The first Chinese reality show produced and aired in the U.S. debuted in mainland China on Sept. 4 on the TV screens often found in China's public transportation systems that show a mix of short programming and ads to passengers waiting and traveling on trains.
Quest USA, better known as Da Tiao Zhan, is the true story of 12 young Asian adults picked to travel down the East Coast of the United States and have their scripted adventures taped and subtitled in English. The series is hosted by actor and MTV Asia DJ David Wu, or Wu Da Wei.
The show starts with the same type of pop music and rapid editing cuts as other MTV-like American reality shows but when the opening theme has a shot of farm animals traveling down the highway in a truck, it's clear this is something different.
The show features four teams of Mandarin-fluent young adults on a road trip from Massachusetts to Florida. There's Team Taiwan, Team Mainland China, Team Hong Kong and Team U.S.A. (The contestants' passports determine which team they're on.) Throughout the trip, they have to participate in activities such as learning from an Amish farmer how to hitch a horse to a buggy, and compete in challenges like making shoo-fly pies and racing cars in Daytona Beach, Florida. But the show isn't free from more typical reality show fare like beer drinking sessions in hotel rooms and intimate conversations.
The London-based bank HSBC Group is the primary sponsor and is featured in two of the show's challenges. Other marketers like the National Basketball Association, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts and Foxwoods Resort Casino traded services to be featured in the series, although editing the Foxwoods episode for a Chinese rather than a Chinese-American audience required a little extra care.
It's not appropriate to show people gambling on TV in China, said Sarah Zhang, the producer at House Films, the Los Angeles and Shanghai-based production company behind Quest USA. As a result, scenes of contestants gambling had to be edited out, but more acceptable scenes of the Foxwoods Resort segment survived.
The series originally aired in the U.S. on stations like Sinovision in New York and other Chinese or multilingual stations, and has also aired on Hong Kong's TVB network. For audiences in mainland China, though, the only way to see Quest USA has been via Jeboo.com, a web site similar to YouTube except viewers must register and pay to download some content. But now mainlanders can watch Quest USA while commuting to work in Shanghai and four other Chinese cities: Chongqing, Tianjin, Nanjing and Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong.
In mainland China, Quest USA's production company House is working with DMG, a Chinese digital media operator specializing in multimedia within subway systems, where DMG plans to have 13,000 screens by the end of 2006. DMG has offered subway viewers news, a mini-documentary from the National Geographic Channel, MTV programming, entertainment news and a drama series.
To fit the medium, Quest USA has been edited down to 2.5 minute episodes airing 40 times a day each weekday for eight weeks. The company's goal is use the reality show to attract more metro viewers and in turn generate more advertising revenue, said Philip Wong, VP of media operation and corporate marketing at DMG in Shanghai. Regular advertisers on DMG's network include KFC, McDonald's, Unilever and Sony, he said, and if Quest USA generates direct sponsorship or revenue through SMS-based games, it will be shared by DMG and House Films.
House Films' Ms. Zhang said many subway riders are upper middle class, and therefore a desirable target for advertisers.
CTR Market Research, a market research company in China, did research on viewership of the TV screens in Shanghai's public transportation system. On one of Shanghai's rail lines, 97% of the passengers reported seeing the media inside the train, compared with 92% of those on the platform. With all four metro lines, the media can reach over three million people a day, CTR said.
House Films originally incorporated the sponsor and other brands into the programming, so they will still get airtime in the subway version of Quest USA. For sponsor HSBC and brands like the NBA that are active in China, that's an advantage. Now Ms. Zhang is trying to drum up support for a second season with a twist: this time, international teams will travel across mainland China, which could happen in spring 2007.