There were positives. Like iflix, HOOQ refocused its mix on more local content, with a particular focus in Indonesia. Head of content Jennifer Batty told the media in October 2019 that local programming from Southeast Asia represented half of all streamed minutes on the service. HOOQ planned to create 100 original shows per year.
Shooting in progress
What is left of HOOQ’s original content slate, and planned content currently in production, could make for an interesting asset for other streaming services.
It also found itself in the unique position of working with other streaming services, such as India’s Hotstar and Telkomsel’s VideoMAX service in Indonesia.
However, these deals only provided short-term boosts—in Airtel’s case a cash deal. They did not advance HOOQ’s service itself.
Unsurprisingly, Singtel’s missteps saw senior staff such as chief technology officer (CTO) Michael Smith and chief operating officer Eeleen Tan leave between 2015 and 2017. Even co-founder Krishnan Rajagopalan quit; he currently heads Netflix’s payments team in Asia. Smith, Tan and Rajagopalan did not reply to requests for comment from us.
HOOQ later regrouped when Michael Fleshman, formerly the BBC’s senior vice president of consumer digital technology, joined as its new CTO in January 2017. Under his tenure, HOOQ continued to build out its own technology in-house—an initiative started by Smith—which included assembling a software development team in Indonesia’s Bandung.
Buoyed by this and aware of Singtel’s intent to shutter the business, CEO Bithos proposed a pivot. HOOQ would switch focus to its technology stack that could be used as a platform to, much like Quickplay, enable operators or others to run a streaming platform.
Bithos met with investors during the first quarter of 2020, a prominent Singapore-based VC told us. However he was unable to secure a deal. It is unclear which investors he met with and why talks did not elicit an investment.
These would not have been the first investment talks HOOQ had held. Despite its parentage, the company had been public about its desire to work with third-party investors.
HOOQ had intended to look into funding opportunities at the end of 2017, but no investment was forthcoming. Singtel did, however, hold serious discussions about a potential investment deal with South Korea’s SK Telecom during the second half of 2018, an Asia-based media executive aware of discussions said.
SK, like Singtel, is Korea’s dominant mobile operator, and it too developed its own Netflix-challenger, Oksusu. SK sought a content partnership with HOOQ to expand into Southeast Asia, where Korean TV dramas are popular. However, it merged with Pooq, a streaming platform from Korean broadcast trio KBS, MBC, and SBS, instead. Post-merger in January 2019, SK teased an alliance with Singtel and HOOQ that could expand the merged streaming service—called Wavve—into Southeast Asia, but again, no deal was struck.
That opportunity wasn’t necessarily a missed chance for salvation. Wavve hasn’t expanded to Southeast Asia yet. Instead, the business has found that competing with Netflix on home soil is a stiff enough challenge to keep it busy despite an alliance of influential partners. Data from Media Partners Asia, a Singapore-based analyst company that tracks the streaming industry in Asia, estimates Netflix to have 1.8 million paying subscribers in Korea, just ahead of Wavve’s 1.5 million.