Chairman Mao caught on to the power of television in the early days. The state-run network, now called China Central Television (CCTV), debuted in 1958 featuring the documentary Go to the Countryside. Today, Mao’s initiative has cultivated a country of 1 billion viewers. Their main appetites are for dramas, sports and cartoons, says Craig Harvey, who monitors Chinese viewing habits for market research company CVSC-Sofres Media. ‘Natural history programs have a limited viewership,’ he observes. However, several companies are working to change that.
Thanks to the arrival of cable and satellite television in the 1990s, Chinese viewers are gaining alternatives to CCTV. Discovery, National Geographic and the History Channel are just a few of the networks syndicating blocks of programming to local cable stations in over 30 cities.
‘China has come to nature programs pretty late,’ explains How Man Wong, founder of the China Exploration & Research Society (CERS) based in Hong Kong. Wong is renowned for discovering a new source of the Yangtze River and for other explorations recounted in his book From Manchuria to Tibet (Odyssey Publications).
‘Previously there were two restrictions to nature filmmakers in China, political and logistical. I spent eleven years researching wild yaks before I saw a live one. But in the last ten years China has opened so that you can get pretty much anywhere.’ Wong credits the wildlife programs of National Geographic and Discovery for making young people more aware of China’s conservation issues.
Now Wong is teaming up with Bang Productions in Hong Kong to produce a series of specials called How Man’s China. The first episode will examine the chiru, a type of Tibetan antelope. Poachers have been decimating the population to sell hides for shahtoosh shawls. Wong will take a crew into the wildlife reserves of Tibet to study the chiru’s migration patterns, the first step towards saving the species. Exec producer Keiko Bang is putting together a copro deal to produce How Man’s China, which is set to wrap by fall 2001, at US$300,000 to $500,000 per hour. No broadcasters have been signed as yet.
‘You can’t survive producing a doc just for the Asian market,’ says Bang. ‘Asia is likely to fund 10% to 20% of your budget – but even that amount can help. Most producers overlook Asia as a potential source of funds.’ For example, Nat Geo Asia’s spending begins around us$8,000 per hour and goes up depending on the project, explains Marcia Goh, VP of programming.
While the flow of documentaries into China is increasing, the work of indigenous Chinese producers still rarely gets seen outside the country. A unique exception is the partnership between Southern Star in Australia and CCTV. Using a combination of Chinese and Australian producers, they produced the series Wild China and Secret China. Both titles have sold to Discovery and National Geographic outlets in Europe, says Southern Star’s chief executive for sales, Catherine Payne.
When it comes to outside crews working in China, veteran producer Mark Erder cautions that ‘things take longer than planned.’ Erder’s company Asian Pacific Vision (APV), based in Hong Kong, specializes in supplying Asian news segments for Australia’s Nine Network and assisting foreign producers. One of the crucial services that Hong Kong companies, like APV and Bang, can provide outsiders is negotiating the film permits required by the Chinese government.
Western producers ‘need to leave their New York attitudes in New York,’ says Erder. ‘In Hollywood they’ve clued in to China – the way they’ve embraced John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat. But a lot of TV people have not.’