Downton Abbey and Sherlock, plus local versions of Big Brother and The X Factor, are opening up a potentially huge market
Laura Carmichael in Downton Abbey, which attracted an audienceof 160 million viewers. Photograph: Nick Briggs/AP
The fact that subtitled episodes of Downton Abbey are watched by160 million viewers shows just what a love affair the Chinese have developedwith foreign television shows and formats remade for their market. With BigBrother and Educating Yorkshire the latest shows to be lined up for a Chinesemakeover, it's boom time for those exporting hit western programmes to theworld's most populous nation.
China is the fastest-growing market for the sale of Britishshows and formats, with growth of 40% last year. While it is still relativelysmall in revenue terms, the opportunity is immense. "In the UK a top-rated TVshow may just get into double-digit millions [in audience size], but China has1.4 billion people and gets easily double, triple or quadruple that," says PierreCheung, vice-president of greater China for BBC Worldwide. "The market is amassive opportunity."
China's Got Talent, a local versionof Simon Cowell's ITV hit, has seen viewers top 400 million an episode. Locallyproduced versions of western franchises combine the sheen of the exotic withthe familiarity of local aesthetics. Singing competitions are especiallypopular: China's Got Talent, The Voice of China and a version of The X Factor(China's Strongest Voice) have all been major hits.
Last month the BBC unveiled China's take on Top Gear on national broadcasterShanghai Dragon TV, featuring a double Olympic gold diving champion, thepresenter of Chinese Idol and a pop star turned actor in place of British hostsJeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond.
据上月BBC报道《top gear》再次被中国上海东方卫视引进，他们用一个奥运会双项冠军，《中国偶像》主持人和一个流行歌手来代替大不列颠版的主持人Jeremy Clarkson, James May 和RichardHammond
These shows are strikingly different from their western counterparts. The Voiceof China, the most popular show in 2013, began the nearly three-hour finale ofits third season on 7 October with a soaring shot of the Great Wall; avoiceover praised China's thousands of years of history. The show then cut totestimonials from fans and former contestants: an elderly man, a middle-classfamily, a farmer, a foreign tourist in Tiananmen square.
"The Voice of China lets all of us music lovers bravely pursue our dreams,"said a man carrying a lute. Sentimental ballads are the order of the day.Judges are unwaveringly supportive.
Next up are remakes of documentary Educating Yorkshire and the potentiallytricky prospect of a Chinese Big Brother. The sometimes risqué content thatcomes with Big Brother territory frequently lands the show in hot water with UKwatchdog Ofcom – which has nothing on China's all-powerful State Administrationof Radio, Film and Television, a notoriously twitchy regulator that acts as acultural guardian.
It has pulled shows at the first hint of attitudes or depictions that showChina or its people in a poor light. In 2011 it banned X Factor-style talentshow Super Girl, which has attracted audiences of up to 400 million, andannounced last autumn it would stop satellite TV stations from broadcastingmore than one foreign-format show a year. Stations have replaced theseprogrammes with others the government deems more acceptable, such asdocumentaries about Communist party history. The problem is that nobody wantsto watch them.
Fans of the talent show Super Girl in 2005. The hugely popularprogramme was banned by China's broadcasting regulator in 2011. Photograph:China Photos/Getty Images
There have been reports that the BBC's Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, wasbanned from major channels. However the BBC's Cheung denies this, saying itjust took time for the show to move from airing on a Chinese video site tobeing broadcast on China's state broadcaster CCTV.
Martha Brass, chief operating officer at Big Brother producer Endemol, says carefulcollaboration with its partner Youku Tudou – China's answer to YouTube – willsee a sanitised version make it past the censor. "In any country you obviouslyhave to look at the cultural and regulatory environment, and we are well awareof that in relation to China," she says. "Big Brother is actually a veryflexible format. In the Philippines it is very much a family show, and inAustralia we have run it in different time slots for different audiences. Wefeel confident about our ability to address the particular TV regulations inChina."
The rise of Chinese video services such as Sohu TV, Tencent and iQiyi hasopened 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, hasbeen viewed more than 1.4bn times on video sites.
"New media platforms are just starting to get into deals for more and moreforeign shows," says Paul Sandler, managing director of Objective Productions."That could have a massive impact on the market for content."
However the rise in online viewing, and the popularity of foreign shows hasbeen seen as a threat by the state regulator. In April, video streamingwebsites were told to "clean up" and stop showing The Big Bang Theory as wellas US shows The Good Wife, NCIS and The Practice. Shows that might be thoughtmuch more likely to outrage the watchdog – The Walking Dead, House of Cards andBreaking Bad – were unaffected.
As recently as three years ago China was considered something of a "Wild East"for foreign production companies, replete with tales of the impossibility ofdoing deals and a culture of ripping off hit foreign formats without paying forrights.
"If China wants to be taken seriously in the international market they have totreat intellectual property with proper respect," says Sandler, who has donedeals for three series of a Chinese version of gameshow The Cube. "There is awill from the government to have a proper IP protection structure; it isnowhere near as bad as it was a few years ago."
Sandler believes that for the Chinese TV industry the aim is to collaborate andlearn about how to develop hit shows that they can export.
China has some interesting homegrown hits, including a nationwide competitionin the vein of Great British Bake Off but based on calligraphy; roughlytranslated, its title is Idiom Hero. But there is some way to go to makeinternationally appealing shows.
"The truth is the real aim of all the broadcasters and government in China isto 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 tocollaborate to come up with some genuinely good formats."
Not everyone is impressed. For a market of 1.4 billion people, a total of ￡17m in sales of British programmes and formats in 2013 seemslike a "long walk for a short drink", says one senior UK TV executive. ButCheung counters that. He says it is a slow-burn culture about buildingrelationships, and the real cash will follow: "You have to get involved andengage the partners personally; proper trust takes time. It is challenging butat same time exciting. If you can crack China, it makes any other market easy."