Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Switching on to more dynamic TV culture

By Kim Gordon (China Daily) Updated: 2011-06-27 07:56

More than 200 production staff members from China's most populist entertainment television channel, Hunan Satellite TV, spent a grueling two days recently learning ways to make their channel's programming more creative and more socially relevant. It was a unique experiment by one of the most creative and commercially savvy broadcasters in China. Producers and directors had to learn and absorb the latest methods of creative thinking used by practitioners in the West and then immediately start to practice their new skills.

The new creativity drive coincides with government pressure to encourage broadcasters to broaden their program range. This seems to reflect a concern that television has become too commercial, too entertainment oriented and perhaps less socially relevant and useful. The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) is considering restricting TV stations' ability to run shows that are solely entertainment.

The Hunan Satellite TV producers were quick to focus their minds on ways to use current "hot" issues as the basis for new programs. While some producers sweated over ways to make programs from topics like speed marriages and the problem of over-dependent young adults, other teams of producers were struggling with the topic of 30-something men and women who can't find suitable marriage partners, while others pondered the graver issue of how to try and reduce drunken driving.

However innovations in programming are always hard for any broadcaster, especially if the ideas seem to run counter to prevailing assumptions. And it is a widely held view around the world that broadcasters must either focus on making money through maximizing viewers and advertising income or focus on producing programming that is educational. So TV programming has traditionally fallen into two categories - the commercial and the educational - with each program type funneled into their own TV channel or time slot. In many countries television has ended up bifurcated into the "public service" education and information oriented channels, with fewer viewers and lower cost programming and the higher budgeted channels for TV dramas and game shows.

Hunan Satellite TV's attempts to find new programming styles and concepts can be seen as a move away from this TV apartheid toward a more dynamic and creative TV culture. And there is experience from abroad, particularly the United Kingdom, which offers encouragement for this approach.

The UK TV industry has led the world in developing program styles and formats that bring the fun and excitement of TV game shows and the storytelling skills of TV drama to bear on factually based and more overtly socially useful programming. This so called factual entertainment television has been a significant part of the UK's TV export drive.

Recently the UK has sold hundreds of millions of dollars of program formats worldwide and is more successful than the much larger and wealthier US TV industry. One of the reasons the UK is such a prolific exporter of TV formats is that the UK TV companies are more creative and take more risks. They have had to be because they have had to continually find new ways to meet specific social and educational responsibilities, whilst operating in a fierce commercial environment. Over the past two decades UK TV companies have found that programs that helped viewers cope better with the complexities of the modern world in a creative and engaging way were often more commercially successful than many entertainment and drama shows.

Chinese broadcasters now face a great opportunity. They are in a similar position to UK broadcasters when they first started on their world-beating path. The UK's great advance began when the government set up a new state-owned advertising funded broadcaster tasked with producing innovative and socially useful content. So the current pressure from SARFT to encourage a broadening of the TV landscape in China might be the start of China's TV export success.

Currently, the world's TV formats are dominated by those that reflect the zeitgeists of Britain, Holland and the United States, almost none have come from the developing world and only a tiny number have originated in Asia, and those few from Japan.

The challenge facing the young Hunan TV producers and directors is huge: To create programs that completely emerge from Chinese experiences and culture and are also potentially big audience grabbers. But this is an innovation challenge that is one that they are fully capable of rising to. Despite the unfamiliarity of the creative thinking techniques the producers rapidly caught onto the methodology and theory. And certainly from the evidence of the often insightful and always imaginative ideas and program concepts flying around the hall, the leap forward in Hunan TV creativity may not be far off.

The author has been consulting and leading training projects for Chinese TV companies since 2000.

(China Daily 06/27/2011 page8)

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