By Elaine Zhao
Despite scepticism about its future, television lives on in new ways. As in most media industries around the world television in China is in a state of rapid change. Local adaptation of TV formats is on the rise, exploiting commercially successful ideas in program production. Meanwhile, new players have entered the online space in an attempt to capitalise on the proliferation of distribution channels.
While competition among TV stations is getting fierce, a new portfolio of competitors is in the making with online video platforms starting to launch original programming. In a time of proliferating formats, TV stations need to establish and enhance brand positioning to carve out their market niche. Equally important is the necessity to deliver the carefully designed content in ways that are relevant in today’s multiple-screen environment.
Although formats provide a short-cut to commercially viable programming, differentiation remains a challenge. As provincial television stations slice up the potential market, Henan Satellite Television has looked to its regional legacy of culture and history and sought to create a brand in a market now dominated by singing and dancing competitions, dating shows and more recently outdoor reality shows.
Located in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, Henan, literally meaning ‘south of river’, is regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Today’s capital city Zhengzhou, and three other cities including Anyang, Luoyang and Kaifeng each served as China’s ancient capitals in different dynasties. The core resource of Henan is Chinese traditional culture, in particular the celebration of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. Lying in the heart of Henan, Mount Song is one of the Taoist mountains in China. Perhaps more importantly, it is home to the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Chan Buddhism. The Longmen Grottos, a UNESCO world heritage site located in the southern outskirts of Luoyang, is a treasure house of thousands of Buddha statues and frescos carved in caves during the Tang Dynasty. The province has produced prominent historical and contemporary philosophers such as Laozi, Zhuangzi, and the neo-Confucian thinker Feng Youlan.
To consolidate a brand positioning among fellow provincial satellite stations Henan Satellite TV adopted ‘culture’ as its competitive advantage. In 2011, it launched the slogan of ‘cultural TV: educate through entertainment’ (wenhua weishi, yujiao yule). The focus on the educational function of TV as mass media, which has a long tradition in China, is a tune embraced by China’s regulators. Meanwhile, it is a commercial necessary for the station to claim a share of today’s audience which has demonstrated an appetite for entertainment.
Since mid-2013, Henan TV has further articulated its cultural positioning with the aim of ‘carrying forward civilisation’ (chuancheng wenming). One program demonstrating such positioning best is Hero of Chinese Characters (hanzi yingxiong), ostensibly with the aim of bringing people’s attention back to the written language and the profound culture behind it in an era dominated by typing and texting. Such positioning around Chinese culture has successfully differentiated the program from an avalanche of imported formats currently on offer.
Previously, Henan Satellite TV mainly leveraged its cultural programming to target middle-aged and older audience. Hero of Chinese Characters, with contestants aged between 7 and 17 years old, shows that the TV station has started to turn its attention to the younger generations. Meanwhile, the cultural positioning has an appeal to parents and grandparents concerned with the ‘excessive entertainment’ on screen in recent years. The inter-generational interaction is well captured in its production, where cameras target parents backstage or in the audience, nervously watching the game or cheering for the contestants.
At the press conference for the launch of the program the program’s producer and host Ma Dong explained that the main purpose of Hero of Chinese Characters is to tap into youth potential and build a platform for parent-child interaction, a popular theme echoed in shows like Hunan Satellite’s Where Are We Going Dad and Beijing Satellite TV’s recent offering Mama, Listen to Me. According to Ma Dong, this inter-generational interaction is also a point of differentiation against other similar Q&A reality game shows, such as The Dictionary of Happiness (kaixin cidian) and A Special Six-Plus-One-Day Performance (feichang liu jiayi) broadcast on CCTV.
Content, however, is only one part of the game of attracting young audience. The program has an online twist through Henan TV’s collaboration with the online video sharing platform iQiyi. Producer Ma Dong acts as the chief content officer of iQiyi after quitting his previous role at CCTV as a program host. His personal boundary-crossing experience attests to a bigger trend of combining the insights into the ‘traditional’ TV market and the new frontiers of online screen culture.
More significantly, the collaboration between Henan Satellite TV and iQiyi is a step beyond the usual copyright licensing model between TV stations and online video platforms. It involves equal share of investment by each party in addition to program co-development and co-production. For iQiyi the collaboration with a TV station is a step forward in its in-house production strategy, a response to the copyright war waged among online video platforms and a demonstration of its ambition to move up the value chain. For Henan Satellite TV, the collaboration with the new-generation screen platform assists it in winning over young audiences by accommodating changes in their viewing habits.
The collaboration brings a multiple-screen experience to the audience. After screening on Henan Satellite TV, each episode is distributed on iQiyi, the exclusive online platform for the program with a ‘window’ of about 1.5 hours. iQiyi also supports viewing on mobile devices. Some content including outtakes, uncut versions and mini versions is only available on online screens. The bonus content offers another reason for people to go online and meanwhile build flexibility into their viewing experience in the post-broadcast era. A mobile game application launched in association with the program also extends the entertainment to the smaller screen. Players can answer the questions posed in the game and writer the Chinese characters as their answers on the handwriting panel. They can also use the mobile app to interact with the program at the time of broadcasting. Like a lot of game shows there is a competitive element. The top-ranking player emerging from the mobile platform has an opportunity to compete with players on TV for the championship (zhuangyuan). The app had received 1.2 million downloads by the end of the first season. Such dynamics between TV and online platforms appeals particularly to young people, who are on their mobile devices almost all the time.
Apart from the non-linear multiple screen experience, the use of cultural celebrities also helps to attract the youth market. Three cultural celebrities joined Ma as the panel of guests, including Yu Dan, a scholar and professor at Beijing Normal University, well-known for her populist explanations of the ancient texts of Confucius and Zhuangzi; Gao Xiaosong, a musician and pop icon; and Zhang Yiwu, a professor of Chinese language at Peking University and well-known cultural critic.
Overall, the cultural positioning, the intergenerational interaction, the non-linear multiple-screen experience and the use of cultural celebrities have contributed to positive audience reception. The success of the first season of Hero of Chinese Characters is demonstrated in ratings, which took third place in nationwide ratings, second only to the Voice of China (Zhongguo haoshengyin) and Happy Boy (kuaile nansheng), two immensely popular singing competitions launched by Zhejiang Satellite TV and Hunan Satellite TV respectively.
As a second-tier satellite TV, Henan Satellite TV has struck a chord with the audience amidst a carnival of entertainment formats. Yet, as the old collide with the new, challenges remain ahead in accumulating its brand assets if the provincial station in the central plains aspires to assume a central place in the changing industry.
Image Credit: Kevin Poh