It wasn’t that long ago that the Chinese television market was a hotbed for foreign producers and distributors looking to tap a huge population hungry for game shows, dramas and reality formats like the BBC’s Top Gear and Talpa’s The Voice .
That’s all changed now following the implementation of strict new rules set in early 2016 by the Chinese government that severely capped the number of most foreign formats allowed in the market, and imposed an outright ban on Korean formats, which had previously accounted for 40% of formats sold in the country.
As Richard Bradley, managing director of UK-based Lion Television, explained it, the government’s hardline was prompted by a desire to expand China’s own creative industry, with an emphasis on developing local IP and exporting it to the world, rather than the other way around.
“China has gone from being the country that makes television hardware to wanting to make content to wanting to own content,” Bradley (pictured, left) told delegates attending the “Inroads to Asia” panel held Wednesday (Jan. 25) as part of Realscreen Summit in Washington, D.C.
Of course, where challenges are present, so too are opportunities, according to Bradley – a philosophy shared by his fellow panelists, all of whom do business in China and other Asian markets, including Sonia Fleck, CEO of Singapore-based distributor Bomanbridge Media, Yuri Sudo, senior producer with NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation and Spencer Thomas, senior producer with South Korean media co CJE+M Corporation. The panel was moderated by Michel Rodrigue, CEO of format consultancy firm The Format People.
“At the end of the day, we have to look at what are the options, rather than see it as a negative,” said Fleck (pictured, right)
With the flow of formats going into the country now all-but blocked, Fleck sees opportunity for foreign producers to work with their Chinese counterparts to develop IP within China, with an eye on holding on to international distribution or digital rights to add value to the effort.
Indeed, among the uncertainties of working in China, of this Fleck is certain: “With this amount of IP building in China, it will come out…and you need to be the first in line and start working with these companies. They want to learn and they are learning.”
The recently inked three-year deal between Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment and Star China International will see the pair work together to develop large-scale formats specifically for Chinese markets is an example of this strategy. Under the deal, Star China owns the IP, and pays for most of the development and expenses, but both companies have a stake in the international distribution.
“It’s interesting,” said Rodrigue, whose company brokered the deal. Star already has several shows in the top-10 in China, “so if the show created (under the pact) reaches that same level, it means it is really a format that could travel.”
NHK has also taken advantage of the copro model, forging agreements with several Chinese regional broadcasters to produce content ranging from documentaries and science to shiny floor formats and food-themed series.
“Since it is a copro, the content we create is not considered a foreign content for (the Chinese partners). They hang onto IP for the China market. We take Japan, and the rest of the world is decided on case by case basis,” said Sudo.
The company has also struck a production deals with the Chinese streaming platform Tencent, which, as a digital service, is not beholden to the same regulations that limit linear broadcasters.
“They are buying a lot from us right now,” Sudo said.
The allure of working of China is a big one: According to 2015 data provided by Bradley, China’s combined TV programming expenditure amounts to US$8.4 billion, behind only Japan ($9.8 billion), Britain ($10.7 billion) and the U.S. ($43 billion).
CJE+M, however, which produces and exports K-drama and other content, is unlikely to profit from any of that money. In fact, Thomas said the current Chinese policy is a reaction, at least in part, to the widespread popularity of Korean content in the country, noting of the changes, “we don’t expect to do much business (there) at all in the immediate future.”
He added that he doesn’t believe China benefits from adopting such a hard-line policy either.
“No one is making money – the China side or the Korean side – and it criminalizes the viewers because they are not going to stop watching (Korean programming). They are justing going to watch it illegally.”
Fortunately, said Thomas, there remains plenty of demand for Korean content elsewhere in Asia and the rest of the world.
The company just wrapped production on The Society Game, a copro with Endemol Shine that combines the culture and interests of both Eastern and Western worlds – a model that Thomas sees as globally appealing. The reality series will see groups of people living together in a Big Brother-type situation, and compete as two tribes to see what type of government works best, a democracy or dictatorship.
“It’s a torn-from-the-headlines reality show about leadership and what makes a good leader, what political system is most effective,” he said of its global appeal. Distribution will be handled by Endemol Shine.
All the panelists agreed the Asian market outside of China is very promising, noting Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia as thriving regions to make and sell quality formats across genres, though celebrity-based entertainment, especially singing shows, remain a strong draw.
Fleck said she also has her eyes on India, predicting big things in that market in the next two years.
China, she said, may be the fastest-growing market in Asia right now, “but don’t underestimate India. It is coming.
“It isn’t for nothing that Netflix launched in India first.”