“Challenging and complicated – but with huge rewards”
3 December, 2013
Britespark creative director Nick Godwin’s trip to China
I recently returned from a whistle-stop tour of China, as part of the Pact delegation. The organisation’s first visit to the country, and supported by UKTI, we were there to sniff out new business opportunities in its booming TV industry. With well over 1 billion viewers the possibilities are mind-boggling.
So what did we learn? Right now everyone’s glued to big shiny-floor singing and dancing formats, many licensed from Britain and the US. China’s Got Talent is huge. So too is The Voice China. So what of other opportunities?
First stop is Beijing and a slightly surreal meeting with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, where almost the entire senior management turns out. Like everything else in China, their scale is vast. There are 37 channels, ranging from mainstream entertainment to the frankly bizarre – one channel specialises in shows about public sanitation.
The channel I was most interested in is CCTV 9, which showcases big glossy docs. They’re tight with BBC Worldwide and co-produce big blue chip wildlife series like Africa. But don’t expect edge. Last year’s highlights also include a series on tea and a special on the humble tomato.
In Beijing we also meet two of the big new media players: YouKu and IQIYI. Unlike in the past, where there was a problem with a lot of western content being stolen for distribution in China, these days companies are hungry to buy high-end drama and factual entertainment for their expanding VoD channels.
As the TV industry is so young in China, new media companies play a dominant role, appealing to younger, more educated viewers.
We bullet train to Shanghai and are immediately struck by the incredible modernity. It really is a 21st century Gotham City, and the broadcasters and production companies based here feel significantly more Western that in Beijing.
We meet Anglo-Chinese firm IPCN on their LA-style roof terrace. These are the people who brought The Voice to China. Now they’re making British factual entertainment formats like Supernanny and Secret Millionaire for the Chinese audience.
For British production companies trying to break into China, working with westernised companies like IPCN makes sense. Few Chinese executives speak English and unless you’re fluent in Mandarin, starting a two-way dialogue (literally and in the broader sense) is an uphill struggle.
On top of the language barriers and any immediate differences in business practice, British businesses will face the problem that Chinese broadcasters rely heavily on commercial sponsorship for commissions. So bringing the right idea isn’t usually enough, you need to bring brand money to the table too. That’s tough unless you work in partnership with a local company – though of course they take a hefty slice of the pie.
Our final stop is the Sichuan TV festival in Chengdu, a thousand miles to the west. Mipcom this isn’t. We’re staying at a giant Chinese version of the Westfield shopping centre. The market is held in a booming hanger like building. One buyer drops by the Pact stand wanting to co-produce several hundred hours of ultra low-cost drama. Another is searching for the next Voice.
It’s a fascinating trip. Everywhere we go our Chinese hosts are hugely hospitable and genuinely interested in British innovation and creativity. But it often feels like the Wild East. A taxi I’m travelling in crashes into the car in front when our driver takes a call. Two of our party are poisoned with fake vodka at Shanghai airport. And the array of wildlife we’re offered at the dinner table could fill a David Attenborough series.
My take on China is that TV is still in its embryonic stage. But like everything else here it will evolve fast. It’s challenging and complicated doing business in China, but if British companies can get in early the rewards could be huge.
Nick Godwin is creative director of Britespark Films (part of the Argonon Group)