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Japanese girl group's fame has Philippines singing same tune

Pop idol band AKB48 hopes to spread concept to Southeast Asia

The official website of MNL48 features a large number of women wishing to join the group.

MANILA -- The popularity of AKB48, a Japanese girl group named after the Akihabara district in Tokyo, has Southeast Asia hoping to capitalize on the concept, with the Philippines the latest country aiming to form its own version of the pop idols.

The Philippines' biggest television network and a Japanese website operator there have started a joint project to create a Philippine-based sister group -- and the search is already attracting strong attention even before selection of the members begins.

A large poster advertises the MNL48 project in Manila.

Website operator Hallohallo on Friday signed a partnership agreement with TV network ABS-CBN to launch a Philippine idol girl group called MNL48, after the standard abbreviation for the Philippine capital of Manila. Group company Hallohallo Entertainment has received a license from AKS, the Tokyo-based talent agency that manages AKB48. 

The Japanese group's producer, Yasushi Akimoto, will also oversee MNL48, which will consist of members aged 15 to 20.

Applicants for the new group must register with the Hallohallo website, which has already posted photos and profiles of more than 1,600 women for interim registration. Abbey Elainne, 20, is currently the most popular contender, with her MNL48 official Facebook profile receiving "likes" from more than 1.2 million viewers.

Starting in October, ABS-CBN will introduce some of the hopefuls -- as well as their families -- during popular programs, allowing them to showcase their singing talents. The number of applicants is expected to eventually swell to 15,000, according to organizers.

Fans who want to follow the selection process can download a designated app onto their smartphone and vote for their favorite candidates. About 100 of the top contenders will be chosen around next March, with a "general election" to take place for 10 days or so -- and aired by ABS-CBN -- to reduce the final number to 64. 

The final 64 contestants will be divided into A, B and C groups, each having 16 members, and the remaining 16 will become trainees. Members of the A group will appear on TV programs and perform in a new theater to be built for MNL48, while members of the B and C groups will participate in events. Once formed, the new group will regularly perform in an event space Hallohallo will create in Glorietta, a large commercial complex in the heart of Manila.

A new general election will take place every year to shake up the MNL48 structure.

Hallohallo operates merchandise sales, restaurant information and other sites for its roughly 2.2 million members. Because applicants and voters of the MNL48 project will be automatically registered as members, it hopes to significantly expand its customer base. Among related services, Hallohallo will enable consumers to immediately purchase MNL48 members' clothes from its sales site.

Yasunari Okada, CEO of Hallohallo, expects that applicants for the project will ask family members and friends to register with its website in order to vote for them. "I expect our membership to increase by 3 million," Okada said. "Efficient marketing will be possible as young women are expected to account for 60% of the membership."

The Philippines project suggests that AKS' move to expand the AKB48 concept to Southeast Asia is gaining legs. Sister groups in the region -- JKT48 in Indonesia and BNK48 in Thailand -- are already active, with small changes, incorporating local features, being added to boost their popularity.

To that end, the Philippines will take a more family-friendly approach than Japan and Indonesia, where fans receive voting rights by purchasing the group's CDs. MNL48 thus hopes to cater to the presence of "many families bound by strong ties," according to Okada.

The new group is also expected to capitalize on the continued Japan boom in the Philippines, which has seen a huge rise in the popularity of Japanese cuisine, among other things.

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