Boom Tube: How Viki Is Creating The Global Hulu

The Singapore-based startup is creating new markets for TV producers—and beating the pirates—by getting shows translated using Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing.

Studios around the world churn out reams of TV shows. But until now, it's been inefficient for them to get their shows aired in a large number of markets abroad, which means producers have left piles of money, in the form of international advertising revenue, on the table.

Now that's changing, thanks to Viki, a Hulu-style video site that was created in 2007 to break down barriers in the international TV trade. A key ingredient in the success of the startup, which raised $20 million in October from heavy hitters like Greylock Partners and Andreessen Horowitz, has been a Wikipedia-style approach to getting shows translated into local languages. Namely, it lets the fans do the subtitling.

The site currently offers thousands shows from producers in over 50 countries to viewers around the world, as well as movies and music videos. Launched almost two years ago, the site now has 12 million users, up from 7 million nine months ago.

The startup's latest coup, announced today, is a deal to power a video site for Renren, the massive Chinese social network, which will include shows from TNT and the Cartoon Network.

Not all shows on Viki are available in all geographies. Content owners can specify where they want their programs shown, to avoid, for example, series being available in areas where they already have licensing agreements. 

Still viewers around the world (Viki CEO and co-founder Razmig Hovaghimian tells Fast Company the site has users in every country on the planet except certain parts of central Africa) now have access to tons more programming than ever before. People in Asia, for example, can finally watch programs like Law & Order, the new Bionic Woman series, and BBC's David Copperfield, while viewers in the States get not only a wide variety of Asian programming (the company was originally founded in South Korea and is now based in Singapore), but also shows from Greece, India, and Argentina.

Historically, crossing borders has been challenging for the TV industry. Popular U.S. shows tend to get licensed in "tier 1" countries, like Europe, but not in the rest of the world. And shows from "tier 2" countries, like those southeast Asia, rarely make it to "tier 1" markets, like the U.S. and Europe.

That's because it's time-consuming and expensive to hammer out licensing agreements for each individual market. And it's basically cost-prohibitive to get shows translated into languages anywhere but in the most lucrative markets. As a result, libraries of programming around the world have languished on the shelf. 

Viki, which is also backed by BBC Worldwide and Korea's SK Planet (a subsidiary of SK Telecom), is helping with both of those problems. Content owners only have to do business with a single partner, Viki. And the startup is providing the translations for free—by relying on an army of volunteers who have happily pounded out subtitles in 156 languages.

Viki's community, which includes tens of thousands of people around the world, operates much the way Wikipedia's does. Volunteers dedicate themselves to the shows or genres they care most about. The community self-polices to ensure that translations are accurate. ("They fight over participles," Hovaghimian says.) And the strongest and most dedicated volunteers rise to become leaders of individual channels to keep everything humming smoothly.

Part of their motivation is simply their enthusiasm for the content itself, the same way Wikipedia volunteers devote countless hours to maintaining pages on subjects important to them. 

"They're passionate about these shows," Hovaghimian says. "They want to be the first to discover them. They love the fact that tons of people are watching [their translations]." 

Another driver is the desire to master new languages. In fact, Viki emerged in part from another project that Hovaghimian, a native of Egypt, started while an MBA and d.school student at Stanford, which involved getting people to create subtitles for YouTube videos in order to foster language learning.

After graduating in 2007, Hovaghimian went to NBC Universal, where he worked on researching new markets and arranging international co-productions for the company's cable channels. It was there that he learned about the challenges of spreading content overseas and started thinking about ways to knock down barriers. 

While the fact that content owners don't have to pay anything to get their shows translated is a selling point, more important, Hovaghimian says, is the level of quality being generated.

"The toughest part was not getting the content. It was convincing the studios that passionate fans can actually create quality translations and police themselves," Hovaghimian. "That took forever."

The community's dedication is also helping battle piracy. When pirates get a hold of shows, it usually takes them about 72 hours for them to get shows translated into local languages. Hovaghimian says the Viki community can usually do them in a day. 

Fans start organizing themselves once they learn about upcoming lineups, deciding "who's going to translate what," Hovaghimian says. Then, when the new content goes live on Viki, translations in 10 to 20 languages are usually complete within 24 hours. That takes the wind out of pirates' sails. "The pirate doesn't have an incentive to create subtitles for the content," Hovaghimian says.

All of which means Viki is generating new revenue streams for content owners. CPMs vary per show and market, Hovaghimian says, but can get as high as $50-$100 in the most lucrative instances. 

More importantly, however, is the fact that, no matter how much producers earn, it's all gravy. "For content owners, it's expanding the size of the pie," Hovaghimian says. "They're building new markets for their content in places it wasn't traveling before."

[Image: Flickr user Americo Nunes]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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