China tough sell for foreign media

The television market in China offers multinational media companies opportunities almost unparalleled in scale

A participant performs for China's Got Talent TV show, which is estimated to have 400 million viewers across the country.
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The television market in China offers multinational media companies opportunities almost unparalleled in scale.

Compared to the UK, where even the most popular programmes struggle to attract 10 million viewers, and the US, where 40 million is a big achievement, the audiences in the world's most populous nation can be vast.

Programmes such as Super Girl and China's Got Talent are said to have brought in viewing figures of 400 million, as everyone from middle-class families in the country's coastal belt to provincial farm-workers tuned in.

The revenues generated are as huge as the audience numbers.

Super Girl alone is estimated to have generated 766 million yuan (Dh440m) in 2005, the year it became popular. In 2009, China's radio and television industries together had an income of US$24.4 billion (Dh89.6bn).

The television industry in China has certainly come a long way since the launch of Beijing Television in 1958. Even by the late 1970s there was less than one television set per 100 people. Now there are more than 3,000 stations, most of them local, but others offering the chance for programme makers to reach audiences across the country.

Yet, in the face of these huge opportunities, rather than expanding in China, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp last year announced it was selling controlling stakes in its three mainland television stations, Xing Kong, Xing Kong International and Channel Mainland China, for an estimated total of $160m. The deal was seen as recognition that growth could only come under Chinese ownership.

"News Corp had been trying for years to get some traction in China, but after all that time had little to show for its effort, mostly because of heavy restrictions from the Chinese. These restrictions were not only targeted at News Corp, but all foreign media in general," says Doug Young, a journalism professor at Fudan University in Shanghai and the author of a forthcoming book about the media in China.

Eight years ago hopes were raised among overseas media firms when Beijing said foreign-owned companies could begin broadcasting in southern China's Guangdong province. Yet two years later the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television introduced rules limiting foreign ownership of local television stations.

Dr Grace Leung, a specialist in media regulation at the school of journalism and communication in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says restrictions result from both financial and political considerations.

"The Chinese government regards the media industry, especially television and radio, as a form of the propaganda machine," she says.

As a result, she says the television industry has to be tightly controlled and this is more difficult if stations are in foreign ownership. In addition, she says there are protectionist concerns, with the authorities concerned local stations might struggle in competition with overseas networks.

While foreign companies are being cold-shouldered in terms of station ownership, overseas interests are entering the market by selling programme formats to Chinese stations.

There have been instances where Chinese stations have simply copied overseas programmes, such as with Super Girl, but in many cases now the blueprints are being sold so local networks can produce their own versions legitimately.

The most high-profile example is China's Got Talent, the local version of Simon Cowell's Britain's Got Talent and America's Got Talent. Made by Dragon TV, this programme has attracted viewers in the hundreds of millions. Unlike the versions in the UK or US, in China the viewers do not get the chance to vote, with the winning acts instead being chosen by representatives.

Earlier this year, it was announced China would be making its own version of the BBC's Top Gear. This high-octane motoring programme has been a big revenue generator for BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster's foreign rights division that earned £308.1m (Dh1.84bn) last year.

Just as Chinese interests are making local versions of foreign shows, they are also buying original foreign programmes. Globally, the overseas sale of television programmes generated $2.17bn in 2009.

Mr Young says many sales into China are often internet related, "as many new online video sites are looking for legal programming to fuel their growth".

"Youku [a Chinese video-hosting service] signed an interesting deal with Warner Bros a month or two ago, and I wouldn't be surprised to see more such deals in the months ahead," he says.

The question remains whether ownership restrictions will be liberalised in the way foreign companies, among them Time Warner and Disney as well as News Corp, expected them to be more than a decade ago. Will they ever get to achieve their ultimate ambition of owning television networks in China, rather than just selling them programmes and programme formats?

Mr Young describes this as "the $64,000 question", but few expect it to happen in the short term.

"This has been an issue on the table for a long time. I don't expect it's coming soon," says Dr Lin Fen, an assistant professor in the media and communication department in the City University of Hong Kong.

Similarly, Vivek Couto, the executive director of Media Partners Asia, believes that opening up to foreign stations might take "10 to 20 years or more".

"Media exerts an influence across many spheres so it's a sensitive sector that the authorities try to look to control, especially in television," he says.

Mr Young puts a similar timescale on any eventual liberalisation, and says at the moment "foreign television operators hold out little hope for the China market in the near term".

"That was one of the reasons why News Corp finally decided to cut the cord and sell its stations in China," he says.

It is likely therefore that Mr Murdoch and other global media barons will be concentrating on markets such as India with better prospects for foreign investors.

But even if they won't be watching many foreign-owned television stations, Chinese viewers will get the chance to see more foreign-derived programmes, and some of them verge on the bizarre.

The delights likely to arrive on Chinese television screens in the future include Shear Genius, a hairstyling programme, and Sing It, a show that allows "ordinary people" to express their love in song.