Downton Abbey and Sherlock, plus local versions of Big Brother and The X Factor, are opening up a potentially huge market
The fact that subtitled episodes of Downton Abbey are watched by 160 million viewers shows just what a love affair the Chinese have developed with foreign television shows and formats remade for their market. With Big Brother andEducating Yorkshire the latest shows to be lined up for a Chinese makeover, it’s boom time for those exporting hit western programmes to the world’s most populous nation.
China is the fastest-growing market for the sale of British shows and formats, with growth of 40% last year. While it is still relatively small in revenue terms, the opportunity is immense. “In the UK a top-rated TV show may just get into double-digit millions [in audience size], but China has 1.4 billion people and gets easily double, triple or quadruple that,” says Pierre Cheung, vice-president of greater China for BBC Worldwide. “The market is a massive opportunity.”
China’s Got Talent, a local version of Simon Cowell’s ITV hit, has seen viewers top 400 million an episode. Locally produced versions of western franchises combine the sheen of the exotic with the familiarity of local aesthetics. Singing competitions are especially popular: China’s Got Talent, The Voice of China and a version of The X Factor (China’s Strongest Voice) have all been major hits.
Last month the BBC unveiled China’s take on Top Gear on national broadcaster Shanghai Dragon TV, featuring a double Olympic gold diving champion, the presenter of Chinese Idol and a pop star turned actor in place of British hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond.
These shows are strikingly different from their western counterparts. The Voice of China, the most popular show in 2013, began the nearly three-hour finale of its third season on 7 October with a soaring shot of the Great Wall; a voiceover praised China’s thousands of years of history. The show then cut to testimonials from fans and former contestants: an elderly man, a middle-class family, a farmer, a foreign tourist in Tiananmen square.
“The Voice of China lets all of us music lovers bravely pursue our dreams,” said a man carrying a lute. Sentimental ballads are the order of the day. Judges are unwaveringly supportive.
Next up are remakes of documentaryEducating Yorkshire and the potentially tricky prospect of a Chinese Big Brother. The sometimes risqué content that comes with Big Brother territory frequently lands the show in hot water with UK watchdog Ofcom – which has nothing on China’s all-powerful State Administration of Radio, Film andTelevision, a notoriously twitchy regulator that acts as a cultural guardian.
It has pulled shows at the first hint of attitudes or depictions that show China or its people in a poor light. In 2011 it banned X Factor-style talent show Super Girl, which has attracted audiences of up to 400 million, and announced last autumn it would stop satellite TV stations from broadcasting more than one foreign-format show a year. Stations have replaced these programmes with others the government deems more acceptable, such as documentaries about Communist party history. The problem is that nobody wants to watch them.
There have been reports that the BBC’s Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, was banned from major channels. However the BBC’s Cheung denies this, saying it just took time for the show to move from airing on a Chinese video site to being broadcast on China’s state broadcaster CCTV.
Martha Brass, chief operating officer at Big Brother producer Endemol, says careful collaboration with its partner Youku Tudou – China’s answer to YouTube – will see a sanitised version make it past the censor. “In any country you obviously have to look at the cultural and regulatory environment, and we are well aware of that in relation to China,” she says. “Big Brother is actually a very flexible format. In the Philippines it is very much a family show, and in Australia we have run it in different time slots for different audiences. We feel confident about our ability to address the particular TV regulations in China.”
The rise of Chinese video services such as Sohu TV, Tencent and iQiyi has opened a huge new potential market for foreign programme rights ownersl.
The third series of Sherlock has notched up more than 70 million views online, while US show The Big Bang Theory, the most popular foreign show in China, has been viewed more than 1.4bn times on video sites.
“New media platforms are just starting to get into deals for more and more foreign shows,” says Paul Sandler, managing director of Objective Productions. “That could have a massive impact on the market for content.”
However the rise in online viewing, and the popularity of foreign shows has been seen as a threat by the state regulator. In April, video streaming websites were told to “clean up” and stop showing The Big Bang Theory as well as US shows The Good Wife, NCIS and The Practice. Shows that might be thought much more likely to outrage the watchdog – The Walking Dead, House of Cards and Breaking Bad – were unaffected.
As recently as three years ago China was considered something of a “Wild East” for foreign production companies, replete with tales of the impossibility of doing deals and a culture of ripping off hit foreign formats without paying for rights.
“If China wants to be taken seriously in the international market they have to treat intellectual property with proper respect,” says Sandler, who has done deals for three series of a Chinese version of gameshow The Cube. “There is a will from the government to have a proper IP protection structure; it is nowhere near as bad as it was a few years ago.”
Sandler believes that for the Chinese TV industry the aim is to collaborate and learn about how to develop hit shows that they can export.
China has some interesting homegrown hits, including a nationwide competition in the vein of Great British Bake Off but based on calligraphy; roughly translated, its title is Idiom Hero. But there is some way to go to make internationally appealing shows.
“The truth is the real aim of all the broadcasters and government in China is to develop homegrown Chinese shows and export them,” he says. “The same way as [they have] with cars, computers, white goods, you name it. We are trying to collaborate to come up with some genuinely good formats.”
Not everyone is impressed. For a market of 1.4 billion people, a total of £17m in sales of British programmes and formats in 2013 seems like a “long walk for a short drink”, says one senior UK TV executive. But Cheung counters that. He says it is a slow-burn culture about building relationships, and the real cash will follow: “You have to get involved and engage the partners personally; proper trust takes time. It is challenging but at same time exciting. If you can crack China, it makes any other market easy.”