Mind your non-English languages

25 July, 2023

Image: Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, Star Plus

One reason why the famous Doctor Who adage about the TARDIS being “bigger on the inside” has endured the test of time is because it speaks to how imperceptible major changes can be. From the outside looking in, one may never realize the malleable trends beginning to cement themselves. By the time the surprising or unexpected becomes obvious, you’re left back pedaling in a desperate attempt to keep up. No one in the entertainment industry wants to find themselves in that position, particularly as mass layoffs continue to sweep through the business. 

When looking at the 100 most in-demand TV series in the United Kingdom from January 1 to July 1, just five are originally non-English shows, according to Parrot Analytics. At first glance, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking such content just doesn’t comprise a meaningful portion of the TV ecosystem in the UK. Yet dig a little deeper and you start to see a foundational shift in motion. 

In Jan. 2020, English language content made up 94% of demand for TV shows in the UK, but by Jan. 2023, it had fallen to 88.7%. Does this mean English language content is falling out of favor? Not at all. The likes of Doctor WhoTop Gear and Peaky Blinders remain as popular as ever in the region. And in the last three years, the supply of English language shows still outstripped the next closest language by tens of thousands of titles. Yet this decline has opened the door for non-English content to climb over time. 

One of the best side effects of the digital streaming era is the democratization of content access, particularly for titles that come from different countries and would not usually air in a different region previously. Ironically, as technology makes the world smaller, our own individual entertainment landscapes are growing more vast and far-reaching. That’s reflected in the audience demand trends within the UK over the last three years. 

In that stretch, the non-English languages that enjoyed the largest increase in audience demand share in the UK are Japanese (which grew from 1.7% to 3.9%), Korean (0.5% to 1.2%), Hindi (0.4% to 0.9%) and Spanish (0.7% to 0.9%). Now admittedly, demand share can also be influenced by the volume of shows produced in these languages. Unsurprisingly, English, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean are the top four in volume, though there are far less Hindi original shows by comparison. Still, this all speaks to the more mature entertainment markets of the respective origin countries.

When excluding English content, these are also the leaders in audience demand share in the UK as of May: Japanese (34.8%), Korean (8.3%), Spanish (8.2%), and Hindi (8.1%). Japanese animation was the most in-demand subgenre globally in 2022, so the language’s continued popularity outside of Japan is not a major surprise. South Korean pop culture has leapt to the forefront of the worldwide entertainment discussion in recent years and Netflix plans to invest an additional $2.5 billion into Korean content. Spanish is the official language of a whopping 20 countries worldwide while Hindi is the second-fastest growing language in the UK. 

Understanding where audience demand is growing within a region of focus can help content development both in the short- and longer-term. Understanding the type of content that is resonating within these languages will help focus that development. For example, when looking at the most in-demand Hindi, Spanish and Korea originals in the UK over the last 12 months (July 1, 2022-July 1, 2023), we can notice a few content trends. (We’re excluding Japanese here as anime is already the dominant content export). 


Among the top ten we have five Hindi series that include two romantic dramas, one crime drama and one true crime drama, and one sitcom. We have three series in Spanish that include one crime drama, one romantic telenovela and one reality competition. And we have two Korean series that include the all mighty Squid Game and a reality competition series.

Unscripted fare is often less expensive to produce than scripted and can contribute to subscriber retention. Dramas — which often serve as acquisition drivers should they breakout in a big way — can be expensive, yet Squid Game Season 1 cost just $21.4 million total. This partially underscores the budgetary difference between international streaming rookie hits and Western first-season breakouts such as Stranger Things (Season 1 reportedly cost $48 million), The Crown’s debut run ($100 million), Jack Ryan’s first mission ($64 million) and franchise fare such as The Mandalorian (around $120 million). (Other international fare, such as Apple TV+’s Pachinko, can  still run up high costs though). Sitcoms, which tend to skew more female, remain a popular staple of linear television that is in both high demand and high supply in the UK as of Q2 2023. Procedurals, such as some of the aforementioned crime dramas, are in high demand but low supply in the region. 

All of this provides a loose framework for how networks and platforms in the UK can tap into non-English content that is growing in demand. Specific issues — such as titles that drive acquisition vs retention, titles that help expand an audience demographic and general budgetary concerns — can be addressed with strategic content investments in these areas. This content can then be tailored to the underserved genres audiences are expressing demand for in order to fill important voids in the small screen landscape. 

Overall, the continued shift toward more international entertainment helps spread the risk among a greater collection of supporting pillars. While a global non-English hit the size of Squid Game may be more of the exception than the rule, tapping into these languages can still represent a cost-effective way to build out a content slate, gain marketshare in key overseas regions, and appeal to a more diverse audience. To borrow yet again from Doctor Who, the opportunity here is bigger on the inside.

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