The Chinese reality condundrum

Formats-logo-460_2Formats veteran Clare Thompson says the latest regulatory decrees about Chinese formats market are a symptom of an ever-changing and increasingly complex commissioning market.

Clare ThompsonIn the years I’ve been giving presentations and talks about formats trends and development, I’ve often referred – almost casually – to the importance of keeping the different needs of your ‘stakeholders’ in mind. What will the audience get from the show? What is the commissioner really asking for? What do advertisers want for their money? And so on.

In the UK and elsewhere there may be some conflicting demands to try to reconcile, but by and large as long as it rates, everyone can be considered pretty much satisfied.

Having just returned from a development consultancy trip to China, I’ve been struck by just how much we take this for granted, and how extraordinarily complex the creative process can be when every stakeholder has an entirely different perspective.

China’s TV industry is at a fascinating point in its evolution – rapidly turning its face to the international market, and grappling with daily decisions as to which Western styles of programming will genuinely satisfy not only its audiences, but also its powerfully dominant advertising industry, and an even more dominant regulatory system.

When I first started working with Chinese broadcasters and producers in 2013, I was told that studio entertainment shows and drama were the staple genres, and reality programming was still marginal because ‘Chinese people don’t think ordinary people’s lives are interesting – only celebrities are really worth watching’.

I laughed and thought happily of the drawers-full of reality formats we could wheel out to them once they finally ‘got it’, as surely they quickly would. A veritable promised land, where life-swaps, parenting experts and social experiments would sound fresh and new – a refreshing change from jaded UK commissioner meetings! Not to mention the billion or so untapped contributors ready and waiting for their TV moment.

However, the truth about cultural difference is always more complex and interesting that we think at first glance. What I’ve realised is that, for Chinese producers and broadcasters now genuinely attempting to buy and develop non-scripted Western-style content – and not just copy it – there are an almost impossible set of stakeholder hurdles to overcome.

Casting for ‘good real people’ is one under-developed skillset often cited by nervous Chinese buyers as a barrier to reality production. It’s true that casting has become a real science in the UK and elsewhere, accounting for huge swathes of budget, production schedule and industry personnel.

My visiting Chinese producers listened eagerly as Studio Lambert’s Tania Alexander told them of the months of casting undertaken to find the right families for Gogglebox. In China they would have had a week, if that. They are gradually realising the importance of this, if the genre is to flourish, and of course given longer production periods, investment and consultancy, expertise in this area can be rapidly transferred and grown.

I also have no doubt than any audience will eventually find well-produced and cast ‘real people’ shows interesting. Human behaviour is what we all watch TV for and is not exclusive to celebrities.

What’s more intractable, however, is the split between what the government want, and what advertisers want. The government is still all-powerful in its control over what is broadcast. (The first time my hotel TV went black during BBC coverage of the annual Party Congress – ‘poor signal’ – I thought it was coincidence. It wasn’t.)

Format development therefore becomes subject to a constantly moving set of goalposts, as the official regulator SARFT issues new ‘guidelines’ on a regular basis. ‘No big cash prizes’ was the one that famously did for the imported version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (and The Cube and others).

The most recent proposal is a ban on featuring celebrities’ children. Chinese audiences are both celebrity-obsessed and child-obsessed, and hugely successful adapted Korean shows like Dad Where Are We Going? are based on stars and their kids. Should this edict kill the show, its broadcaster, Hunan TV, could lose £150 million (US$216.6 million) in total revenue – something that has sent the industry into panic.

It’s all part of a broader insistence from SARFT that ‘in order to guard against over-entertainment and vulgarisation… reality shows should focus more on ordinary people than celebrities’. Fair enough, you might think, and a good opportunity to rebalance.

Except that the advertisers want a minimum of ten celebrities in a primetime show before they will even consider putting money in. For them, famous faces are the only real guarantee of audiences, and it’s proving extremely hard to convince them otherwise – consigning tentative (but well-made) attempts at fixed-rig like Tales From the Emergency Room to limited parts of the schedule where they are considered box-ticking exercises to keep SARFT happy.

Chinese producers expressed private regret to me that China had essentially ended up following the US model of commercial content in the last decade, rather than the mixed PSB and commercial ecology of the UK and others. While state broadcaster CCTV is hugely dominant, with around 20 channels, it still carries advertising, and those advertiser needs can seriously dictate the content. It’s a useful warning to bear in mind amidst all the talk of the BBC under threat and potential privatisation of Channel 4.

But despite these challenges, the Chinese are still keen to acquire, adapt and develop new styles of non-scripted content that can tick their complex sets of boxes. The shows that have managed it include Got Talent – ordinary people realising a dream, but within a familiar entertainment setting; and Your Face Sounds Familiar, obviously within comfortable celebrity territory. Masterchef was deemed a failure – reasons cited were that Chinese viewers don’t buy into becoming a chef as terribly aspirational, and that people are very wedded to their region’s food, so the judges were never considered impartial. Reality transformation shows can also face resistance over why this one particular set of people deserve to receive help with parenting / home renovation / makeover.

It’s a minefield of cultural difference to navigate, but fascinating to attempt, and the appetite – and ratings – are certainly there for the shows that can.

Clare Thompson is a format development consultant and non-exec director of K7 Media

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