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Korean formats and China's growing TV appetite dominate at ATF 2013

With continued audience growth, but new legislation restricting foreign imports, China dominated the proceeding at the 2013 Asia Television Forum. Could it now follow Korea's example and exports its own formats around the world?

Photo: East meets west at the 2013 Asia Television Forum.
East meets west at the 2013 Asia Television Forum.

Far more than technological or legislative, the biggest change at this year's Asia Television Forum came in terms of language. For the first time, English was usurped as the solus language of discourse and debate, with one session held entirely in Mandarin and a number conducted on a trilingual (English, Korean and Mandarin) basis.

This linguistic shift was the clearest possible indication of the seismic changes taking place in the world of international television production. At the 2013 event there were, undoubtedly, only two issues that really counted – the growing need to provide content for China's burgeoning TV market (now the world's second largest broadcast audience) and the increasing international strengths of a number of highly-successful Korean TV formats.

In term of both the big and small screen, China is now clearly established as the world's second largest market. In terms of online viewership, it is already the global leader, with Youku Tudou, the country's largest video streaming site, having some 400 million viewers alone.

The growth of online viewing is likely to have a considerable impact on content providers, according to Sunny Zhu Xiangyang, Youku Tudou's Chief Content Officer. He said: "We are able to provide content from all over the world, where previously the audience could not watch such material. Similarly, while, in the past, many people were creating great content, there was no platform for it. Now there is.

"We have also been developing our own productions, including Surprise, a hit comedy that gets 23 million viewers per episode. For 2014, we will be investing around Rmb300 million [US$50 million] across all forms of content. The biggest challenge for us, though, remains generating revenue and we are currently exploring new models. We are also looking to tackle the growing problem of piracy."

At the moment, the Chinese TV industry is seen as 'one' way traffic in terms of its production potential. Explaining this phenomena, Vivian Yin, Chief Representative and Deputy General Manager of Star China International Media, said: "China is at the stage of adapting Western or international TV formats for its local audience. It is not quite ready, however, to develop its own formats for the international market.

"We are currently working on developing just such a property for China – Kung Fu Star, a vehicle for Jackie Chan and Zhang Ziyi. Over the year ahead, we expect outdoor reality shows – such as Korea's 2 Days & 1 Night – will be particularly in demand. They are cost-effective and, importantly, offer a range of product placement opportunities for sponsors."

Beryl Yan, Head of the Programme Strategy Department of Hunan Satellite TV, also sees outdoor reality shows as the coming thing. She said: "We are looking for something new and not all formats translate well for the Chinese audience. The Chinese favour lively, entertaining, humorous shows, rather than cerebral contests, which they find a little off-putting."

For Rob Clark, Director of Global Entertainment at FremantleMedia, a London-based television production company, a historic shift in format sourcing is underway. He said: "In the 50s and 60s, TV formats came from the US, which is logical as that's where most of the TV audience was. From the 1990s to today, the Europeans have dominated developing formats that have subsequently gone global.

"Does Asia represent the next wave? It's definitely shifting. Now we are seeing formats here, originally sourced from the US and Europe, but with a great deal of local input and creativity."

In terms of formats wholly sourced from Asia, South Korea is widely seen as having taken on the leading role, something of a progression from its earlier success in the fields of K-pop and soap operas. Explaining his country's preeminence, Paul Chong, General Manager of JoongAng Media Network (JMnet), South Korea's largest media company, said: "Korean producers and broadcasters have come up with formats that are a mixture of oriental ideas and Western execution. That's what's making Korean formats appeal internationally.

"Korean formats increasingly deal with social issues. They tackle themes like the generation gap, long working hours and family breakdowns."

Photo: Liu: 'co-production possibilities'.
Liu: "co-production possibilities".
Photo: Clark: 'local creativity'.
Clark: "local creativity".

Several Korean formats were featured at the ATF, one of the most popular of which was Grandpas Over Flowers, which saw four Korean senior citizens backpacking across Europe. Explaining the appeal of the series, its producer, Na Young Suk, said: "I have learnt that our feelings towards loved ones are truly universal. They know no geographic barriers, no age limits and no ethnic boundaries."

Another Korean format possibly destined for small screen near you is Dad, Where Are We Going?, a reality show featuring dads taking their young sons camping for the first time. The show has already proved a hit in China.

The success of Korea in creating its own formats sets a good precedent for China, its mighty neighbour, as China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has now limited all of the country's broadcasters to screening just one foreign format a year. Additionally, such material cannot be broadcast at prime time. The move forms part of a government bid to counter what it sees as "vulgar" and "excessive" entertainment on television.

According to a number of industry experts, this new legislation may spur the development of a number of original Chinese formats. Beryl Yan, Head of Programme Strategy for Hunan Satellite TV certainly believes this may well prove to be the case. She said: "Korea has done extremely well in exporting 'K-culture'. This is something we can certainly learn from and emulate."

As for the big screen, according to Amy Liu, Vice President of the EntGroup, a Beijing-based Chinese media specialist research company, in 2012 China officially became the world's second largest cinema market. Assessing the implications of this, she said: "Given its 30% per annum growth, the Chinese market will overtake the US in the near future. In 2013, 640 million moviegoers watched 20,000 screens.

"Significantly, about half the current growth and revenue are coming from domestic films. With state quotas still in place with regard to the number of overseas films permitted in mainland cinemas, many foreign companies are now exploring the possibilities of co-production deals in order to circumvent this."

Regardless of the quality or provenance of the movies on offer, Wang Yizhi, Founding Partner of Hangzhou Fandao Investment Management, a mainland-based financial consultancy, believes that infrastructure development is driving China's cinema market. He said: "Of the top 200 cinemas currently in operation, 185 are located in malls. In China, young people tend to download movies. Once they start work, then movie-going becomes a social activity.

"The rise of malls, which provide shopping, dining, gym facilities and other entertainment opportunities, now represents a social package. With malls now a feature of many second and third tier cities, the number of cinema goers in these locations is on the increase. This has seen the cinema revenue share of the top seven cities drop from 45% in 2009 to 37% in 2012."

While the emphasis at the event was largely on China and Korea, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, the Singapore Minister for Communications and information, suggested that taking a wider pan-Asian view might prove instructive. As part of his presentation at the show, he brought home to attendees that the continent was now home to the three fastest growing entertainment markets in the world – China (with 14.7% annual growth predicted until 2017), Thailand (10.5%) and India (9.9%). By comparison, he said, the North American and European markets were predicted to grow by only between 1-3% over the same period.

Concluding his address, he said: "Some US$204 million in sales were sealed at last year's event, an 8.5% jump over 2011. We are hopeful of doing even better this year." He also announced that, from next year, the ATF will merge with the Singapore International Film Festival and the Asian Television Awards, creating a week-long media extravaganza.

Photo: Talking TV: Is Asia the new global force in formatting?
Talking TV: Is Asia the new global force in formatting?

ATF 2013 (also known as the Asia Television Forum), was held at Singapore's Sands Expo and Convention Center from 4-6 December 2013.

Ronald Hee, Special Correspondent, Singapore

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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