When the U.K. restored Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the world wondered if China’s Communist government would limit the former British protectorate’s activities in the global marketplace. The opposite proved true and now, four years down the road, mainland China is warming to the idea of opening its doors, too. For the first time, the Chinese government has granted cable rights in the mainland to a foreign institution – AOL Time Warner. And by year’s end, China is expected to join the World Trade Organization.
The idea of improved access to China’s market of 1.3 billion consumers has international industry execs salivating, including those who head up television and film companies. Foreign fiction programs, in particular, have long been locked out of the Chinese television market. Ironically, if the fortunes of fiction films pick up, the sale of foreign non-fiction programs into China may suffer. Ward Platt, managing director of National Geographic Channel Asia, explains: ‘[China] is already a market for factual programming. There is a lot of documentary on TV. As entertainment kicks off, it may actually reduce the amount of documentary programming on air. The appetite for documentaries is not going to go away, but it may be less in demand than it is today. Or, it might not grow as fast as other genres.’
Although sales to China may not increase drastically over the short-term, the long-term potential is worth considering. The magnitude of the market inspires hope that acquisition fees will one day compare to other major territories. The country’s interest in wto membership is a sign of progress. For now, the best approach is to examine China’s existing system and learn to navigate it.
Behind the red curtain
All Chinese media are subject to the rules of the Communist party’s Propaganda Department. While China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s national network, is the most recognized broadcaster, there are also terrestrial and cable companies in all the major cities, each of which operates several channels. CCTV is administered by the General Bureau of Broadcasting, Film and Television, while each city’s TV stations are administered by provincial level bureaus.
Platt notes that the distinction between terrestrial and cable television is not as clearly defined in China as in the U.S. or even in Hong Kong. ‘Sometimes when you’re talking about program rights, the difference between terrestrial and cable is very confusing to the Chinese television stations, because they don’t see a big difference. They think, ‘This is a terrestrial channel, but we get it over cable, so isn’t that the same thing?’ ‘
Perhaps to eliminate the problem, the government passed legislation earlier this year to merge each city’s terrestrial and cable networks. Maria Papadopoulos, a sales executive with Australia’s Southern Star, notes another advantage: ‘The aim was to make larger organizations that would be more competitive with the foreign companies expected to enter the market.’ She adds, ‘This has created a lot of niche channels, so there are more opportunities for doc-makers. For example, the new CCTV-10 is a science and education channel.’
CCTV offers the best license fees among stations – up to US$5,000 for a one-hour/one-off. Says Michael Knobloch, managing director of Munich-based prodco Peppermint, ‘If you get $5,000, you’re super. You can start with $1,000.’ To compensate for the low rates, Chinese broadcasters are open to alternative arrangements, such as barter deals. Knobloch explains: ‘You find a sponsor for the program and more or less, the sponsor pays for the air time.’ Although selling in China is a challenge, Knobloch considers it an investment in the future. ‘Everybody hopes that some day, if you have a good relationship with [the Chinese broadcasters], they might be able to pay more.’
Another option for foreign program vendors is to sell to non-Chinese broadcasters that have branded blocks on Chinese channels. National Geographic, Discovery and the BBC have successfully infiltrated the Chinese market via the branded block route.
National Geographic’s Platt says, ‘We air about nine hours of programming per week on more than 30 different cable systems, reaching more than 30 million homes. We’re broadcasting something like 400 to 500 hours a year of documentary programming in China. We package it with National Geographic branding and provide it as a complete block to the cable operator.’
Neville Meijers, managing director for Discovery Networks Asia, claims a slightly higher reach of 36 million cable households. In his opinion, the key to success in China is ‘guanxi’ – relationship-building: ‘Seek out and establish relationships with the head of programming in each of the key stations in each major city – Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzen. If filmmakers are serious about [China], they need to identify who they need to know, establish a relationship with them and invest time and money in maintaining that relationship. In other words, they need to be visiting China regularly.’
The BBC adheres to this advice, having fostered ties with cctv over the past 25 years. BBC Worldwide Asia Pacific recently signed a major programming deal with China’s national network for a wide range of the Beeb’s factual programs, including Walking With Dinosaurs, Ultimate Killers and Monkey Warriors.
All agree that wildlife and science/technology docs are the most popular and the least likely to face censorship. ‘You have to be sensitive to local broadcast regulations and cultural/social issues,’ Meijers notes. ‘Using a Mandarin speaker from Singapore or Taiwan, for instance, would be unacceptable.’
Reaching out from inside
As China’s market opens up, Chinese doc-makers will also benefit. Says Grace Chan, BBC Worldwide’s regional manager in Asia, ‘China entering into the WTO provides an excellent opportunity for international producers to coproduce or joint invest in factual programs made in China on Chinese-related topics.’
Despite burgeoning opportunities, filmmaker Duan Jinchuan, of Beijing’s China Memo Films, is realistic about Chinese doc-makers’ current limitations. ‘The major problem is that our expertise and filmmaking levels are relatively low.’ But, he adds, ‘China is in a tremendous transition stage, which is full of attractiveness and challenges for filmmakers. A documentary filmmaker should feel lucky for living in such a time.’