On Cambodian TV, a Buffet of Foreign Options but Little Local Fare

Jonathan Cox / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
This map illustrates where the most-viewed prime time TV shows in Cambodia come from. The size of the bubbles corresponds to viewership. KT Photo: Jonathan Cox

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – While foreign shows are usually reserved for the 2 am slot by television stations in the West, Cambodia’s largest TV stations air almost exclusively foreign shows during prime time.

Soap operas from Thailand and South Korea, with higher production values and better-trained actors than Cambodian shows, dominate many channels. Some analysts say that a market dominated by foreign shows makes it difficult for Cambodian studios to succeed.

“You go to Thailand and you never see foreign dramas at prime time,” said Chai Borah, director of the Motion Picture Association of Cambodia. “But this country is different. In prime time they show all foreign dramas. As a result there’s a lack of connection to their culture and identity.”

By analyzing data from MYTV and CTN, the stations that account for 41.5 percent of Cambodian viewers, Khmer Times assessed the most popular primetime shows in Cambodia in the first six months of 2015.

Thailand and South Korea dominate, while Singapore and India also draw sizable audiences. The Thai drama “Jealousy” alone draws an estimated 9,555,000 viewers at 7 pm on weekdays – roughly two thirds of Cambodia’s population. 

Of the 10 prime time shows in CTN and MYTV, only one was Khmer. The rest came from countries around the region, from the Philippines to India.

Assessing the viewership numbers for shows in Cambodia is not an exact science. Kantar Media, a Philippines-based market research firm, issues reports based on surveys on the viewing habits of 775 households in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Battambang. But Sophat Yuos, TV research manager at Cambodian Broadcast Service, said the data is reliable. 

Many of the shows currently airing in Cambodia at prime time are reruns of foreign shows. “They screened these shows in Thailand years ago,” said Mr. Borah.

Cheap Shows

Since the shows are out of circulation in their home country, the Cambodian TV stations can purchase the rights to episodes for as little as $300, and in some cases get the show for free. It is cheap to adapt the shows for a Cambodian audience, with overdubbing by Khmer actors. 

Studios from different countries specialize in different genres: China is synonymous with action shows, India has Bollywood, and South Korean is known for romantic dramas. Most popular shows are light-hearted romances, while dark, complex shows struggle to find a large audience. “Viewers here love romantic comedies, romantic shows,” said Mr. Borah. “Not so much social criticism. Most just love watching beautiful actors and actresses.” 

Mr. Borah said that the production values of foreign shows are much higher than those in Cambodia. While Thai studios will spend as much as $50,000 on a single episode, Cambodian studios can usually afford to spend just $1,000 per episode. 

With the market flooded by cheap, high-production-value shows, Khmer studios often struggle to survive. “There’s too much competition right now,” said Mr. Borah. 

Training

A lack of trained, talented directors and actors has also hamstrung the Cambodian film and television industries. “The Koreans and Thais have many directors they can choose from,” said Mr. Borah, “But in Cambodia there are not so many good directors to direct a TV series.” 

While many Cambodian filmmakers train at Bophana Film Center, the country has no official film school. Actors also have few options for training. While actors elsewhere in Asia go through years of training, Cambodian actors are almost entirely self-taught. 

Mr. Borah said that the government should provide more financial support to filmmakers. “The government has said that the media is a very powerful tool to educate and connect history to people,” he said. “But they don’t practice it.” 

Khmer shows will begin gaining popularity as the country develops and more filmmakers begin working to show their country, said Mr. Yuos. “Currently Thai and Korean dramas are the most popular, but in the future I think that will change.” 

Mr. Borah agreed. “There is this talent that is hiding inside the nation,” he said. “We just have to bring it out.”

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