Foreign studios fight for mainland viewers

SHANGHAI — 2001 was a bumper year for TV drama in mainland China, with production figures and foreign investment up.

There were 22,231 episodes of 1,271 series made in 2000 for screening in 2001, up 21% on the previous year, according to figures just released.

Despite that, it’s a market that remains relatively untapped as foreign studios scramble to get a toehold in mainland TV.

At the last Shanghai Film Festival — held at the end of 2000 — foreign participants included Warner Bros., Disney, Sony, National Geographic Channel and MTV. That’ s a far cry from the humble beginnings of local TV drama, the 1958 live broadcast of “A Mouthful of Vegetable Cake” on Beijing Television, now called China Central Television (CCTV).

Today, around 1 billion Chinese have access to TV via more than 3,000 cable, terrestrial and satellite channels.

Perfect past

The most popular series are historical and literary epics, and star some of the mainland’s biggest names.

Last year’s hits included “Legends of a Pharmacist,” which followed the fortunes of a Beijing family from the end of the Qing Dynasty through to WWII. Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jiang Wen and Tian Zhaungzhuang took cameo roles.

Another historical epic, “Sharp-Witted Scholar Ji Xiaolan,” achieved a record 31% rating during last year’s Spring Festival period, traditionally the best time for TV viewing figures. But urban comedies and sitcoms are picking up in popularity.

Meanwhile, foreign participation in Chinese TV is still limited but on the increase. Warner Bros.’ acquisition of international broadcasting rights to CCTV’s “Taiping Heavenly Kingdom” in late 2000 signaled a new mood.

AOL Time Warner has inked to broadcast from its STAR network in southern China’s prosperous Guangzhou Province, in exchange for access to U.S. audiences for Beijing’s English-lingo channel, CCTV-9.

Foreign funds

Perhaps even more significant is the injection of capital and marketing expertise from commercial ventures keen to reach the massive Chinese audience.

“We can’t advertise our clients on every local station in China,” explains Melvin Chua, managing director of international advertising group McCann-Erickson Guangming. “Our dollar doesn’t stretch that far. Sponsoring a TV show gives us a saving of about 50%-60%.”

McCann has invested in six Chinese TV dramas, with plans for a sports-themed trilogy this year. The first, “Field of Dreams,” is about two national soccer teams and will be launched in April. Stanley Tong, now filming Dennis Hopper vehicle “Flatlands” on location in Shanghai, will direct. He also is set to direct the second series, about synchronized swimming, and the third, with the sport as yet unconfirmed.

With clients like Coco-Cola keen to get product placements on TV, urban dramas set in modern China are a growth market for investors. “Period dramas are harder to get products in,” laughs Chua, “though we can still help to market the launch.”

Successful shows are screened first on CCTV and later syndicated to local stations across the country, putting advertisers in a strong position. “It is possible to get products in films in the States, but it costs you more,” Chua says. “Here, they need your money and your content. They are desperate.”

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