Only a few years ago, when people talked about the TV industry, China was seen as a key buyer and a gigantic import market. In the past, if you flipped through TV programs in China, you would see series from The Netherlands, Britain and South Korea and other countries around the world. Now, the trend is reversing as ambitious Chinese producers and TV channels are seeking to develop original programming and export their own productions.
From 'made in China' to 'created in China'
In April, Chinese producers showcased original Chinese TV show formats at the annual MIPFormats event in Cannes, France.
National Treasure, a weekly program featuring the history of 27 Chinese cultural relics, garnered huge interest from abroad after becoming a hit in China.
In historical re-enactments, celebrities and ordinary people acted as emperors and artists to show the story behind each artifact. The program sparked a sense of national cultural pride among Chinese people.
Experts said the program offers a complete package to overseas buyers and it is not difficult for people from different cultures to enjoy it.
"China is on its way to becoming a global provider of original TV formats," said Laurine Garaude, director of the television division of Reed MIDEM, the host company of MIPFormats.
It was not the first time that Chinese TV productions had impressed overseas buyers. Ancient Games, an epically-themed sports reality show, was presented at the Cannes TV event in 2017.
The gladiatorial show was the brainchild of Chinese company 3C Media and British Indie producer, ZigZag. The idea was first proposed by ZigZag, and co-developed by the pair.
Matt Graff, managing director of ZigZag, says his cooperation with the Chinese team was fascinating, and he was impressed by the efforts of the Chinese team in localizing and polishing the structure.
Both sides agreed that the show should blend local and global elements to reach a larger market.
Graff said it is a perfect example of how cooperation between a Chinese and a British TV production company could yield fruit, and how a little idea can turn into a huge success.
Dawn McCarthy-Simpson, director of international strategy with the Producers' Alliance for Cinema and Television in Britain, sees things similarly.
She says China's ambition has moved from "Made in China" to "Created in China," noting that, with over 3,000 TV channels, the industry is full of opportunities.
Besides entertainment, China is also gradually becoming a key player in the global market for documentaries.
Recently, Chinese internet giant Tencent and the BBC signed an agreement to produce high-quality documentaries together.
The BBC has seen the huge potential and advantages of online platforms in China, with the co-produced Blue Planet reaching 220 million viewers globally.
Jason Emerton, funding and commercial manager for coproductions at the BBC, says coproductions allow both sides to pool their resources, complement each other and expand the common market.
Student must surpass the master
As increased government financial support and heavy investment from the private sector have invigorated China's TV sector, creative collaboration with overseas productions offers valuable knowledge, experience and expertise for a more mature industry, some front-line practitioners say.
Yao Xiaoying, a veteran Chinese TV producer and director, believes that adapting overseas formats into Chinese versions is more a matter of recreation rather than merely copying: "To make something phenomenal, learning-by-doing is not enough; one could say that the student has to surpass the master."
A few years ago, she and her team worked on adapting the British reality show The Cube into a Chinese version.
A quick learner, Yao quickly grasped the essence of the show and adapted it into a domestic version with an entirely new feel.
Yao believes that, while industrialization is the guarantee of quality, innovation provides the real competitive edge for success.
But she admits that Chinese TV productions still lag behind their Western counterparts on the industrial level, and have a long way to go in this respect.
Wang Xinyi, a director and producer with SMG Dragon TV which is based in Shanghai, holds a similar view.
During an exchange program organized by PACT, he visited a post-production company in London where everything was digitized. "That's still hard to achieve in China and indicates that country still has a lot to learn from the West," he says.
Meanwhile, China has its own advantages. Wang says innovation and originality are not only about making something from scratch, but also about telling an old story from a new perspective－or by employing new techniques.
His work, The Story in an Emergency Room, was inspired by the British reality medical show Jeremy Kyle's Emergency Room. Yet the Chinese version adopted a different narrative.
Using fixed cameras, the show demonstrated the sometimes tense relationships and trust crises between doctors and patients in China, the humanitarian spirit behind doctors' daily work, and the dignity, strength and resilience of life.
"That's the most touching part of this program, and how it differs from the original show," Wang says.
Besides non-scripted reality shows, Wang has also created cultural shows, which are becoming popular in China. He said the essence to making them is about combining taste, culture and the visual arts to make them more appealing to young viewers.
"It is not only about chanting ancient poems and presenting traditional operas, but also about refreshing the cultural memory and making tradition more fashionable," he says.
Changing media landscape
Over the past decade, huge changes have taken place in the Chinese media landscape which has brought more opportunities to international producers. The Western desire to make money out of China rather than see the country as a creative hub "has been a big mistake," McCarthy-Simpson says.
In a newly released British TV export report by PACT, a recently-signed British-Chinese TV coproduction agreement between the two countries offers the opportunity for them to further build great content together. Both factual and entertainment were the two genres in which the highest growth was expected, according to the report.
Apparently, the shift occurred when foreign TV studios saw that most of their revenue originated from overseas markets, predominantly from China－and that the market was simply too big to ignore. Yet licensing programs and formats will become more difficult with the introduction of stiffer quotas and higher production standards.
She suggested that Britain treat China differently and think of more creative ways to work with their Chinese counterparts, and to look more at coproduction and co-creation deals to produce shows blending cultural elements from East and West.
For producers like Yao and Wang, the road map for China's TV industry over the past decade has changed dramatically.
China is now striving to be a new creative hub for global TV production, to create shows that both educate and entertain, to tell a Chinese story.
(Xinhua News Agency)