TV stations gobble up European formats

Updated: 2011-06-10 10:26

By Zhang Xi (China Daily European Weekly)

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 TV stations gobble up European formats

Liu Wei, whose arms were amputated after a childhood accident, plays the piano with his toes at the finale of China's Got Talent. With the success of the Chinese version of Britain's Got Talent, buying a foreign TV program format has attracted more attention. Provided to China Daily

European programs are the new soldiers in the TV ratings war in China.

More localized TV shows based on previously developed shows are marching into Chinese homes, with at least 10 such programs being broadcasted by satellite TV stations this year.

Satellite TV stations started to import foreign program formats around 2006. But it wasn't until China's Got Talent hit the airwaves in 2010 that the import model skyrocketed, says Rebecca Yang, co-founder of the International Program Content Network Ltd. The British distribution company introduces foreign program formats to Chinese TV stations.

The first season of China's Got Talent, the Chinese version of Britain's Got Talent, was often the top-rated prime-time show on Sundays in 2010. According to CSM Media Research, a TV ratings analyst company, the finale attracted 5.7 percent of Chinese audience on Oct 10, 2010.

Its broadcaster, Shanghai's Dragon Satellite TV Station, started airing the second season in May, which have received a lot of attention as well, with 3 percent of the Chinese audience watching the latest first-round selection on May 22.

"After the success of China's Got Talent, buying a format has attracted more attention from Chinese TV stations. The number of such programs is rising," Yang says. "For example, we introduced Dutch Talpa Media Group's reality show Dating in the Dark to Guangdong TV. And the municipalities of Tianjin and Beijing are all working on programs we introduced to them."

According to Yang, who is from China, companies like hers act as a medium between foreign content producers and Chinese TV stations.

"We understand laws and people involved with the deal, so we make sure they communicate smoothly and finally get the deal," Yang says.

Her company often has to bridge Chinese and foreign producers to localize programs, because "foreign producers do not want the content format to be changed, but they do not understand Chinese culture. Different TV stations have different audiences. If the format is not changed accordingly, the program will not be successful", she says.


TV stations gobble up European formats

Her views are echoed by Chen Ye, the director of the Chinese version of Sing It, a program created by Talpa Media Group. The entertainment show offers a stage for ordinary people to change lyrics of popular songs to express their feelings to families, significant others and friends. The program, which premiered in China on May 7, has been sold to 14 countries and regions.

"Our version has been adapted to appeal to Chinese audience's customs. For example, Chinese focus more on the results. They want to watch what will happen after the person sings a song to another, expressing his feelings. So we arrange six to seven participants in our one-hour program, rather than 10 to 11 in the original format," Chen says.

He believes importing TV show formats is a trend for Chinese TV stations, which competes with the Internet to attract a younger demographic. "Rather than letting young people watch foreign TV programs online, why not attract them by watching the Chinese versions?" he asks. "In the past, we did not know where to buy formats; but now, distributors come to us to promote their productions. The most popular programs are talent shows and reality shows."

Chen admits that the lack of creativity and production ability is another reason for importing TV show formats, although Chinese producers can create good programming with some inspiration from foreign production companies.

Foreign producers often fly to China to oversee production when a show is recreated for Chinese audience. Part of the contract between Chinese TV stations and foreign content producers includes a show "bible".

"The bible provides all the information a producer would need to know to replicate a show, such as stage settings, lighting and music, with the only adaptation being language and any cultural changes required," says Dawn McCarthy-Simpson, senior policy executive for Nations and Regions of the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT). The organization represents the independent TV and film industry in the UK.

And Chinese producers are learning from foreign counterparts, Chen says. "Our team has been given a wonderful opportunity to practice with the formats under foreign producers, and this is what we want. Although it is more expensive to import formats than producing our own programs."

According to Chen, an original Chinese program may cost anywhere from 10,000 yuan (1,072 euros) to more than 100,000 yuan. But the price of an imported program format, including its intellectual property, can be 20 percent higher.

"The TV ratings have been on the rise, and the ability of our team has improved. Format imports are certainly the trend of China's TV program industry," Chen says.

Selling program formats have been a key driver of the global entertainment business. According to the 2009 report of the Format Recognition and Protection Association (FRAPA), a television industry trade association that helps protect the intellectual property of television formats, 445 original UK formats found their way to foreign countries from 2006 to 2008.

The number nearly doubled from the first FRAPA report, which analyzed the formats traded from 2002 to 2004. It also revealed that the production volume generated by traded formats has grown to 9.3 billion euros for the years 2006 to 2008. This is an enormous increase of 45 percent in comparison to the 2002-2004 period.

The most recent report also indicated that Britain was leading in the number of exported formats in 2009, followed by the United States, the Netherlands and Argentina.

According to the PACT, international sales of TV programs rose 9 percent to 1.34 billion pounds (1.54 billion euros) in 2009 despite the worldwide recession. In all, North America represented 41 percent of total export revenue in 2009, with Europe contributing 29 percent and the rest of the world 30 percent.The amount of China's imported formats and its rank are not clear, according to McCarthy-Simpson.

The trend toward producing UK formats abroad - a foreign TV company buys the rights for a show but asks a UK-owned company to make a localized version - gathered steam in 2009 with the revenue of 41 million pounds.

For example, BBC Worldwide has licensed five formats to Chinese broadcasters over the last five years, says Pierre Cheung, BBC Worldwide's executive for Greater China. Among them, Strictly Come Dancing (known internationally as Dancing with the Stars and licensed to more than 35 global broadcasters), has been a very successful entertainment show in China, becoming the country's top rated show in its first two seasons in 2006-2007.

One reason for the success of British formats may be because they are sold to the US first. TV producers there then tweak the formats to create internationally popular programs. Therefore, more British formats are sold worldwide, says Briton Matt Elmes, executive producer of the Chinese version of Top Gear, in an interview with Financial Times China.

For example, British talent show Pop Idol wasn't that popular until it spawned American Idol, currently the most-watched show in the US. This show has more than 30 localized versions around the world.

Chen, the director of Sing It, voiced another reason for the success of British formats. Unlike China, where members of program production teams are staff members at TV stations, UK production companies are not hired hands of TV stations. This allows the British companies to be more innovative in selling their programs.

Also, broadcasters around the world are increasingly recognizing the benefits of drawing on the expertise of international partners to help them introduce new entertainment shows for local audiences, Cheung from BBC says.

Independent production houses contribute about 200 million pounds toward the development and production of UK content and account for around 80 percent of format sales abroad. The British independent sector is the largest in Europe, profiting 2 billion pounds a year and employing more than 20,000 people, according to a CNBC report in April.

According to Cheung, the focus of BBC Worldwide in China is on developing opportunities for its entertainment brands, and it considers China an important market in that regard.

China has already exported one TV show. Challenge Microphone, produced by Hunan Satellite TV, was China's first exported format, which was sold to Thailand's TrueVisions TV in 2009. But China still has a long way to go to catch up with the UK.


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