Don’t panic about China rules
By Kate Bulkley
For Broadcast October 31, 2013
Limitations on formats aren’t all black and white, says Kate Bulkley
I was in Hong Kong last week when China’s new rules on formats were announced, limiting foreign format acquisitions to one a year, with none to be broadcast in primetime.
The attendees at the Casbaa TV conference were rather fatalistic about them. Successful broadcasting in China is neither ordinary nor straightforward. Rumours about the latest changes had been circulating for several weeks and companies such as Endemol and Red Arrow, which have been working in China for years, have learned to roll with the punches.
Adapting is key, as well as understanding that not every government edict needs to be interpreted as strictly black and white. “We have learned to work the grey areas - and there are a lot of grey areas in China,” says James Ross, chief executive of Hong Kong-based Lightning International, a programming consultant and broker of formats.
“There are always clampdowns and people are always doing work-arounds.” That means being creative with how formats are branded and sold. You might think of The Biggest Loser (pictured) as an entertainment format, but it is sold into China as an educational show about how to get healthy.
The other key is providing “production services”, so that a sale isn’t limited to a licence fee. For example, Sony’s joint venture Chinese production company Huaso Film and TV Digital Production will produce the Gogglebox Entertainment remake of BBC2 quiz Breakaway for Zhejiang TV, and Red Arrow is considering setting up a Chinese production company.
Also, the names of shows can be changed so you are selling an idea rather than a format.Drama formats are also getting more consideration. A Chinese version of Ugly Betty was loved by locals for several seasons. At a Formats Asia meeting during Casbaa, it was suggested that a Chinese version of Desperate Housewives might work just as well.
Meanwhile, producers such as ActiveTV are thinking local. It has created an original format called Food Detectives - a cross between The Hotel Inspector and Fish Fight, about the provenance of local food.
It began airing in Singapore last week but the creators hope to roll it out as a format to other markets, including China. Musical talent formats will be limited to only four a year, but despite the government’s desire for wholesome TV, the appetite for these kinds of shows in China and, indeed, throughout Asia is still immense.
Take Me Out, Top Chef and The X Factor all did well in Indonesia, and China adores The Voice, which is now entering its second series after the first scored a 5% audience share (a very rare occurrence - fewer than one in 20 shows on Chinese TV achieve even a 2% share).
The biggest hurdle is the ban on primetime scheduling. These formats rely on audiences because revenue comes from advertising and sponsorship - and no primetime will mean less money.
Still, there are 33 satellite channels in China and the new rules should help some of the smaller ones. The big five will now have more competition from rivals, which could become the home of new hit formats.