The fact that subtitled episodes of Downton Abbey are watched by 160 million viewers shows just what a love affair the Chinese have developed with foreign television shows and formats remade for their market. With Big Brother and Educating Yorkshire the latest shows to be lined up for a Chinese makeover, it’s boom time for those exporting hit western programmes to the world’s most populous nation.
China is the fastest-growing market for the sale of British shows and formats, with growth of 40% last year. While it is still relatively small in revenue terms, the opportunity is immense. “In the UK a top-rated TV show may just get into double-digit millions [in audience size], but China has 1.4 billion people and gets easily double, triple or quadruple that,” says Pierre Cheung, vice-president of greater China for BBC Worldwide. “The market is a massive opportunity.”
It has pulled shows at the first hint of attitudes or depictions that show China or its people in a poor light. In 2011 it banned X Factor-style talent show Super Girl, which has attracted audiences of up to 400 million, and announced last autumn it would stop satellite TV stations from broadcasting more than one foreign-format show a year. Stations have replaced these programmes with others the government deems more acceptable, such as documentaries about Communist party history. The problem is that nobody wants to watch them.
There have been reports that the BBC’s Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, was banned from major channels. However the BBC’s Cheung denies this, saying it just took time for the show to move from airing on a Chinese video site to being broadcast on China’s state broadcaster CCTV.
Martha Brass, chief operating officer at Big Brother producer Endemol, says careful collaboration with its partner Youku Tudou – China’s answer to YouTube – will see a sanitised version make it past the censor. “In any country you obviously have to look at the cultural and regulatory environment, and we are well aware of that in relation to China,” she says. “Big Brother is actually a very flexible format. In the Philippines it is very much a family show, and in Australia we have run it in different time slots for different audiences. We feel confident about our ability to address the particular TV regulations in China.”
The rise of Chinese video services such as Sohu TV, Tencent and iQiyi has opened a huge new potential market for foreign programme rights ownersl. The third series of Sherlock has notched up more than 70 million views online, while US show The Big Bang Theory, the most popular foreign show in China, has been viewed more than 1.4bn times on video sites. “New media platforms are just starting to get into deals for more and more foreign shows,” says Paul Sandler, managing director of Objective Productions. “That could have a massive impact on the market for content.”
“If China wants to be taken seriously in the international market they have to treat intellectual property with proper respect,” says Sandler, who has done deals for three series of a Chinese version of gameshow The Cube. “There is a will from the government to have a proper IP protection structure; it is nowhere near as bad as it was a few years ago.” Sandler believes that for the Chinese TV industry the aim is to collaborate and learn about how to develop hit shows that they can export. China has some interesting homegrown hits, including a nationwide competition in the vein of Great British Bake Off but based on calligraphy; roughly translated, its title is Idiom Hero. But there is some way to go to make internationally appealing shows.
“The truth is the real aim of all the broadcasters and government in China is to develop homegrown Chinese shows and export them,” he says. “The same way as [they have] with cars, computers, white goods, you name it. We are trying to collaborate to come up with some genuinely good formats.”