Documentary producers are basking in the glow of the Eastern sunrise, as attitudes warm towards non-fiction programming in Asia. Traditionally, Asian viewers have tended to shy away from docs, considering them synonymous with pedagogical tracts. With the advent of channels such as Discovery Channel Asia, however, producers and broadcasters are taking a second look at documentaries as entertainment.
According to 1998 and 1999 studies by PAX-Pan Asian X-Media looking at the purchasing power of viewers tuning in to TV stations in the region, non-fiction programs are cheaper to produce than drama, and are pulling in viewers with hefty pocketbooks.
Travel and world culture are two themes getting the production thumbs-up across the continent, particularly in Hong Kong. For example, Hong Kong’s private Chinese-language station ATV is producing Stories from Afar, a 40 x 30-minute travelogue about Chinese who’ve moved to such strange and exotic lands as the North Pole and Bosnia. ‘Ratings are very high for this show, so we are planning to increase the number of documentaries next year,’ says ATV program comptroller Yeung Wing Cheung.
At the publicly-funded Radio Television Hong Kong, a new magazine program called Cultural Vibes already has ten episodes under its belt, with ten more on the way. RTHK also produces Hong Kong Connection, a half-hour social issues program that runs 51 weeks of the year on Hong Kong’s TVB network, and Winds of Change, a 6 x 60-minute series coproduced with several regional broadcasters.
Although RTHK recently had its budget clipped by 5%, the public broadcaster does not yet see the need to either coproduce or sell its shows outside of the local market. ‘Experience has told us, [international] coproductions are not suitable for the home viewer,’ says Lisa Lui Lai-yee, RTHK’s manager of administration and training.
Hong Kong-based producer Keiko Bang disagrees. In her opinion, the only hurdle to international copros is a lack of experienced directors and producers, and that, she notes, will change over time.
Bang, who was a journalist for CNBC and CNN before branching into documentary, coproduced Taekwondo: Reflections of Korean Spirit with Korea’s Samsung Entertainment (budgeted at US$100,000). She has also found success marketing Living Asia, a 13 x 30-minute series (budgeted at US$1 million for all 13 episodes) that examines the impact of Asian affluence on cultural traditions. The series was launched just as the Asian crisis hit, and her company was forced to deficit finance the final episodes. Eventually, the series sold to Discovery Asia’s sister channels in the Middle East and Latin America.
‘In Asia you get new stories that have never been told,’ says Bang. ‘For example, a grand canyon larger than the famous one in America has been discovered in Asia, and there’s a ghost tracking center. These are stories that don’t appear in the Western media that would provide great TV fodder.’
Bang attributes the increased demand for Asian-produced travel and culture programs to Western networks, such as Discovery, The Learning Channel, the Travel Channel and PBS. They’ve noted the appeal of these topics to their domestic audiences, and are providing the budgets.
Bang is currently in discussions with TLC in the U.S. for a 3 x 60-minute series called Asian Enigma (budgeted at less than US$500,000 per episode), focusing on supernatural phenomenon and occurrences in the region. She is also in talks with another major channel to produce a series about Chinese civilizations.
Following Bang’s lead, entrepreneur Gordon Oldham (who once ran the Asian editions of Playboy and Forbes) has jumped onto the action/adventure travel bandwagon. Oldham, who publishes Action Asia magazine, teamed up with Bang earlier this year to take his new brand into the TV marketplace. The dynamic duo are currently producing a 13 x 60-minute series entitled Action Asia for Discovery Asia (budgeted at over US$100,000 per hour).
‘Action Asia is a thinking man’s travelogue,’ Oldham says. In addition to some unusual thrills, the show provides information about science and cultural issues in the various regions. It’s targeted to the new leisure travelers who are no longer content to simply bask on the beach; thrills and chills are part of the package Bang and Oldham are peddling.
Oldham and Bang are now producing a half-hour special that will cover the Action Asian Challenge, a triathlon-styled sports event, which Action Asia is sponsoring in the New Territories. Oldham, who has also produced some adventure racing for ESPN, says the show will be offered to local broadcasters for a low fee, as his goal is to whet appetites for this kind of program in Asia.