Surfing aggressively morning and night, I covered 60 to 70 channels, from terrestrial broadcasters like the national network CCTV, Beijing TV and Shanghai TV to satellite channels based in provinces like Anhui, Hunan and Jilin to small local channels I cannot even remember.
Along the way, I suffered through commercial breaks up to 20 minutes long (albeit useful when you want a snack), saw an awful lot of dreadful advertising (that's another story), and realized I might have a number of ailments that are not recognized by western medicine but thankfully are easily cured by Chinese medicines--over-the-counter, of course.
But worst was the remarkable "sameness" of the programming, by genre, subject, schedule, format, repetition, andÖpoor quality. Variety and entertainment shows, a holiday staple, were virtually the same: inane hosts and hostesses, singing solders, ethnic dancers and bizarre costumes. Cheesy historical dramas (either Tang, Ming, or Qing dynasty) with interchangeable stories, bad make-up, really fake beards and good prince and princess vs. bad prince and princess. Good kung-fu and floppy rubber swords. I even saw a dog wander onto a 16th century site and an off-screen hand pull it away--twice.
And "contemporary" dramas heavy with dialogue and plodding, complicated, predictable story lines. Does every family in China have a dying mother, father, wife, grandpa, grandma or child? Is unrequited love a Chinese trait? Some static, apparently single camera productions with literally no action but moving lips.
It's enough to make you go out shopping, which may be the point. China's week-long holidays have become as much "retail holidays" as anything else. It's almost as if advertisers and producers have conspired to drive us to retail, and it works. The stores during the holidays are mobbed and I myself fled to the malls in search of diversion.
Most people would say that this is a result of heavy-handed government control or censorship, the logic being that increasing the quality of content diminishes the propaganda value of the media. While there is some truth to that, there is an equally and perhaps more fundamental reason: productions have a very hard time making money.
Production companies have to spend as little as possible, in the shortest period of time, to have even a chance to profit. Consequently, productions often come in under budget and on time. The less spent, the more corners cut, the less risk and maybe you have a whiff of profit. Quality doesn't pay. Forget "development" and multiple rewrites: the rule is copy or clone, and it shows. For example, there are 10 "intelligence competition" themed programs on several national stations : "Intelligence Surfing", "Lucky 52", "Fortune Examination Hall", "The Wisest is the King", "Intelligence 100 Happy Families.
Production companies' only customers are TV stations and they know it. A national network like CCTV can buy a 40-episode drama with 1,800 minutes of programming for as little as $375,000, sometimes less.
The numbers work like this: a new 40-episode drama including sets, actors' fees, etc. will cost about $625,000, perhaps less. As much as 50% of that can go to talent, more if a national celebrity is cast. CCTV or a national satellite station may offer $375,000 for "first-run" rights and unlimited rerun rights, if they're lucky. The production company then must go out and sell "second-run" rights, station-by-station, piecing together a rudimentary form of syndication.
Second-tier stations bargain even harder. Like a used car, a series' value drops immediately on airing. One not-to-be-named local TV titan offered a production I was involved with a "solid" $25 per episode (the sales dinner alone cost us five episodes, travel another nine, the hotel was worth three!). In the end, we determined the average revenue per episode will likely be only $125, including unlimited reruns. So do the math: over 65 stations would have to be sold, one at a time, to cover production costs and distribution fees.
It's hard to understand when you consider the amount of total ad revenue generated from the 40 episodes across 60 plus stations is easily in excess of $18 million, not including rerun revenue, and the total estimated program demand in China is 9,560,000 hours per year vs. available programming of 2,020,000 per year. That gap has to be filled, which means either a lot of reruns or a lot of junk. In other words, the total production cost was less than 3.5% of the advertising revenue. With no chance for extra income or mechanisms for residuals, network syndication or copyright protection, the TV station is lord and master of the land.
During the big holidays, programmers theoretically put their best foot forward, but it's obvious from the statistics above that their best isn't very good. The Chinese viewer as much as anyone appreciates quality, as evidenced by what they pay for and in some cases what they watch.
China Media Monitor estimates that over 800 million DVDs were purchased in 2005, 95% of which were pirated, a 25% increase over 2004. Pass-along rates are said to be as much as three to four times. Korean dramas are hugely popular and pirate, peer-to-peer content sites like VeryCD, one of the most popular Web sites in the world according to Alexa, which ranks global sites, provide an enormous variety of video content from all over the world. In Guangzhou, Jade TV, a Hong Kong channel that spills into the Chinese province, consistently dominates viewer share vs. the domestic "official" stations. So with the viewer, it seems, quality content is king.
Other alternative content options are emerging as well. Consumer-generated content is thriving, sites like Tianya.com, mop.com and even Peking University's [bulletin board] BBS site (bbs.pku.edu.cn) have millions of visits per day. Talk in my office is no longer about the latest drama, movie or sports game, but the latest "hot" or funny video on the Web. In a country with limited options for self-expression, Web video is especially enticing, both for advertisers and consumers.
I am surprised at how few mainland multinational advertisers are involved, let alone, interested in developing branded entertainment when the economics are potentially so favorable. Production in China is relatively inexpensive, while advertising isn't.
The production and directing talent exists, but financing is difficult, so a few production dollars can go a long way. Surely a well-produced program will be well received. Brand agencies should be able to do better then "Lucky 52"," The Wisest will be King" or "Fortune Examination Hall". TV stations are eager for content and will air it, especially if you barter it for ad space (as much as 50 to 80% of the air time can be retained by the content provider).
Although the timing and geography of a program is relatively unpredictable vs. paid advertising, it makes sense to explore a "mix" of branded programming, product placement and paid advertising and create a marketing platform. Unfortunately, few advertisers are doing this.
In time, China's media and advertising space will look more like the U.S. and Europe. That fact, along with the dearth of good quality content and the rise of consumer-generated media should be incentive enough for advertisers to begin experimenting with content creation in its many new forms.
But, if that isn't enough encouragement ñ watch 20 or so hours of Chinese TV and see what your advertising dollars buying. Then go out and buy your pirated DVD.
Larry Rinaldi is managing director of O.N.A. in Beijing, which specializes in branded content and trans-media marketing. Previously, he oversaw marketing for Motorola's mobile phone division in Asia/Pacific and before that, he was vice chairman, Greater China of Ogilvy & Mather. He has lived in Asia for eleven years, including five in Beijing.