By Justin Scroggie 07-03-2014
Entering the Chinese market need not be as daunting as many in the entertainment business believe it to be, as long as you follow these 10 top tips.
1. Know the market
To begin with the obvious, if you want to work in China, you need to know the Chinese market. For readers entirely new to the topic, Chinese TV operates at a central level – CCTV – and at a provincial level, where each province has many local stations, as well as a national satellite channel. Among the biggest are Hunan, Zhejiang, Shanghai and Jiangsu.
Chinese media is highly regulated by SARFT, and the shifting sands of regulation mean any company new to China must seek a local partner.
2. Choose the right partner
At the time of writing, foreign companies may not produce content for domestic viewing in China, so you must form a JV or copro with a Chinese partner. It could be a broadcaster, but each broadcaster has a quota for overseas content. And you definitely need a partner that understands SARFT.
3. Underline your success
When doing business in China, don’t hide your light under a bushel. On our first trip in China, our CEO Michel Rodrigue introduced our team to a broadcaster modestly, saying we were not just there to teach but to learn. “No,” we were told. “You are experts. You are here to teach. Please start.”
4. Be prepared to do business differently
Business is tough. The Chinese work long hours and expect you to do the same. You may well be taken directly from the airport to the office. I once had to present to 140 senior execs in my shorts.
The Chinese with whom you negotiate are charged with getting the best deal for the least cost. And why not? But you are expected to aim for the same and to be strong in your dealings. This wins respect.
5. Hire your own interpreter
We have learnt over the years to hire our own local interpreters or risk mis-translations.
6. Keep up to speed with the regulator
SARFT plays a pivotal role in what is allowed in the Chinese media. Understanding what it will or won’t approve can save lot of time and trouble.
For example, in July SARFT said there were too many talent shows on air and they could not be broadcast on multiple channels, that shows produced but yet to air would have their air dates delayed, and that no new talent shows could be produced for the time being. In October, it limited imported formats to one per channel per year.
There are other constraints to note. Mass voting is limited in scope. Location-based filming is more common in locally produced TV, less so in national programming. Prizes have increased in value recently but are nowhere near the level of US or Europe, so a format dependent on the life-changing drama of a big prize may be hard to adapt.
7. Look out for copycatting
China has traditionally had a very different attitude to copying, but things are improving. Chinese companies are discovering that a formal contract, a strong bible, flying production support and relevant training deliver high ratings, longevity and increased advertising revenue. But there is still a way to go. So as well as having a partner you trust and legal support at home and in China, consider the level of protection your format has.
8. Be flexible – most of the time
The experience of foreign format owners working in China has changed greatly in the past few years, as working with Western teams has improved the skillset of local teams. However, it is not uncommon to find that a broadcaster may follow your format bible extremely literally and/or demand changes for cultural, legal or financial reasons that would have a major impact on your format. Be prepared to fight your corner, and explain why.
9. Be aware of market trends
The Chinese are still buying talent and music shows from the West. And there is still a lot of me-too in the domestic market. But with the SARFT restrictions on audition/talent shows, the market is shifting. CCTV recently bought Nordic World’s Farm Factor, while SMG has picked up Undercover Boss and Shixi has optioned hidden-camera format Fools for Good.
All of them, it could be argued, promote ‘good citizenship,’ though quite where Chinese broadcaster GuangXi’s recent licensing of dating format Baggage fits in remains to be seen.
10. Not just buying but selling!
There is no doubt China is a fruitful market for foreign distributors. But the major broadcasters and production houses are increasingly keen to sell formats out of China into other markets.
There are several reasons. One is the money to be made from selling format licences. Indeed, it is the high price paid in China for such licences that makes local broadcasters aware of the fees to be earned.
At the same time, there is a sense that having learned so much by producing formats under the guidance of foreign producers, local creatives are ready to develop their own programming with overseas potential.
Our suspicion is that in the short term the Chinese will need to go the same route as many new entrants to the international market, and look to their national and cultural strengths to offer the market something unique.