China: full speed ahead

The-Hunt-iconic-(portrait)-MANDATORY-PHOTO-CREDIT-REQUIRED-ON-THE-ICONICAs new drama coproduction and digital opportunities open up in China, TBI speaks to the international companies making movies in the world’s most populated company.

China’s impact on television is  undeniable. The BBC wants to set up an on-the-ground production base there, Keshet  International is taking scripted shows into and out of the country, and the likes of IPCN are moving fluidly between the UK and the Asian behemoth. Opportunities in scripted TV, exporting Chinese-created IP and working with the country’s increasingly powerful digital platforms are now changing the picture, and opening up new content opportunities.

BBC Worldwide has been selling factual programming into China for years, and coproducing docs such as Generation Earth, Wonders of Life and Africa with state broadcaster CCTV. The BBC has also recently coproduced The Hunt (pictured top) with CCTV, and Worldwide also has a strategic deal in place with Chinese media giant Shanghai Media Group. They are now working on a local version of Coast.

Earth--One-Amazing-Day-©-BBC[1]There will also be a feature doc with SMG, which will be a follow-up to 2007’s Earth. The film, Earth: One Amazing Day (WT), will have a theatrical release.

Regional broadcast powerhouse Hunan is also keen to work with the commercial arm of the BBC on blue chip projects, Kelvin Yau, who replaced Pierre Cheung as Worldwide’s Beijing-based general manager earlier this year tells TBI. There is now an MOU and strategic partnership in place between BBCWW and Hunan’s Mango division, covering programme sales and coproduction.

After the flurry of deals in China, the next stage will see the UK company try to establish an on-the-ground production presence, Yau says.

“We are looking at setting up our own production capability in China and considering what the right structure is and what would work best,” he says.

“We are looking at different options and checking the regulations and limitations. Besides selling formats and programming, and providing flying producers and consultants as we do already, this would help build the local production industry, and give the international people involved a better understanding of China. It is a long-term strategy, and was made one of my priorities when I came in.”

A lot of the Worldwide-China dealings were announced as Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the UK in October, and the timing was not lost on some international execs familiar with both territories. “China and the UK are courting each other and [in TV] deals are getting done, but there is also a huge ‘trophy effect’,” says one senior executive. “But that is not a bad thing as it creates hope, and the possibility of more business,” the source says.

 “We are looking at setting up our own production capability in China and considering what the right structure is and what would work best,”
Kelvin Lau

One factor changing the picture for all international companies seeking to work with China is SVOD and streaming. The likes of Youku Tudou, TenCent and iQiyi are rewriting the rules of content production and distribution. Less encumbered by regulation, these platforms can be bolder with their content strategies. “They can take risks more easily [than channels] and are more likely to take chances,” says one UK-based senior distribution exec. “They have an appetite to innovate and to serve a younger audience. They also have an awful lot of money.”

Another Asia-based exec adds: “The digital platforms are booming and there is more freedom in terms of rules, although how long that lasts I don’t know.”

The competition from digital players is also forcing the broadcasters to make decisions more swiftly, says Rebecca Yang, CEO of Anglo-Chinese company IPCN. “The competition from new media players is forcing the broadcasters to make decisions, and the capital in the Chinese market is also allowing companies like ours to be more risk-taking,” she explains.

IPCN has been in the vanguard of UK-China activity, brokering deals for formats including Supernanny and The Voice. As scripted opportunities open up, one risk it will be taking will be in this area.

“Co-developing drama stands more chance than scripted formats because of the cultural sensitivities and challenge of adapting drama for China,” Yang says. “There are even drastic differences between Korea and China, let alone China and Europe.”

“That is why we are trying to find a new way of doing drama there,” she adds, though she will not disclose details yet.

For those choosing to explore the scripted format route the choice of which drama to adapt is a challenge. “There is a long-running and successful way to bring unscripted formats to audiences, but scripted is much more difficult – you have to, for example, be careful about showing people committing crime, or the police or teachers in a negative light – Shameless would never work!” says DRG senior sales exec Joel Atley.

“With the correct drama, however, it could be done. It would need to be a light yet powerful story, and the script would probably need to be re-written quite significantly.”

If the BBC is flying the flag for the UK in China, the international content arm of Israeli broadcaster Keshet is building relations too. Keshet recently hosted a delegation including CCTV and Sohu in Israel, as all concerned talked about content possibilities.

Keshet International is making its own drama play, announcing in October a deal with one of China’s largest prodcos that will see a pair of its scripted series remade locally, and KI take a Chinese drama to the US market.

It has joined forces with Huace Group/Croton Media, and the Chinese company is working up versions of comedy series Traffic Light and Loaded for Chinese channels and platforms.

“China started to mature about three years ago, but in the last twelve months has really taken off,”says Gary Pudney, who launched a new Hong Kong office for KI in late October after joining from Eccho Rights. “The next stage is China to the world.”

“China started to mature about three years ago, but in the last twelve months has really taken off,”
Gary Pudney

Liu Zhi at Huace Group/Croton Media says: “We not only produce scripted shows that are loved by Chinese audiences, but via KI’s global distribution business we can share these Chinese stories with the world.”

KI has optioned Huace Group/Croton scripted series Dating Hunter for the US, making it, Keshet says, the first-ever Chinese format licensed for the United States.

“Keshet Studios saw immediately this show could work in the US because there are broadcasters there specifically looking for dating comedies,” says Kelly Wright, KI sales director.

But what makes KI think Traffic Light, a light comedy-drama about three guys in their 30s, will work in a market where Hunan’s Ugly Betty is pretty much the only scripted format to make it to air?

“The Chinese like lighter and less edgy shows, and a lot of Traffic Light is based around simple concepts,” says Wright. “It has comedy, drama, and family, and looks at how wealth affects people. We will stick closely to the original.”

In terms of unscripted formats there looks likely to be some shift away from celeb-fuelled entertainment formats, not least because influential media regulator the SARFT has indicated this would be a good thing.

DRG has shopped Belgium-originated family gameshow format The Generation Show to Shenzhen and another show being produced for Guanxi.

DRG’s Atley says: “The SARFT is keen on ordinary Chinese people being on TV so there could be a move away from celebrities, which have been in demand for entertainment formats and have become very expensive. Producers and broadcasters now want formats that feature ordinary people in interesting ways.”

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