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TV Formats: Made in China

A decade ago China was considered the enemy of the international formats business, but today it is a key international buyer. Now, its producers and broadcasters are looking to export their own wares.

“I’ve been doing business in China for the last decade. I was there trying to sell my formats when they were all stealing formats,” says one seasoned international formats seller recalling their early experiences in television’s biggest territory.

“In those days if you managed to get a couple of hundred dollars as a format fee per episode, that was great,” adds Michel Rodrigue, who at the time was CEO of Distraction Formats and is now owner of programme consultancy The Format People. “Channels would tell us they were doing 13 episodes and then do 39, or 139.”

The Chinese format market has undergone major changes since that “closed phase”, as one formats distributor describes it, however. It reached a milestone this year when ITV Studios Global Entertainment acquired international distribution rights to CCTV-3 singer-songwriter talent format Sing My Song (pictured, bottom) – the first example of a Western distributor taking rights to a show from the People’s Republic. This was closely followed by Keshet International acquiring rights to Zhejiang Television’s Not a Star Yet.

Insiders now believe that China’s maturing, more commercially-focused market, the sheer scale of the industry (32 commercial channels, plus the state-owned CCTV networks) and new regulation designed to boost development, means further opportunity is afoot.

Indeed, as the country’s economy and politics have opened up to the world – albeit on their own terms – television executives have followed suit. Where big international hits were once remade under different guises with no licence fees paid, deals are now being made with the international format vendors. As a result, even huge local hits like Super Girl have dropped off schedules as formats take hold.

Accordingly, local versions of Got Talent (for Dragon TV), The Voice (Zhejiang) and The X Factor (Hunan Television) have appeared, sometimes taking hundreds of millions of viewers across seasons.

Even the country’s on-demand platforms are buying. Streaming service Youku Tudou has commissioned local versions of Endemol’s Big Brother and Talpa’s The Voice Kids, while internet giant Tencent is working up a reality show with Talpa for its Tencent Video site.

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Zhejiang’s Summer Zheng

Practically speaking, working with experienced format producers from abroad, drawing on their expertise and assimilating knowledge from their bibles, has taken Chinese executives to a new level of sophistication and technical expertise.

“You look at the production values on shows like The Voice, and they are first rate,” says formats veteran Paul Jackson, who helped take British format The Gadget Show to Shenzhen TV through Beijing-based producer Houghton Street Media.

Basing an entire formats business on imports is an expensive approach, however. China’s leading producers and broadcasters have become wise to this.

“This is about how the industry has developed,” says Summer Zheng, formats director at Hangzhou’s Zhejiang TV in eastern China, whose remake of Talpa’s competition show The Voice is one of the biggest shows in the territory.

“The formats industry is a new trend in China, and we are pioneers in making it happen. We have learned a lot in terms of content, technique and the business model. We looked at the whole world making money from this industry, and thought, ‘why don’t we give it a go ourselves?’”

“In less than ten years, just like its economy China has gone through a double-speed change to achieve what the Western markets have achieved to date: going from copying the formats without buying them, to paying for them, to learning what works and making their own,” says Jean Dong, managing director of Zespa Media, a well-known UK-China formats broker.

“We began to import formats three or four years ago – we were one of the first broadcasters to do that,” adds Zheng. “We learned a lot and started to think about making our own shows. We now consider from the beginning of development whether a show can be made into a format.”

Talent competition format Not a Star Yet (pictured, top), in which the children of celebrities perform acts, was Zhejiang’s break-out in-house hit, attracting Israel’s Keshet to take distribution rights. The show has run to five seasons and reached hundreds of millions of viewers, often outperforming all of its commercial rivals.

“It’s not easy to work with the Chinese market, and there are a lot of challenges to overcome, so when you have the opportunity to do something so groundbreaking you have to try it,” says Kelly Wright, sales director at Keshet International, the production and distribution arm of Keshet Media Group. The show launched at MIPCOM as Keshet pushed into third-party content.

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Houghton Street Media’s Paul Jackson

Slightly north of Hangzhou in Shanghai, Vivian Yin is the chief UK representative of media and broadcast group Star and VP of its production and formats business, Starry Productions, the producer of Sing My Song.

Yin has been involved in the Chinese formats market since its inception, working on Shanghai Media Group’s early reversioning of Got Talent. She also spent time in the UK writing a thesis on transnational media, and now runs Star’s formats development team, while also working on production (she is Sing My Song’s executive producer).

Yin says imported formats remain the focus for many channels, as market demand for programmes grows ever stronger. “For a long time we were left behind the entire business. Not only were we enlightened to the concept quite late, but also the country is so competitive. Things move so fast that often the market is not patient enough for new ideas to be fully nurtured and ready to go.”

However, she and her company are part of a new generation of Chinese content creators  that are “totally market-orientated” operating separately to the state’s more nationalistic approach to television production. This focus means format development is vital, Yin says, because stronger commercial markets unearth better talent more often.

“Star China has a strategy to champion talent, and we see this as the power of the entire industry,” says Yin. “Many say talent formats are declining, but we still believe in them. The metabolism of the entire entertainment industry is new talent.”

Sing My Song is the product of this approach. The primetime contest format sees singer-songwriters perform their music in front of judges that are looking for contributions to their latest albums. Contestants refine their songs as the show goes on, before a winner is crowned.

CCTV-3 has commissioned a second season after the first run reached 480 million viewers and took an average total audience share of 37% – big numbers even by Chinese standards.

“Though there are some singer-songwriter shows around, the scale of this one felt right,” says Mike Beale, director of international formats at distributor ITVSGE, whose company has taken worldwide sales rights. “They also seem to have dealt with the issue with this genre – hearing the same song over and over again – by developing a process in which the song progresses throughout the show. It was also produced very, very well.”

He says Yin and her Starry colleagues are a “very professional outfit” and there is a “much smaller cultural divide” than often exists between Western and Chinese producers.

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Keshet’s Kelly Wright

ITVSGE secured distribution to the show through a deal The Format People’s Rodrigue brokered via his close relationship with Yin, who he first met while putting together a panel on Chinese formats. Universal Music Group is attached to support local broadcasters and as music releasing partner.

Beale suggests Western companies can reasonably expect to secure at least “one format a year, even under the current [state] restrictions” with Chinese format companies. “Like any of these territories around the world, you can’t go in all guns blazing professing to be the best in the world. Nobody has tried to do that with China,” he adds.

These restrictions are in the form of directives from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio and Film (fka SARFT) that restrict China’s commercial satellite channels to just one international format per year and none in primetime. Nationalistic programmes are  encouraged in their place.

Concerns how this would affect international companies has been tempered by co-development deals that see Chinese companies and their overseas counterparts co-create new ideas. Rodrigue notes international paper formats can be considered local ideas as long as they launch first in China. “But the real intention is for people to create formats in China,” he adds, “and it’s a real rat race now – who’s’ going to be the first out?”

The law’s aim – to increase local development – is ultimately a positive one, says Zhejiang’s Zheng. “The current state laws and regulation that restrict the import of formats can support original creation. It has impact on the formats business, but in the long-term it is good for Chinese TV creation and potential business.

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Zespa’s Jean Dong

“We are more eager to create a new formats [as a result], either on our own or as a co-development with an international partner. We are seeing opportunity for a stronger TV industry and more exports in the future.”

However, James Ross, founder of Singapore-based channels and formats company Lightning International and former Asian director at ITVSGE, says: “China is always a tough market from a regulatory point of view. The rules are always changing, and that’s what makes it quite frustrating from a Western distribution point of view: you can never have a certain business plan.”

He also points to the notion that Chinese education and politics deter citizens from independent creative thought – thereby restricting their ability to make new formats alone. Furthermore, younger executives can find their ideas blocked by older counterparts, as natural Chinese sensibilities assume respect for elders and their decision making. While at ITVSGE, Ross ran classes with Hunan TV to combat these issues.

Similarly former BBC, ITV and Eyeworks UK entertainment boss Jackson says: “They have the production skills, but when it comes to brainstorming it’s just not an activity that is part of the daily routine.”

“I’ve heard of those criticisms, but, as with any industry in the world, the TV industry in China is developing,” counters Zhejiang’s Zheng. “The knowledge, skills and creation is expanding. I think it is happening very fast.”

With Sing My Song and Not a Star Yet representing China in the crowded talent formats space, sources suggest the next wave of programmes from the territory will come from the celebrity- and character-driven factual entertainment space, which is currently peppering local schedules following the success of South Korean format Dad! Where Are We Going? on Hunan.

Sing-My-Song“Fact-ent will be a fast developing area,” says Jackson, while Ross adds: “Because of the way the regulations have changed, there’s going to be a focus on non-studio formats. Shanghai Media Group has some interesting shows; and Hunan, which was the leading broadcaster for a number of years, is going to come back and be very active internationally.”

“There is a lot more strategic thinking going on, as these guys are getting their acts together. I think it will be an incubation phase for the next 12-to-18 months as they think about their IP and how to monetise it.”

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ITV Studio’s Mike Beale

Whether it takes weeks, months or years, change is occurring. The reckless rip-offs market of the early 2000s is over, but a new worry for international distributors will surface when China’s media groups set up their own distribution operations.

This is front of mind for Star. “In the long term, we hope we can form a distribution arm to distribute our own shows and finished content,” says Yin. “We own Asia’s largest movie library, and have distributors selling those films, but formats is a different skill. We need to understand how to complete the contracts and teach the right person the right skills. It will take time, and before we get to that point we need a trust-worthy partner. To that point ITV is ideal.”

For now, Zespa’s Dong says, “we’re at the very exciting stage where these formats are not just good for the Chinese market but also for the international market too. It’s a very exciting transition, and I’m sure there will be more content coming out of China in the coming years”.