The American TV series "Gossip Girl" is a hit in China, to the point that Blake Lively and Ed Westwick, the show's leading actors, are household names there. Would a Chinese remake of the series set in Shanghai be just as popular?
Metan Development Group is betting it will. The Los Angeles-based multimedia company, founded by Hollywood veterans including E! Entertainment co-founder Larry Namer, already produces programming for Chinese viewers like "Hello! Hollywood," a Mandarin-language celebrity and entertainment news show. Among its new projects, Metan is quietly putting together a local version of "Gossip Girl" scheduled to debut next summer.
"In China, you have this everything-is -possible kind of life, so people are looking for things that are aspirational, how rich people live, what they do, what they have. 'Gossip Girl' has a lot of that , but it gets back to human emotions, it's love and riches and fighting. Essentially, it's an adult soap opera," said Mr. Namer on this week's episode of "Thoughtful China," an online marketing affairs talk show produced in Shanghai.
Advertisers in China, especially those selling luxury goods, including Coach, are buzzing about sponsorship opportunities. Mr. Namer declined to share details about ad rates, but he did say the show offers "real opportunities [for advertisers in] integration, not just the TV platform but across the internet and mobile, customized for the needs of the client."
The basis of the "Gossip Girl" show is tweeting and video blogs, Mr. Namer said, so an integrated marketing strategy "lends itself perfectly."
Advertisers' eagerness to attach their brands to the show partly stems from the strong and sometimes surprising popularity of American TV shows like "Heroes" and "Prison Break" in China. Those shows, and their stars, have become pop culture legends in China, prompting a close look from advertisers eager to engage with the young urban Chinese attracted to foreign programming. "Prison Break" star Wentworth Miller, for instance, has appeared in commercials for Ford Motor Co. in China.
Ironically, none of these western shows airs in China legally. Viewers download programming through torrent files to home computers and watch illegal uploads on Chinese online video-sharing sites like Youku and Tudou, often with Chinese subtitles put in place within hours of the show first airing in the U.S.
Chinese can also buy pirated discs in illicit DVD shops that have sprung up all over China. Ever wanted the complete box set of "Gilligan's Island" or "I Love Lucy"? Neither series is tough to find if you know where to look in China, but it's the more current series that have cult status, especially among young and affluent Chinese--or those hoping to be affluent--that intrigue advertisers.
Even so, remakes of foreign shows can be risky for brands in China, because Western content must balance two forces that are often at odds--the political agendas of China's TV regulators and the tastes of local viewers--along with the lack of high-quality production values compared to Western markets.
"There are different cultural values," said Mark Heap, PHD's CEO China. A local version of "Gossip Girl" would need to be toned down to get past local censors, "so it would probably lose its edge a bit."
Also, localized versions of Western shows have received mixed reviews among viewers. "Musical Youth," a Chinese version of Disney's "High School Musical" flopped last year, for example. A Chinese remake of the telenovela "Ugly Betty," called "Ugly Wud,i" received decent ratings for four seasons starting in 2008, but it faced a backlash for its heavy-handed use of branding for sponsors like Unilever and Bausch & Lomb as well as for casting a leading actress considered too pretty for the part.
Collaborating with purely local content doesn't solve these problems, however, said Olaf Lassalle, global managing director of Newcast, the branded content arm of ZenithOptimedia, who is currently based in Shanghai. For advertisers in China, "we have to find new content. Our clients are looking for high-quality content, [but] right now, as far as I can see, China doesn't offer high-quality formats."
The lack of good programming on TV, largely due to political controls on what state-run broadcasters can air, drives marketers to digital media to reach young Chinese, especially for consumer goods marketers looking at China's lower tiers, said Silvia Goh, managing director-China of LiquidThread, Starcom MediaVest Group's branded entertainment business unit.
"There's huge potential to develop online. I don't see high-quality online reality shows yet [and] this [represents] huge potential," Ms. Goh said.
Despite the challenges, advertisers and content providers are likely to keep looking for formats, production facilities and business models to succeed in China, based purely on the size and scale of the Chinese market.
While making entertainment for broadcast in China is "a huge operational challenge, the prize is worth it," said P.T. Black, Thoughtful China's senior creative director in Shanghai. "A popular broadcast here can reach half a billion viewers...sometimes more."