China broadcasters strike gold with foreign formats

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The Independent Culture

Jin Lei directed several copycat reality shows before striking gold with "China's Got Talent", and its success has him convinced that real deal foreign formats can drive local TV's development.

Shanghai Media Group's "China's Got Talent" - a licensed version of the British hit that made music stars of Paul Potts and Susan Boyle - has smashed ratings records in China.

The success of the show, which found its own unlikely star in winner Liu Wei - an armless pianist who plays with his toes - also marks a shift in China's television industry from copying to buying foreign copyrights.

"Our production team had tried many kinds of "Idol"-style selection shows in the past," said Jin, who was previously best-known for his 2007 show "My Hero". "Now, my team and I hate copycats."

After years of under-investing in content, China's increasingly market-oriented state-run broadcasters face growing competition from the Internet and each other to woo viewers and advertisers with more lively fare.

China Central Television (CCTV) has recently acquired its first foreign format, Japanese game show "Hole In The Wall".

Shanghai Media Group (SMG), meanwhile, also bought an "Amazing Race" franchise and comedian Ricky Gervais says a Chinese version of "The Office" is in the works.

SMG's Dragon TV paid one million yuan (150,000 dollars) for the rights to "China's Got Talent" for three years, Jin said, adding that Proctor & Gamble, the show's global sponsor, helped encourage the deal.

"Some small satellite TV stations had tried to copy the show before, but none were successful because they only copied the face, not the mind - and especially not the heart," Jin said.

He said the production handbook, known in the industry as a "bible", supplied by the show's creators FremantleMedia enabled major leaps in story-telling, production techniques and overall quality.

"We followed everything the bible said. For each contestant, from the start when he or she filled in the application until he or she left the show, there were always ten cameras shooting them," he said.

Viewers responded by making it SMG's highest-rated show ever, with the October 12 finale capturing 5.7 percent of the nationwide audience and a 34.9 percent share in Shanghai.

It even supplanted CCTV's Lunar New Year's Eve Gala - a heavily patriotic extravaganza - as the year's most-watched show in the city.

Buying the rights - and the show bibles - is key, said Li Yi, the executive at SMG's International Channel Shanghai (ICS) in charge of "The Amazing Race: China Rush".

"Buy the copyright and learn the essence from that. That's very important," Li said.

SMG approached Disney, which owns the rights to "The Amazing Race", last year about producing an English-language China-based franchise for the one-year countdown to this year's World Expo, Li said.

When it became clear Disney needed longer to negotiate terms, ICS told Disney it would produce a similar 2009 programme, "Shanghai Rush", as they worked towards a deal for this year.

The two sides eventually worked out a deal and the Disney-licensed version that debuted in August drew an audience three times as big as "Shanghai Rush", Li said.

Li declined to discuss terms but called it "very reasonable", with Disney holding the rights to sell the ICS show outside China. Disney saw it as part of a long-term China investment, he added.

The deal brought in Disney's expert advice on travel planning, adjusting games to contestants' strengths and maximising suspense, he said.

"One thing was very impressive: they gave the very huge amount of manpower required. That's very important, so we could see a very big difference between the West and China's TV industry," Li said.

The result was ICS's most expensive programme yet, but also one of its most profitable, as it used the foreign brand name to even attract overseas advertisers.

With advertising revenues at 114.74 billion yuan, according to Beijing RIC Information Consulting, China's television industry outstrips the country's film box office, which is expected to gross a record 10 billion yuan this year.

Programmes like "China's Got Talent" are also helping state-owned broadcasters claw back viewers lost to the Internet.

"China's Got Talent" lured Web-surfers back to TV screens, according to a pilot project by ratings agency the Nielsen Company that monitors TV and Internet use in 300 Shanghai homes, said Jed Meyer, Nielsen's managing director of media services in China.

"TV was drawing attention away from the Internet as the telecast went on," Meyer said. "It shows TV is still a very powerful medium."