HANGZHOU--Hunan Satellite TV, the producer of last summer’s wildly popular “Super Girl” reality show, has spent fruitless months searching for a sponsor to carry the American Idol-like singing contest into a third season.
More than 400 million people watched last season’s finale in August, easily making it the top-rated show in China last year. At its peak, the show topped CCTV’s ultra-popular Chinese New Year variety show with a 15 rating and spawned thousands of blogs and chat rooms. (See "Real winner of Super Girl is Mengniu Dairy," AdAgeChina, Oct. 10, 2005)
With a price tag quoted by media buyers as high as $6.2 million (RMB 50 million), there haven’t been any takers for a “Super Girl 3,” but Hunan may have found the next best thing in a deal with Jack Ma, the charismatic CEO of the Hangzhou-based e-commerce giant Alibaba Corp (Alibaba.com). Last year Alibaba.com acquired Yahoo's Chineses businesses in a $400 million deal and is under pressure to raise the profile of its new investment.
Alibaba is developing a new entertainment reality show concept with Hunan Satellite TV and Huayi Brothers Media Group (whose co-founder, Wang Zhonglei, helped produce "Kung Fu Hustle”) called “Yahoo Sou Xing” (Yahoo! Star Search).
Mr. Ma hopes the new show will create the same level of national buzz as “Super Girl.” A hit would promote the recent re-launch of Yahoo! China (yahoo.com.cn) as a search engine (rather than a general portal) to a national audience, particularly young adults who frequent cyber cafes--but spend scant time watching TV.
“If you look at Yahoo in the U.S., entertainment is a core strength. One thing we're doing in China is making sure we keep the lead on entertainment news in China. This show fits in with that strength in the U.S.,” said Porter Erisman, Alibaba’s Hong Kong-based VP, corporate marketing.
He would not confirm how much Alibaba has committed to the show’s production, but local sources put the investment at $3.7 million (RMB 30 million). The deal with Hunan has not been finalized, but in its current format, Alibaba has enlisted three well-known Chinese film directors--Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), Feng Xiaogang and Zhang Jizhong--to create two-minute commercials themed around Yahoo! China's revamped site. The reality show will serve as a nationwide star search to find real Chinese to act in the TV spots.
“The idea is not only to promote our search service but to get the whole country talking about the ads and the people participating in them, and hoping to be a part of it. It’s a much more exciting, all-encompassing marketing program, compared to a straight-forward ad.”
Additional details, including whether the show will include the SMS voting system employed by “Super Girl,” which raised some political concerns among government officials uneasy at seeing Chinese voting, have not been revealed. However, Alibaba execs say there is likely to be a voting component to this show as well, but online via Yahoo's China site, rather than using SMS technology.
“This is a working plan and final details are still under discussion, but we are definitely doing an American Idol-like program with someone and the winners will be in our commercials. If Hunan TV can create that level of buzz with a dairy, we can do it better,” said Mr. Erisman, referring to China’s Mengniu Dairy, which sponsored the second season of “Super Girl.”
The only risk, he added, "is that after the success of the last show, there’s probably going to be a million ‘Super Girl’ shows in the market this year and you have to make sure you’re not just a copycat, but who wouldn’t want to be in a Chen Kaige film?”
The venerable film directors taking part in the show “rarely" make commercials, he added, but they were coaxed into joining the project personally by Mr. Ma, a former English teacher who has become a celebrated entrepreneur in China since he founded Alibaba.com six years ago.
While Yahoo has global recognition, China’s search engine field remains highly competitive with Google (www.google.cn) and strong local players like Baidu.com and Sohu’s Sogou.com.
Yahoo currently trails market leader Baidu by 5% in market share, according to iResearch. The hit show could also create positive exposure for Yahoo! in China. The company spent much of last fall defending its decision to help the Chinese government track down a journalist, Shi Tao, who was later jailed. Yahoo said it was legally compelled to provide the information.