Screen Singapore and the Asian Television Forum 2013: China and that pesky IPTV stuff

Two years ago, the official censorship branch of the Chinese government was punishing channels for broadcasting too many shows which were "excessively entertaining". Dr O'D watches a headline player w
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Two years ago, the official censorship branch of the Chinese government was punishing channels for broadcasting too many shows which were “excessively entertaining”. Dr O’D watches a headline player who is part of the charge past that kind of thinking.

Attention to the screen production industries in China is growing by the year at the Asian Television Forum and Market and Screen Singapore. This is hardly surprising given television alone has an audience reach of between one and 1.2 billion viewers. Large numbers of this audience, too, are experiencing a growth in disposable income that hovers in the high single digits, year on year. These billion plus viewers are fast becoming, if not wealthy, then at least, financially influential.

This transformation in television broadcasting in China has its origins in the Chinese Communist Party’s recognition of a role for television outside nation building some two decades ago. It was a move from propaganda to entertainment, from grand narratives to personal stories.

Much the same applies to production for cinema, and for a second year, a Chinese blockbuster has premiered here. Last year it was The Last Tycoon, a sympathetic portrayal of the rise of a crime boss in pre-World War II Shanghai, whose politically redeeming quality was his fight against the Japanese invaders. This time Firestorm, a super-sized police procedural, with as much action special effects as a 70 mm sized screen can contain. Smaller concept perhaps but big screen values nevertheless.

The broadening of the acceptable role for television, along with the technology that created social media, has led a media revolution in China. But while most producers here at the Asian Television Forum and Market and Screen Singapore are looking to sell into China, Chinese producers want to sell to the rest of the world.

Television in China is no longer broadcast television, terrestrial or satellite. The video-on-demand market is growing rapidly and two major players, Youku and Tudou, merger last August 2012 to form Youku Tudou Inc. (of course). The new entity is diversifying. Its origin might lay in user generated content like You Tube, but it sees its future in professional in-house productions and commissioned programs.

The entities may have merged but the demographic identities of their programming will not. Youku will continue to be mainstream service, while Tudou will pursue a younger audience with more edgy content.

On Tuesday, the newly appointed chief content officer, Sunny Xiangyang Zhu, announced an ambitious production program for 2014. The official publication from the Forum on Wednesday put the figure at US$ 49.2 million, but my notes have the figure as US $81.1 million.

The production slate, to be guided by direct viewer demands, is expected to cover drama, variety and comedy, and will embrace series as well as one-offs and what was termed microfilms, presumably series of short episode durations, ie 20 x 5 minute, etc. The budget also includes provision for revenue sharing for user generated content on Youku Tudou Inc.

Whichever figure is right, it is a relative modest investment given the 400 million unique views Youku Tudou Inc. enjoyed last year, and the 400 million views they expect for next year on mobiles and tablets alone. It seems viewers using PCs is a dwindling part of the market. Certainly, micro-series fit a mobile and tablet programming strategy.

Youku Tudou Inc. has already had some success with in-house production. A mini-series, Surprise collected 300 million viewers, on average 23 million viewers per episode.

For Xiangyang Zhu, the four big challenges are Revenue, Revenue, Revenue and Piracy. Trouble making money from video-on-demand is not just a western problem, not is piracy. Diversification of the income model is high on Youku Tudou Inc. plans.

Dr Vincent O`Donnell
About the Author
Dr Vincent O`Donnell is a historian who produces `Arts Alive`, the national arts and culture current affairs radio program, an honorary fellow of RMIT University School of Media & Communication, and the University of Melbourne`s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies.