysia. The team runs the site in Malaysia and engage translators in Indonesia as well as engineers in China. Yet the team managed to work together via online means to quickly deliver the hottest dramas and performances for Korean content lovers here in Malaysia.
Just how soon can viewers here get their eyes on the Korean content? According to Lee, what happens is that Maaduu‘s Korean network partners such as KBS and MBC will first broadcast a program, usually at prime time which is 9.55pm (Korean time). Two hours later the same program will be sent to Maaduu in a high quality source file via file transfer protocol.
The Maaduu team will then speedily put in the subtitles, compress the file and check it to ensure quality standards are met. The processed file will finally be released on Maaduu site, all within a 24-hour time frame. “Right now we offer subtitles in English, and we are working on delivering subtitles in Malay and Chinese,“ says Lee.
Maaduu.com currently has over 2,000 hours of content ready to be consumed by viewers. To search through Maaduu.com‘s large list of K-dramas and K-pop performances, users can go through the content by name or genre and look up for their synopsis. While watching, viewers can get interactive with over 800,000 other Maaduu.com viewers via the Facebook chat facility that is incorporated into the site.
The latest additions into Maaduu.com is Time Slip Dr Jin and I Do I Do. The former is about a neuro surgeon who got transported to the past while the latter looks at love between an established shoe designer and a younger man who stole her designs, says Lim.
“We are looking at bringing reality and variety shows from Korea to expand our library of content. In Korean these kind of shows usually feature their top artistes, so we feel it is relevant to our viewers,“ says Syed Yazrine Shahab, co founder and managing partner, Play TV.
Details at www.maaduu.com or log on to www.facebook.com/maaduu.