by Michael Keane
Image Starry Daddy. [Shenzhen Satellite publicity)
I had my first experience of watching Chinese television in 1993. That year was spent in Tianjin, a large northern industrial city, now thirty minutes southeast of Beijing by fast train. I used television to learn Chinese, hoping that by osmosis I would come to understand this strange and beautiful language. Aside from the fact that I couldn’t fathom much of what was said, I soon realised that television schedules were largely unstructured. The concept of primetime had yet to establish itself; for instance at 7:30 one might be watching a costume drama; this would be followed abruptly by a propaganda documentary on the training regime of the People’s Liberation Army before switching to a performance of Peking Opera. If there was flow of programmes, it was sporadic and unsettling.
Television in China has changed considerably. Now when I flip the channels on my remote I feel I am watching something more recognisable. Of course there is the perennial television serial, offering new versions of the Chinese revolution—the one before 1949 that is—featuring a healthy quota of anti-Japanese vitriol for the older generations, or melodramatic stories of modern families, usually with a central role for the mother-in-law.
More comparable with international schedules is format television. From China’s Got Talent to Survivor Games with Bear Grills (both airing on Dragon TV), formats are entertainment-based and they are eating away at the dominance of serials. One reason for the success is satellite channels, which have a mandate to broadcast to the whole nation. Most extend their programmes beyond the Mainland to Chinese communities worldwide who can access in real time via IPTV, satellite dishes or online platforms. Formatted shows, especially talent competitions, help build audiences across the diaspora while encouraging overseas Chinese to participate.
There is a certain irony in this new expanded landscape. For years the Chinese government put up quotas to protect the Chinese television industry from competition and Chinese viewers from foreign programmes. This protectionism had the effect of stimulating drama production. Narrative content was manageable; that is, all scripts had to be approved by censors before a serial was even commissioned.
When TV formats came to China in the early 2000s, first a trickle, then a flood, the logic of television production changed. Along with formats came foreign expertise, the know-how, and the creative ideas that would refresh Chinese television, making it look more global. Formats added diversity to television schedules but they also brought a degree of predictability. Programmes have interbred and one gets a sense that Chinese television generally lacks a critical edge aside from the rent-a-celebrity judges that now proliferate on talent shows.
Formats in Asia
In 2003, when Albert Moran and I published an edited study of television formats in eleven countries in Asia the only countries producing original formats in the region were Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In the next decade, however, the landscape changed as more international ideas were incorporated into television programmes in Asia.
In May 2016, I participated in a forum called The Role of the Format in the New Era of Television, organised by Professor Lee JunHee at the Department of Film, Television and Multimedia, Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul. While the format industry is now global, South Korea is a relatively recent player, achieving success in Mainland China through hit shows such as Running Man (Zhejiang Satellite), Where Are We Going Dad? (Hunan Satellite), and I am a Singer (Hunan Satellite). South Korea’s move into the format licensing game is therefore largely thanks to China, or at least Chinese viewers’ appetites for Korean culture.
However, South Korea’s formats have not travelled as well or as far as television dramas. Regional success in China is just a starting point. New formats in the South Korean media space include a music revival show, The Hidden Song (SBS), in which songs that have been forgotten are ‘resuscitated’ by a top singer; and 7 Men’s Money Talk Show. The pitch is ‘Don’t Worry be Happy’: 7 young, sexy and rich men talk about the secrets of how to make money! Many shows in China are now derivative of Korean productions, a case being Starry Daddy, a ‘close cousin’ of Where Are We Going Dad?, the show that spawned the genre called ‘Parenting experimental reality show’ (qinggan tixian zhenren xiu). Distributed by DYTM, Starry Daddy features four pan-Asian males, a pop star, an actor, a musician and an athlete playing the role of ‘daddy’ for the first time. The ingredients blend Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese pop sensibilities.
But success is never guaranteed. In order to understand why the market is so fickle it’s necessary to note the difference between a format and a canned programme, the latter term referring to a programme that is sold for broadcast or streaming into another territory, for instance a TV serial drama.
Formats are essentially programme formulas that are licensed, and adapted to various degrees in more than one market. As Justin Scroggie from The Format People revealed to the audience in the forum, there are about a number of things to consider when devising formats that can cross cultural boundaries.
Scroggie, who carries the enviable moniker The Format Doctor on his name card, has been in the business for many years and his latest global format called Chef in Your Ear is entering its second season in South Korea, where it is known as Avatar Chef. The concept is incredibly simple, but the mechanism itself very smart: It’s a cooking competition where the professional chefs don’t cook; instead they convey their knowledge to contestants who are hopeless at cooking, through an earpiece, hence the idea ‘chef in your ear.’ It has been adapted in seven different countries date, in North America, Europe and Asia.
Formats can burst like a supernova or crash like the Titanic. Some work for a single season but fade as people get more used to the concept. The format has to have an identity, one that is not too complicated. Some formats look for new ways to hang in, bringing in celebrities, or children of celebrities, while appealing to people’s interest in transforming their identity and their lives. While Australia is the land of home renovation formats, Asia is trying out new ideas. Dance Your Ass Off Vietnam (NBC Universal International) is a regional variation on The Biggest Loser, which is also shown in Vietnam. In Dance Your Ass Off Vietnam contestants dance with professional partners to see who can lose the most weight.
The one format policy
In China political formats have dominated, the Chinese Communist Party rather than writers deciding how ‘good content’ should be defined. Before the 1990s Chinese television shows were meant to reflect reality. But they were not reality shows (zhenren xiu) as we understand today. In the early 2000s, reality-style shows were clones of foreign shows, the most notable being Hunan Satellite Television’s version of Pop Idol, called Supergirls.
By the end of the decade most stations were buying foreign formats and localising them with haste, hoping to cash in, so much so that in 2013 the State Administration of Press Publicity, Radio and Television (SAPPRFT) issued its ‘one format policy.’ Under this new restriction Chinese channels were limited to buying one foreign format per season, almost like allowing channels one adopted child. In addition SAPPRFT imposed new restrictions on what was allowable content, steering format buyers towards educational shows rather than singing/dancing talent shows. One of the formats that fitted the new regime is The Brain (Endemol Shine), a competition to identify people with incredible memory retention skills rather than the kind of strategic cleverness on display in ‘winner takes all’ shows. Interestingly, the government endorses shows like The Brain as contributing to science and technology, its ‘innovative nation’ strategy.
The one format policy has a parallel in the One Child Policy and this can be illustrated by China’s most successful reality show to date, If You Are the One (feicheng wurao). Initially developed in Australia by the Seven Network as Taken Out, this modern dating show features a single male contestant and a panel of between sixteen and twenty women. It made its way to the UK as Take Me Out, and from there to south China where it was localised by Hunan Satellite TV. Meanwhile a competitor in the satellite market, Jiangsu Satellite Television, ran a pirate version. HSTV took legal action but was unable to stop Jiangsu’s show from becoming the breakout hit. If You Are the One has cashed in on the fascination with finding a perfect partner in a nation where males outnumber females. Yet despite these odds, the show empowers women by subjecting many of the male participants to humiliation in front of an audience of several hundred million.
If You Are the One has also made a statement overseas in the very country where it originated. In 2013, SBS Australia bought the broadcast rights on a whim and the show soon developed a cult following. From Australia to the UK and China and then back to Australia. It is Chinese soft power in action but not the government endorsed version.
Aside from quiz and talk formats, talent shows have the greatest shelf life. One of the frontrunner production houses in China is Starry Productions (Canxing Media), a spin-off company of Star China, which produced The Voice of China. Justin Scroggie from the Format People co-developed an original format known as Sing My Song, now broadcast on CCTV3, which champions original songwriters and musicians rather than cover versions. The show is distributed by ITV Studios in the UK, and currently pitched to Vietnam.
Meanwhile, The Voice has replicated its global presence in China. The Voice of China (Zhejiang Satellite TV) even auditions overseas contestants to appear, giving the impression that it is internationalising, hence satisfying the government’s requirements for Chinese media to ‘go out’. The programme itself, not the format, is sold into Asian markets; for instance, it does well in Taiwan. The durability of the show is however in dispute due to unpaid licensing fees to the rights owner, Talpa. As Talpa has discovered, like many before it, China is inclined to make its own rules. In 2006, I was contacted by a Chinese lawyer in Beijing acting for Endemol which was trying to take action to stop Hunan Satellite TV copying its shows. The show in question was called Perfect Holiday, ostensibly a copy of Big Brother. Luckily, or unluckily for the broadcaster, the show never took off.
Another music format, I am a Singer (wo shi geshou) is made by Hunan Satellite TV, based on a South Korean format. It has achieved remarkable success and replicates a kind of Chinese Eurovision Song Contest. China has looked to its ‘cool’ neighbours Japan and South Korea for pop culture. It now has a powerful attraction. Qian Wang and Jeroen de Kloet write about this new pan-Asian phenomenon. Being on I am a Singer provides an opportunity to launch or relaunch one’s career in the Mainland. In the third season (2015), the winner was Han Hong, already a well-known singer with a Tibetan background. She won by performing a duet with Hong Kong pop idol Eason Chan.
Whereas talent shows like The Voice function as a possible stepping stone towards a music career, determined by judges, the audience in I am a Singer adjudicates if the singer is worthy of stardom. As Wang and de Kloet note, the show illustrates the new regionalisation of pop culture: that is, it takes a Hong Kong pop star, a Tibetan singer, a Korean format and a provincial satellite TV channel to produce a national winner.
New platforms, a new lease of life?
As much as the Chinese government wants to enforce its one format policy, the format tide seems to be irreversible in China. The money is with formats and they have gone online. A recent concept is Are You Normal? China, commissioned by the internet company Tencent. Are You Normal? is a survey quiz show. People are polled on various behaviours and asked if they are normal. Then there is the return of Big Brother China, now found on the video site, Youku Tudou, largely owned by Alibaba. The online platform makes more sense in so far as the audience are mostly under thirty. Another online production is Lip Synch Battle China, aired on Sohu.com. Some might suggest this a concept that was ‘made-for-China’, recalling the furore about the lip synching at the Beijing Olympics Opening ceremony in August 2008.
The acquisition of formats by online media provides a new lease of life, enabling concepts to be tested faster and directed to target markets. The online platforms are also commissioning new content. What will be the next show to break out? Just when you think that everything’s been tried, something a little bit different comes along; for instance people dressed as animals running obstacle courses. Can Chinese formats compete with this?