The Voice of China, a reality show from Holland, became a hit on the Chinese mainland this summer and ranked near the top in audience ratings. In fact, it was one of the very few foreign TV shows to be imported by a Chinese television station.
A representative of Endeml, the world's largest independent production company, said in an interview that exports to the Chinese market have been on the rise, and that Endeml sold eight shows in 2011, compared to only one or two in the past.
Chinese entertainment shows have developed steadily over the past 20 years. Looking back, it becomes evident that these shows experienced two stages of development. The first stage can be referred to as an imitation period. Hunan TV's Happy Camp is a perfect example of a show that copied a foreign show format, including games played and personality of the host. Zhang Huali, a supervisor at Hunan TV, wrote a blog post titled Chronicle of Chinese Entertainment Show Cloning, which argued that China's television imitation period can be traced back to the 1990s.
The blog also listed 26 well known Chinese TV shows cloned from foreign programs. Many of these shows did not pay any copyright or licensing fees. However, shows that merely imitate will ultimately fail, and a large proportion of cloned shows are no longer on the air.
Chinese entertainment shows are now in their second stage of development: copyright importation and localization. Differing from pure imitation, copyright importation brings the concepts, ideas, management style and operation know-how from abroad.
Usually a mature show franchise includes a complete production chain, "from the program's pre-production branding, marketing to its post-production." The Global Times reported that "three members from the production team of The Voice of Holland came to China to advise the Chinese committee about the show. Promotional designs, mentors, competing methods and other details were discussed between the two teams." As Li Hao, director of the editorial office of Hunan TV points out, "What we bought is more than a copyright. We learned a new way to work and a new attitude."
Although all the programs imported are mature in operation and enjoy good audience ratings in Western markets, they will not necessarily succeed in the context of China. In truth, Chinese audiences are quite different from those in the West in terms of cultural background. Therefore, programs need to be localized and introduce Chinese factors into the equation.
For example, the Voice of China highlights the stories of ordinary people struggling to pursue their dreams in the music industry. Similarly, the Chinese version of the Cube is branded as the Cube of Dream, and also emphasizes the struggle of the common individuals. In terms of marketing, the Voice of China places a great deal of emphasis on Weibo, a Chinese microblog similar to Twitter.
The success of the Voice of China reflects the fact that copyright import combined with localization may reduce risks and attract higher audience rating, thus obtaining high returns. However, when most top television stations in China swarm to import foreign programs instead of developing their own creativity, problems emerge.
First, the copyright transfer fee of foreign programs has rocketed to record highs. People.com reports that copyright fees now account for 1/5 of the production budget of programs in China, compared to 1/10 in the West. Second, homogenization of programs on Chinese screens is becoming more and more serious. A famous TV host in China, Meng Fei, complained on Weibo that there are only two programs now on Chinese television – one is swiveling chairs (programs like the Voice of China), and the other is pressing light buttons (programs like If You Are the One, a dating show on Jiangsu TV). Third, an excessive amount of imported shows will leave little room for original and creative programming. Cultivation of a good show requires creative casting, sufficient money and fairly long time span. However, eagerness for quick returns and profits stops Chinese TV companies from investing in local creative programs, which will limit the growth of homegrown television shows.
Creative programming has become an indispensable part of the television industry in the West, especially northern European countries, and China is sorely lacking in this category. Yes, buying mature programs is to some extent helpful. But should we always be dependent on the ideas of foreign companies? The answer is obviously, no. Localization is a good start and the basis of the second stage of the domestic television industry's development. Chinese entertainment television ought to shift from import to export, from borrowing to creating, and pay more attention to original ideas and creativity. To achieve this, administration and operation systems of both government and TV stations must be altered. The ongoing separation of production from broadcasting is a good outset. On the other hand, copyright protection should be strengthened and originality should be respected.
If this change does happen, the third stage of Chinese entertainment will arrive, that is the stage of Innovation. And I hope it will come as soon as possible.
The author is a PHD candidate in School of Journalism and Communication, Tsinghua University.