The makings of a TV revolution are now in China

Updated: 2013-03-29 07:15

By Wen Shijun (China Daily)

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The makings of a TV revolution are now in China

More and more Chinese people are tuning in to local programs, many based on overseas shows

It is getting difficult for TV entertainment programs in China to secure a high rating easily as they did in the 1980s.

In July last year, however, Zhejiang Satellite TV broadcast The Voice of China. The talent show was an instant hit and became one of the nation's hottest topics of 2012. Singers who competed on the show became overnight sensations, with promising careers ahead of them.

In January, Hunan Satellite TV launched its own talent show, I'm a Singer. The show has helped once popular Chinese singers gain newfound recognition and topped the Friday TV ratings.

Producers have cashed in on the shows. The price for a commercial or advertisement for the second season of The Voice of China, to be broadcast in July, costs 1.02 million yuan ($164,600; 126,200 euros) for 15 seconds; a commercial cost 150,000 yuan for the same amount of time in the first season. The show's naming rights alone cost 200 million yuan.

Within a month since the premiere of I'm a Singer, the cost of a 15-second commercial jumped by 50 percent.

The success of The Voice of China and I'm a Singer is an encouragement to all TV program producers. A question looms: How have these programs have stood up among fierce competition?

The Voice of China originates from The Voice of Holland. The show's premiere in the Netherlands in 2010 drew more than 3 million viewers. In December 2010, NBC, the American television network, bought the rights to do a similar show in the US, where it has since become enormously popular.

The music talent show is broadcast in more than 50 countries and regions around the world, each with its own version. I'm a Singer was bought from MBC, the South Korean television network, which ran the program Our Sunday Night: I Am a Singer. The show premiered in South Korea in 2011 with an overwhelming 8.6 percent TV rating.

Importing overseas TV programs into China is nothing new. Since the 1980s, foreign shows have been copied in China. In the early 1990s, China broke out with a batch of TV sitcoms, such as Stories from the Editorial Board and I Love My Family. They are regarded as the earliest successful copies of foreign TV shows. I Love My Family is taken from the American classic All in the Family of the 1970s.

In 1996, China Central Television launched a talk show called Tell the Truth, nearly capturing the entire nation and which borrowed heavily from The Oprah Winfrey Show.

During the 1990s, China mostly imitated foreign TV programs, which led to a series of problems. Chinese producers didn't learn the intricacies of producing and promoting shows. They also didn't grasp what made shows successful. More importantly, they didn't respect the creative concepts of foreign shows, which often left them bumping into copyright protection measures. Beginning from the late 1990s, China's TV industry became more globalized. Coupled with the nation's increasing economic strength, the Chinese TV industry began working with foreign counterparts.

In 1998, CCTV launched Lucky 52, a quiz show purchased from the British TV show GoBingo, although CCTV removed the gambling content present in the British original. The show cost CCTV 400,000 pounds ($609,770; 467,990 euros), a high price at the time. Because of its success in China, in 2000 CCTV bought the British show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and turned it into the successful Happy Dictionary in China.

There have been a few earlier successes. In 2004, Hunan Satellite TV launched Super Girl, which became an instant hit. In 2005, Li Yuchun, the show's winner in its second season, appeared on the cover of the Asian edition of Time magazine. Super Girl helped Hunan Satellite TV stay atop China's broadcasters. In many respects, the content on Super Girl is similar to that of the US hit show American Idol. Super Girl, however, is not a good example of cooperation because Hunan Satellite TV did not buy the rights to American Idol. Instead, it made several innovative changes to the show, which sparked controversy and a couple of lawsuits at the time. Chinese producers have since started to pay more attention to copyrights.

Today, the majority of Chinese television producers are familiar with copyright rules. Hit TV shows over the past two years have adhered to international copyright rules. TV producers in China have also found that it is much easier to buy the rights to a show instead of imitating it.

For example, after purchasing The Voice, Shanghai Canxing Productions received a 200-page guidebook from Dutch Talpa Media with rules on how to script the program, how to prepare and arrange the content, how to select instructors and students, and how to install the lighting. Even gestures such as how mentors should grab the microphone and the designs of their seating were detailed. The Dutch team also dispatched personnel to guide the recording of the shows and to advise on production and marketing.

In fact, in China, foreign shows have grown. In the last few years, from CCTV to various provincial TV networks, many mainstream TV networks have copyrighted shows. Foreign programs are now lighting up the Chinese screen.

But this is just the beginning. In the future, with the impact of new media on TV, competition among television networks will prompt a rapid growth in Chinese remakes of foreign TV shows. For the owners and creators of the world's TV shows, China is an expanding market.

In order to gain a solid foothold, Chinese TV producers have to first localize their programs for China. They, in order to develop a good program, must work with the foreign creators of the original show.

I have to admit that not all of the programs that have been imported to China were successful. A British program called Tonight's The Night garnered a weak viewership as China Dream Show.

More thought must be given to localizing a foreign program for a Chinese audience. In fact, if an overseas program is successfully transformed for Chinese viewers, it gives the Chinese TV producers a broader, more sustainable space to further develop. For China's TV production companies, they should focus on how to customize overseas shows.

At present, China has a number of copyright agents, and the majority of Chinese networks have purchased overseas programs through them. Of course, the existence of a middleman can reduce communication hassles, but they can also weaken the bargaining position. I recommend that foreign TV networks establish branches in China or assign more power to their representative offices here. I think keen TV producers in China are willing to negotiate directly with overseas networks.

Foreign networks should also explore the ripening new media market in China. Currently, many video sites have become important program producers in China. With the development of China's Internet economy and changes in how Chinese people view shows, a Chinese network's vision, ability and purchasing power will help in remaking more foreign TV programs.

The author is a researcher at CCTV Development Research Center. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 03/29/2013 page9)