Big Bucks in China as Reality Bites

Focus: GLOBAL

Talent and dating shows have ousted the traditional fare of state documentaries and historical dramas from television sets in the world's most populous country. And the huge audiences have advertisers salivating, reports Daniel Bardsley of The National.

Reality television fever has gripped the world's most populous nation.

While historical dramas and revolutionary series have long been staples of Chinese television, viewers are now enjoying shows of a very different kind.

The Voice of China, a talent show launched in June, has featured a contestant performing "Price Tags," a recent hit from the edgy British singer Jessie J, while another sang Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." It is hard to imagine a greater contrast to the old-style historical sagas.

Based on a format originating in the Netherlands, The Voice of China is another reality television show joining the ranks of Super Girl, China's Got Talent, and The X-Factor.

"They've been really popular...Most of the TV stations are very commercially driven at this point and they're doing these shows because they attract big audiences and advertisers love the big audiences," says Doug Young from Shanghai's Fudan University, whose book on the Chinese media, The Party Line, will be published later this year.

The commercial significance is hard to overstate in a country where TV ad revenues totaled 75.9 billion yuan ($11.9 billion) in 2010, and are forecast to reach 114.4bn yuan next year. That compares with the global total for television advertising last year of $191 billion, according to Deloitte.

In its second series in 2005, Super Girl reportedly attracted 400 million viewers—quite an achievement given China has more than 3,000 television stations—and grossed 766 million yuan in advertising and other revenue.

China's Got Talent, launched two years ago, is said to have beaten this with 500 million viewers, making it the most popular program in the world.

"You have a lot of potential when you open the market...and [viewers] do have a choice, competition and creativity can emerge," says Lin Fen of the department of media and communication at City University of Hong Kong.

"The people even joked that though you cannot vote for your political leaders, at least you can vote for your favorite Super Girl."

American Idol generates a little more than four times as much as Super Girl, at $500 million annually in advertising and nearly 10% as much again in sponsorship, according to the International Format Lawyers Association.