The producers of Chinese television dramas are looking at tough challenges as costs and the need for quality rise amidst a fragmenting market. Xu Wei takes a close look.
While Chinese audiences are fascinated with the wave of South Korean television series such as “My Love from the Star” and “The Heirs,” domestic TV dramas are experiencing some of the toughest challenges they have ever faced.
It is a lean time for Chinese TV dramas, industry insiders said at a recent television forum in Shanghai. Transformation, creativity and crossover cooperation were urged to help reinvigorate the industry.
Few acclaimed Chinese TV series came out last year despite a considerable annual output of 15,000 episodes, according to CSM Media Research.
Only 10 domestic TV series shown last year had high viewership rates. Among them were “Hot Mom!,” “Three Kingdoms of the Sisters-in-Law” and “Little Daddy.”
More than 70 percent of the series didn’t perform well and remained obscure to the public. Family dramas still represented up to 50 percent of the series while other popular genres included spy thrillers, legends and war epics.
Su Xiao, general manager of Shanghai Media Group Pictures, noted some reasons behind the phenomenon. “TV series about family life and emotions are more likely to pass censors,” he said. “Also, with its relatively low production budget, family drama is one of the favorite genres for Chinese TV producers.”
However, he said it is not a good thing that domestic TV screens are replete with formulaic series about superficial subjects like mother and daughter-in-law relationships, “leftover” women and love between generations.
“Chinese audiences are in urgent need of thoughtful, creative and powerful productions that can inspire them to reflect on life and love,” Su added.
A rise in production costs is thought to be another factor hampering excellence. Su said an A-list mainland actor earns around 700,000 yuan (US$114,198) per episode now, and payments for veteran scriptwriters and directors are also growing rapidly.
Sometimes a producer has to sacrifice the quality of other elements like backdrops and special effects to meet those costs.
Additionally, flourishing online video-sharing websites and the popularity of tablet computers and smartphones have also pushed traditional TV series toward big changes.
Insiders note that dramatic changes in platforms are fundamentally influencing content and traditional advertising.
Inspired by successful productions of Netflix original shows like the online political series “House of Cards,” more and more Chinese video websites such as Sohu.com and Youku.com are eager to create film and series productions on their own.
Among the popular series are “Absolutely Unexpected” and “Diors Man,” both of which have received more than 300 million views from Chinese fans for their hilarious plots and lines.
Targeting the post-80s and 90s generations, the comedies are about the lives of average people who are not handsome and rich. Compared with traditional TV series, these shows are more imaginative and creative, featuring parodies of contemporary culture and issues.
By the end of this year, domestic online series are expected to surpass 1,000 episodes. Data analysis is used as a tool during production and marketing, and the boundary between television and the Internet is being blurred.
Wang Leiqing, director of the SMG Film and TV Drama Center, notes that online video-sharing websites will fragment audiences, so SMG, which has one of the nation’s largest TV networks, will have to adjust their strategy of broadcasting, purchasing, production and crossover cooperation.
They will diversify the positioning and style of “drama theater” on different local TV channels this year. For instance, the TV series aired on the News Channel will mostly be historical productions and war epics to attract male viewers. Family dramas will be aired on the Drama Channel, targeting middle-aged female viewers. Dragon TV will mostly show creative and light-hearted productions in a wide range of genres.
Professor Yin Hong, a television expert from Tsinghua University, said that since viewing is becoming more dispersed, it will be a trend for domestic TV channels to produce tailor-made TV series to conform to their own market positioning.
“These series not only satisfy people’s varied viewing needs, but also easily integrate with other resources on the channel, including TV celebrities, entertainment shows and star-making platforms,” Yin added.
He cited the successful example of “Countryside Love Story,” a hilarious drama set in a village of Northeast China. The series, which debuted in 2006, is now in its seventh season.
Produced by top Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan, it is hailed as one of the most successful TV series in China because of its huge fan base and diversification of ways to generate income.
Yin said the series has been developed into a mature cultural brand. In addition to smart product placement of wine, fertilizer and a hospital, Zhao will shoot a film version of the series in South Korea this year. The location where the TV series was shot in a village of Kaiyuan City, in Liaoning Province, has also become a popular tourist resort and attraction for audiences.
Alex Huang, an IT worker and TV fan in his 30s, suggests domestic TV producers learn more economical and flexible production techniques used in some foreign countries.
Unlike the usual 40-episode television series shot in China, TV series in the United States, South Korea and Japan are usually limited to around 20 episodes. Most of the episodes are still in the shooting process when the first episodes are aired.
“The crew may change the plot, scenes and the roles of the characters based on the response from the audience,” Huang said.
“Compared with many domestic dramas that have set and similar storyline, this mode is more audience-oriented and innovative.”