Why China Will Limit Remakes of Foreign TV Shows

They Attract Viewers and Ads, but China Wants to Promote Local Content

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The Voice of China Season 3
The Voice of China Season 3 Credit: The Voice of China/Zhejiang Television via jjy728tw via YouTube

China's broadcast regulators have cracked down on everything from portrayals of gay relationships on TV, to tales of the supernatural, to actresses showing cleavage. Now they're targeting Chinese remakes of foreign TV shows – a proven formula for attracting viewers and ad revenue.

The new rules, which go into effect July 1, say that remakes of foreign TV shows now need prior approval, and satellite channels can only broadcast two remakes during prime time.

What's behind the move? China wants to encourage homegrown TV content and promote themes around the "Chinese dream," a slogan of President Xi Jinping's. It also wants more content embracing "socialist core values, as well as patriotism and Chinese fine traditions," according to a directive from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television that was quoted on an official news portal, China.com.

The success of foreign-inspired TV shows might have made them a target in China, a country that also has a quota on the number of imported movies at the box office.

The four TV shows that made the most ad and sponsorship money last year were all remakes of foreign programs, according to data from Carat. The No. 1 was singing contest The Voice of China, which was licensed from the Netherlands by provincial satellite channel Zhejiang TV and brought in $304 million in sponsorship and ad revenues in 2015. The three others also air on provincial satellite channels and are based on concepts from South Korea, Asia's pop culture hub.

One of those, "Dad, Where Are We Going?" featured celebs and their kids roughing it in the countryside. It halted production because of another recent TV restriction banning shows featuring celebrity children, on the grounds that they deserve a normal childhood. Rumors have been circulating that the show will pick up again on the online TV arm of the satellite channel that aired it, Hunan Television, said Jimmy Kuo, GM for Business & Strategy Development at Dentsu Aegis Network's Amplifi. "If this turns out to be true, the impact will be that advertising budgets shift to (online TV) at an even faster rate," he said.

There's been a dramatic rebalancing of how Chinese consumers watch content in the past few years. State-owned China Central Television, or CCTV, has long been the country's broadcasting behemoth, serving up government-approved fare. But as Chinese consumers have more choice in what they can watch, CCTV's ad revenues have slipped; GroupM said media spend there was down 2% last year. Satellite channels, with trendier programming, had ad revenue up 13.8% last year. Online video is growing fast, and almost half of the ad spend in China will go to the internet this year.

If there's going to be a wave of local innovation in TV content in China, online video might be where it happens. There are challenges – online series have become targets for censors too, as officials struggle to adjust to the new ways people consume content. Several online shows were taken down this year because the content was deemed objectionable, including a gender-bending time-travel fantasy and a show about tomb raiders. Investment has grown in original Chinese programming, like hit "Ode to Joy," an online series about young women who are neighbors in Shanghai. Its appeal is partly that it's a show about contemporary life – a change from more typical Chinese programming of costume dramas and variety shows.

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