Asian TV Producers Hunt For Their Own ‘Idol’

Nearly a decade after American Idol became one of the first reality TV shows to be remade internationally, Asian production companies are beginning to sell television formats back to the West but can they produce the next small-screen winner?

Switch on prime-time TV in any Asian country and within minutes you will be glued to locally produced versions of top reality shows like ‘X Factor’, ‘America’s Got Talent’ and ‘The Voice’.

The acts may be different but virtually everything else is the same. The logos, the sets, the outspoken judges and the sheer drama of the elimination process. The last 10 years have seen an explosion in the number of ‘cookie-cutter’ TV formats. They’re often first produced in Europe, repackaged in the US and then sold on to Asia and elsewhere.

The most famous example is probably ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire’. The British game show has been recreated in over 100 countries. But locally reworked singing contests like Philippine Idol and X Factor Vietnam, are often bigger ratings winners.

Booming market

It’s been a buoyant couple of years for formats in the Asian TV market,” Hong Kong-based TV consultant James Ross told DW. “They are being driven by the really big ‘shiny floor shows’.

In China, the one that is really working at the moment is ‘The Voice of China’. It has been hugely successful in nurturing unknown talent from corners of the country that no-one ever knew existed.”

The format industry is worth an estimated $2.4 billion annually. The shows are popular with broadcasters because they are tried and test formulas. Often extensive audience ratings data can help predict how a remade show may perform in a new territory. The concepts are also easily tailored to local markets.

Everything down to the stage and lighting plans, how many songs should be sung, the number of contestants, the kinds of presenters; all of that information is put into the format ‘bible’,” said Ross, who’s helped launch several international TV formats in China, South Korea and India.

Along with that, for the really big shows will come a lot of talented people on the production side that would aid the local producer making the show.”

Asia’s turn

Until now, TV formats have mostly been the domain of mature television markets in Europe and the US. Japan is probably the only Asian country to regularly sell formats internationally; the game shows ‘Hole in the Wall’ and ‘Takeshi’s Castle’ are among the best known shows. But production companies in Southeast Asia are getting in on the act after several years buying Western show concepts.

We were probably the first people to bring a large international format into the region and do a pan-Asian version of it,” said Riaz Mehta, founder and President of Singapore-based Imagine group TV. The company has produced version s of ‘The Biggest Loser’, ‘The Contender’ and will this month debut ‘The Apprentice Asia’.

We feel that the market is mature enough now that we can launch our own formats around Asia and we are also looking to sell these ideas into the American market.”

One of Imagine group’s first formats is ‘The Apartment’. Billed as Asia’s highest stakes reality show, eight couples battle it out to win a luxury condo. As they redesign the rooms of a penthouse suite, the creativity – and a healthy dose of rivalry – helps determines who will win the life-changing prize.

‘The Apartment’s’ first season has already aired on the pan-Asian English channel Star World and a second will start filming later this month. The show is likely to be sold to the US within months, say its producers.

Mehta, who is originally from Australia but now a permanent resident of Singapore, thinks the American market is still key, in terms of prestige and revenue despite falling TV budgets.

An American network will spend the money to make a really high quality show. Americans will still spend seven figures on one hour of programming. That doesn’t happen in Asia. It always comes down to budget in the end. I think things will improve here but I don’t see it getting to the US level in the next five years or so.”

‘The Kitchen Musical’ is another Asian format getting interest from the US and Europe after airing in 19 Asian countries on AXN. Described as “’Glee’ meets ‘Hells Kitchen’”, the show was devised by Singaporean Chee Kong Cheah (known as CheeK).

A famous Thai game show ‘Fan Pan Tae’, which ran for 450 episodes, has reportedly been sold to a major US network where it will be renamed ‘Obsessed’.

South Korean media reports that several locally produced TV formats have also sold well to China but not yet to the US.

Where’s China and India?

Perhaps surprisingly absent from the TV formats business is China and India.

In India, industry reports say that television networks, rather than the production companies who make the shows, often retain the intellectual property (IP) rights to many top rated shows which prevents many concepts being turned into international formats.

Some Chinese television networks have gained a reputation for pirating successful international formats. But many shows failed to live up to the originals.

There were lots of aspects of the production, the stories, the passion and the entertainment that they couldn’t really recreate. Sometimes, what happened is that the shows were very flat and it just didn’t have that buzz and excitement,” says TV consultant Ross.

Now they have realized that with a format comes the experience. The more these shows get remade, the more the show is refined. And that’s why certainly in the last couple of years, these big Chinese versions of international shows are turning into something quite special.”

The website C21 Media reports that Rupert Murdoch’s Star China is developing its own talent show formats and intends to sell them internationally. One Chinese made concept – a job hunting show named ‘Only You’ – has garnered some international attention.

But many industry insiders think it could be some time before China-made formats are sold widely internationally.

The Chinese market is still introverted,” said Imagine Group’s Mehta. “When they take international formats, they have to change the shows quite a bit to suit the local market. I can’t really see them targeting America to sell formats because they have the biggest market in the world. They’re far better off developing that market.”

Others think the television industry is coming of age and in future the world will feel the rise of China culturally not just economically.

In 10 years time, China is going to be the biggest producer of television content of any kind in the world. That country is ramping up its television and entertainment industries in the same way it has ramped up its manufacturing and I think we’re going to see some big changes,” said Ross.

Chinese television used to be unwatchable. But now the production values are at the same level as the West. They just need to build in a bit more of the creativity and ideas and the whole thing will really take off.”

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