Go East – as long as you’re flexible
By Kate Bulkley
For Broadcast June 14, 2012
Understanding Chinese regulations is crucial, says Kate Bulkley.
When The Voice launches in China later this year on Zhejiang TV, it will mark the latest step in the growth of entertainment television in the East’s most fascinating, and arguably most difficult, market.
Shifting government regulations and the prevalence of copycat shows makes China a hard place in which to manoeuvre, but the size of this increasingly wealthy and aspirational country is not to be ignored: this is the place where China’s Got Talent has averaged more than half a billion viewers.
One of the key movers and shakers in the China format market is IPCN, which was set up by former ITV executive Mick Desmond and run day-to-day by London and Shanghai-based Rebecca Yang.
IPCN has licensed many of China’s biggest formats, including Got Talent (Syco and Fremantle Media), The Cube (All3Media), Shear Genius (Shine) and Dating In The Dark (Talpa), with Sony Pictures TV International’s The Sing Off in the works.
A TV version of Date My Car (Banijay) is also planned after a multi-episode run on Chinese website QIYI and car-maker Skoda is in talks as a possible sponsor.
After six years of brokering international formats, IPCN wants to branch out into producing. To anyone who knows China, this is a risky business, and the format the company has chosen to produce first - Zodiak Media’s Secret Millionaire - is far from a shiny floor, studio entertainment show.
But this lack of glitz could be the show’s best selling point. Late last year, rules were introduced that limited “overly entertaining” shows in Chinese primetime – so something that looks and feels more like a doc should go down better with regulators.
At MipTV, the style of shows announced with China was telling: BBC Worldwide landed a science series with CCTV; Shine Group signed a deal with Shanghai Media Group for MasterChef; while ITV Global agreed a licensing deal with JOY.CN, a Chinese content website, for British drama.
That’s not to say the shiny floor is dead – Endemol recently sold obstacle course show XXS and 101 Ways To Leave A Game Show to Chinese broadcasters – but political and cultural concerns often take precedence over big audiences.
Having some kind of educational element is key, so IPCN pitched The Voice as teaching good singing rather than merely an entertainment contest – and won a primetime slot because of it. The aspiration, of which the government approves, is that it will help Chinese singers become stars abroad.
One of the biggest ongoing headaches for formats is the prevalence of copycats. China’s Got Talent had so many that IPCN invited Susan Boyle to sing in the final to mark it out from its rivals.
If you check out the YouTube clip, you’ll see a woman next to Susan on stage, acting as trans-lator. Look closely and you’ll see it is IPCN’s Yang wearing a glittery dress and what she tells me is a plastic necklace lent to her by the make-up girl – Yang hadn’t anticipated that Susan would need her on stage.
I don’t speak Chinese but it seems to have all gone smoothly enough on air – and it certainly underlines the flexibility you need to make TV work in China.