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UPDATED: November 6, 2013 NO. 45 NOVEMBER 7, 2013
Prime Time
TV programming from abroad reshapes the thinking of Chinese broadcasters
By Tang Yuankai

INTERNATIONAL SUPERSTAR: American singer Lionel Richie and singing coach Coco Lee from China's Taiwan perform Endless Love live during the Chinese Idol Finale in Shanghai on August 25 (CFP)

"More than 90 percent of variety shows airing in China are localized versions of shows from abroad," said Wang Yi, Deputy Director of Tianjin Satellite TV. He revealed that the practice of bringing in foreign-copyright programs has been going on for at least 10 years in China.

Chinese TV has gone through three phases of bringing foreign programs to domestic screens, according to Tian Ming, CEO of the Star China Media (SCM), the company that produced The Voice of China. The first phase was simple copying and imitating shows, which often led to lawsuits with the original copyright owners.

The second phase was importation, but finer details were often not taken seriously. Chinese producers thought obtaining legitimate production rights was all that was needed, and didn't understand the significance of certain aspects of the show that they were copying. As a result, the shows often did worse than expected.

Recently, Chinese producers have begun in-depth research into programs they are looking to franchise, working together with the copyright owners. They work to understand the details and production of the format, and then, based on this knowledge, adapt the shows to cater to Chinese audience's preferences.

"In general, the program model consists of two basic elements—the format of the production and the consultancy service. This makes authorized production more practical," said Liu Xichen, CEO of Shixi Media. Liu is regarded as China's first entrepreneur to successfully produce programming according to international business models. His company is the authorized distributor of BBC Worldwide's programming on the Chinese mainland. Currently, the company works on importing, research and development, production and marketing of programming.

A good program is actually a creative idea and an advanced production method, Liu emphasized.

"The Dutch side not only provided production guidelines, but also ensured our adherence to and understanding of it," said Li Yuan, one of the people in charge of The Voice of China's copyright agency.

Before the show began shooting, consultants dispatched by the original copyright owner flew to China, training the Chinese team and helping them become familiar with each detail of the show, according to Li.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of production professionals or poor localization, many imported programs actually lose money.

"The main reason for the failure of many imported programs is that they don't consider localization. Instead, they stiffly copy the original program," said Liu Yuan, Deputy Director of Jiangsu Satellite TV. "A program with a special form can only captivate audiences at the beginning. In the end, it is always the content that is most important."

A successful program should match the broadcaster's position in the industry and the habits of its audiences, Liu Yuan added.

Learning from the pros

Although overseas producers have always attached importance to the Chinese market, which accounted for more than 500 million televisions in 2012, China's local television networks still find there are few choices. Research and development for a program takes time, and excellent shows are few and far between. Blind importation will either lead to failure during localization or cause superficial imitation. Both situations are bad.

"The import of copyrighted shows is just the first step. The goal is that our team should have the ability to reproduce it," said Wang with Tianjin Satellite TV.

This view is agreed upon among China's TV broadcasters. They consider the purchase of the rights to programming from outside of China as a form of learning. The primary aim is not simply acquiring the copyright, but improving their teams and bringing in new talent to their production crews.

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