TV industry shifts focus to originality, values

AT the close of the 23rd Shanghai TV Festival yesterday, the buzzwords in the Chinese television industry are “positive values, originality and innovation.”

From variety shows to TV and web series, online platforms and production companies are laying emphasis on content that convey meaningful knowledge as well as establishing a more mature business model.

Last year marked the first format year of original variety show in China, as a growing number of original TV shows achieved remarkable results in both content originality and public reception.

With the surge of expensive overseas program formats that also came with copyright disputes, the Chinese television industry is seeking to build an effective mechanism to achieve modern innovation with original content.

China Central Television’s original variety show “The Reader” created unprecedented craze in China since the first season premiered in February 2017. The independently developed program invites readers to share stories and read texts that resonate not only with their own experiences, but also the audiences.

Dong Qing, producer of “The Reader,” explained the making of such a successful show at the Chinese Television Independent Innovation Summit on Tuesday.

“‘The Reader’ is an original variety show with no examples to borrow from. At the beginning we invited experts from different fields, including program format specialists from abroad, to join the discussions, after which we decided that reading on television is not the same as reading in theater,” says Dong. “The key to engage the maximum number of audiences is to find the standpoint and connect the reader’s personal emotions with the writer’s opinions and the audiences’ understandings.”

In June 2016, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) issued new policies to promote innovation in the industry. One year later, the Chinese television industry has seen remarkable progress.

Popular variety shows such as “The Reader,” “Letters Alive,” “Chinese Poetry Conference” and “Poetry Hero” have encouraged more and more Chinese to pick up traditional culture and values in an era dominated by the Internet and smartphones.

With the goals of inheriting, innovating and inspiring, Dragon TV’s “Poetry Hero” has set new rating records among provincial satellite TV programs, with people born in the 1980s as main viewers and more than half of the viewership are college-educated.

Li Yi, managing director of Dragon TV, defines the show as “a party for Chinese poetry lovers.”

To achieve the goal of introducing poetry to ordinary Chinese families, “Poetry Hero” has borrowed the classic Chinese folk game “Qu Shui Liu Shang,” in which participants drink wine from cups that float and stop before them on a winding steam. They share their thoughts and raise their cups in celebrations.

“We had two starting points when we created ‘Poetry Hero’ — that it should demonstrate the breadth and depth of traditional Chinese culture and encourage maximum participation from common viewers,” Li says.

In the smartphone era when access to a much broader range of entertainment content is easier than ever, making better use of entertainment content to convey the right values is the hottest topic in Chinese television industry.

Guan Zhengwen, chairman and founder of Beijing Share Television-Media Cultural Development, the company that produced “Letters Alive,” explains that from a content producer’s perspective, making variety shows has changed dramatically as the platform has shifted from traditional television to Internet.

“Now more than 70 percent of variety show audience in China access the content online. For content producers, it is about letting an audience come to you willingly, which is more challenging,” Guan notes. “Creating traditional television and web-based programs are completely different experience, the audiences’ participation and feedback are much more alive on the Internet, and it’s actually more fulfilling for us.”

The entertaining web-based variety shows featuring celebrities and amusing characters are loved by the younger generation, who enjoy the sarcasm from shows like “U Can U Bibi” and “Roast.” The content producers, on the other hand, are not only seeking to create eye-catching content, but also express the values that are evolving over time.

Entertaining web shows

Judith Mu, co-founder and CCO of MEWE Media that produced web variety show “U Can U Bibi,” notes that the show which selects hot topics seldom discusses right or wrong, but presents the core values of diversity and inclusion.

“We don’t usually pre-judge whether a value is problematic, I have been struck by some of the opinions we saw while making the show, one of the meanings for doing such a show is to learn that something you’ve considered right for very long time may not be so in other’s life,” she says.

Evan Shang, producer of Tencent Penguin Pictures Tianxiang Studio that created the Chinese version of “Roast,” says the show provides opportunity for a celebrity to face up to his or her weakness.

“We changed the nature of complaining so people don’t have a strong sense of substitution and we want to tell the audiences that it’s just a game.”

Guan, however, disagrees and says that “Roast” has brought an attitude toward life and offered an excellent way to perceive celebrities and other people.

From 2014 to 2016, the Chinese web series industry experienced wild growth when numerous new series busted out to cut a share in the booming business.

Some series like “The Grave Robber’s Journal,” “Dr Qin” and “Candle in the Tomb” had successful online viewership, but many more have been grounded due to poor storytelling, bad acting and low content quality.

Wang Xiaohui, chief content officer of iQIYI, notes that the trend has changed in many aspects.

“The online demographic structure is now more comprehensive. Young people used to be the dominant user group, but now more older-generation people are starting to shift from traditional television to the Internet,” he says.

In 2016, the web series industry had grown by 30 percent. The revenue from paid subscriptions had evened up the advertisement income, and it’s estimated that subscription revenue could surpass film box office by 2020.

However, the thriving industry is not free from crisis. When there’s a large increase in supply, many companies would be caught in the price bubble due to excessive investment and hype.

Every year, thousands of TV and web series episodes are unable to broadcast on television networks, while 80 percent of those that do make the cut cannot reach 0.5 percent rating.

Recently, two highly anticipated web series “Tribes and Empires: Storm of Prophecy” and “Oh My General” were rumored to have been rejected by satellite TV networks.

Many consider high-quality web series wonderful to watch but without commercial values. Wang, from iQIYI, compares the current situation to China’s dairy industry as many people only buy imported milk and milk powder after losing confidence in local products. The web series will face the same dilemma of losing ground to American TV series.

“It’s a process of fighting for major projects, stretching the episodes with stars who only bring online traffic, and increasing the number of series while lowering the quality. Eventually the audiences would choose to watch American TV series again after being disappointed.”

As change is inevitable, the web series content industry is looking to establish a more mature business model driven by content rather than sky-high IP (intellectual property) and capital.

Hou Xiaoqiang, founder of China Wit Media and Beijing Jinying Technology, says that a good literary IP is new characters in classic narrative.

“Good IP projects emphasize on participation and can better interact with the audiences,” he says. “A super IP can be created only when a good IP and an ideal production team work together.”

The IPs with solid content and potential should be handled by producers who are in line with its values.

Bai Yicong, a renowned director, writer and producer, adds that a real IP is about the team behind the scene.

“Eventually we should go back to producing the content itself,” Bai says.