In TV's golden age, that's entertainment

Updated: 2012-10-05 09:34

By Han Bingbin (China Daily)

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Producers have come a long way in making primetime reality shows for Chinese viewers, Han Bingbin reports.

The past three years have been the golden age for Chinese TV reality shows. They've grown in number and variety, and they dominate weekend primetime hours on almost every major broadcaster.

In TV's golden age, that's entertainment

Renowned musician Liu Huan appears in The Voice of China as one of the show's judges and coaches. [Photo Provided to China Daily]

But it's not hard for viewers to notice the shows' resemblance to foreign small-screen hits. Growing along with the production scale of the singing contests, dating shows and game shows is a bad reputation among Chinese TV producers for unauthorized imitation of foreign program formats. But industry insiders say the copycatting is no longer common and many of the shows nowadays that are suspected of stealing ideas are in fact authorized reproductions.

"There's a new consensus for gaining authorization. That's the latest trend," said Zheng Xuan, director of the program research center at Hubei TV.

Hubei TV recently became the authorized broadcaster of the Chinese version of I Love My Country, originally a Dutch TV show, after the lackluster performance of its first season on Sichuan TV in 2009.

It's hard to trace which Chinese broadcaster was the first to buy the rights to a foreign show. But Hunan TV, one of the most-watched and leading entertainment broadcasters, took the initiative by producing authorized Chinese versions of the UK-originated Strictly Come Dancing and Just the Two of Us in 2007.

In TV's golden age, that's entertainment

A poster at a shopping mall in Changchun, Jilin province, features the presenters of Jiangsu TV's dating show If You're the One. [Provided to China Daily]

The trend became noticeable when Hunan TV's authorized reproduction of Take Me Out in 2009 set off a wave of similar dating shows in China, including Jiangsu TV's If You're the One in 2010.

"But later, Jiangsu TV was openly criticized by Hunan TV for copyright infringement. I think it was this legal dispute that made Chinese broadcasters nationwide more aware of respecting copyrights," Zheng said.

Since 2009, Chinese television has seen more than 30 authorized reproductions of foreign reality shows - this year alone, there were at least 10. Nearly all of these programs originally came from Europe. The BBC, London-based FremantleMedia, and the Dutch production companies Talpa and Endemol have so far been the main suppliers of these program formats. Half of the shows are aired on Hunan TV, Shanghai's Dragon TV, Zhejiang TV and Jiangsu TV, arguably China's four most-watched satellite channels.

While provincial channels have played a leading role in the craze, at the end of last year, China Central Television also joined the trend with its applauded reproduction of Australia's improvised comedy program Thank God You're Here.

The main reason for the nationwide craze for foreign program formats, Zheng said, is that domestic broadcasters are still short of creative ideas.

In a research trip to the UK in 2010, Zheng was surprised to find that some broadcasters invited not only dramatists and other professionals, but also people from the general public for joint brainstorming sessions. In China, Zheng said, it's often the leaders who point the direction.

Moreover, primetime entertainment shows, which draw the most advertisers, place heavy emphasis on high audience ratings and are often subject to format revisions. Zheng complained that these revisions are so frequent that domestic broadcasters barely leave time and room to create, experiment with and evaluate their own program ideas.

"Instead of letting their own people take a risk, decision-makers like to borrow successful ideas from abroad. It's quick and safe," Zheng said.

Chinese producers used to duplicate a foreign show by copying its every detail in a new program. But it didn't work well because the producers got only superficial experience that way. By buying the right to use the format, Zheng said, they have a chance to gain a full measure of production experience in addition to learning from the concept editing done by the original channels. The producers are usually given a formula, which they call the "bible". This offers guidelines on production processes, some as detailed as where to place a camera and how to switch a scene.

But even with this imported technological support, many reproductions in China are far from successful. Most have had mediocre success, earning less than a rating of 1 - far from satisfactory, considering the reported millions of yuan Chinese broadcasters have thrown into the purchase.

Canxing Production Publicity Director Lu Wei thinks the reason is obvious: The atmosphere and tempo of many programs are far from ideal, and it's definitely a problem with their technical production.

"The program format itself is not omnipotent. If the local production team is not well trained, the final result won't be good. What the bible offers is simply a framework of ideas. You can only effectively apply it after you think out why they are doing it so," Lu said.

"After all, it's a matter of how hard and quickly you can learn. You have to know what exactly other people are good at before you create something new to overpower them."

With such devotion to learning, Lu said Canxing has trained a high-level editing team while producing the Chinese version of Got Talent, which has become the first huge success in the reproduction genre. The show reached 600 million viewers and had a whopping 5.91 rating in its Sunday primetime slot on Dragon TV in July last year - in China, shows with as little as a 1.3 rating are usually seen as hits.

The team had two of their innovations included in the latest issue of the format's bible, according to Lu. One is adding a live voting session by media representatives across the country. The other is giving more importance to personalizing the contestants. Both have contributed to the success of a talent competition in a Chinese cultural context.

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