BEIJING — A rural housewife and a middle-class city-dwelling homemaker swap places and live in each other’s houses for a fortnight. So far, so familiar — this is “Wife Swap,” right?
The answer is “yes,” basically. At first glance, the show is almost identical to the format (created by Blighty’s RDF) that first aired in the U.K. on pubcaster Channel 4 before being sold to ABC Stateside.
But this is China, and the skein in question is a reality show with a strong element of social realism — as well as a program at the center of a growing debate in China over the use of TV formats, copyright law and what’s politically acceptable and what’s considered vulgar.
First comes the question of whether a format by any other name is still a format.
Reality skeins based on Western products like “The Apprentice,” “American Idol” and “Wife Swap” are much watched in China, and a forthcoming version of “Prison Break” looks set to join the list. However, the original developers probably won’t see a cent in royalties for the use of their formats.
Investigators chasing DVD pirates and other wholesale abusers of intellectual property rights have their hands full and are unlikely to take on a complicated legal battle over formats anytime soon. TV formats are a form of intellectual property bought and sold by producers, but they are famously tough to protect in law, even in the West, where relevant legislation exists.
In the case of “Prison Break,” the Chinese producers said they couldn’t afford the money Fox was looking for, so they were just going to register the name in China and do their own thing.
Growing affluence in China and increased competition between regional broadcasters means there is greater demand for this type of show, often at the expense of the traditional, patriotic performances favored by the Communist government.
Despite this rather grim picture of how formats are flagrantly abused in China, the lion’s share of outside formats will avoid appropriation — largely because broadcasting is tightly monitored and the government does not want straight copies of Western reality skeins on the airwaves.
Furthermore, with the summer Olympics in Beijing less than a year away, Communist leadership is gearing up for a major meeting this month that could further discourage straight use of foreign formats. Amid a move to formulate the right ideological environment, the government is clamping down on sex and violence on TV — anything it considers vulgar.
The campaign has already shut down one program known for its contestants with wild hair and unhealthy songs — “The First Heartthrob,” a spectacularly chaotic version of “American Idol” broadcast by Chongqing TV. How’s this for a savaging: “The design of the show is coarse. The judges’ behavior lacks grace. The programming lacks artistic standards. The tone of the show has cheapened. The songs performed are vulgar,” said the state TV watchdog, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).
Chinese programmers are learning that to get their Western-style skeins on the air, they need to give them a socialist dimension. So when it comes to getting reality series and other formats past the censor’s eye, Chinese TV producers adjust formats accordingly. Shows inspired (so to speak) by Western formats, such as “Wife Swap,” initially seem to fall into the vulgar category, but they redeem themselves by attaching socially responsible elements.
With its version of “Wife Swap,” QLTV in China’s northeastern Shandong province highlights the yawning gap between rich urbanites on the eastern and southern coasts and the impoverished peasantry of the hinterland.
“Win in China,” a skein incorporating elements of “The Apprentice” and “Survivor,” is an exercise in teaching participants and viewers about self-reliance and responsibility.
The most successful “adaptation” of a Western format, and the most high-profile victim of the campaign against vulgarity, is “Supergirl,” another “American Idol”-style talent skein. The finale of “Supergirl” a few years ago was watched by 400 million people; however, “Supergirl” is no more, changed to “Happy Boy” to avoid the word “super,” which has powerful connotations.
A hugely successful skein in the “American Idol” mold is Shanghai Dragon TV’s “My Hero!” which combines Mr. Universe, “American Idol” and an exercise in moral guidance. Dragon TV veep Xiang Haiqi says the aim of the skein is to create a male idol for femme fans with the focus on courage, versatility and responsibility.
“This is not necessarily linked to how well he sings or dances,” says Xiang.