If you concede, reluctantly, that the cornerstones of Western pop culture these days are shows like The X-Factor in Britain or American Idol in the US, then you might wonder what China has to offer along these lines.
When it comes to Chinese pop culture, forget Shanghai or Beijing: welcome to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, the ‘City of Stars’.
In fact, the city’s cultural influences go back a long way. Hunan, frequently associated with the hot and spicy cuisine that competes with Sichuan food, is the origin of the Dragon Boat Festival, which commemorates the poet Qu Yuan, one of the earliest known poets in Chinese literature.
In modern times, the province gave birth to the founder of Communist China (Mao Zedong), a charismatic premier (Zhu Rongji) and, more recently, contemporary classical artist Tan Dun, known for his cinematic score in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.
When it comes to economic growth, however, Hunan is not a star performer. Changsha isn’t even in the top 10 Chinese cities in this respect.
But in the early 1990s it did become the birthplace of a revolution in TV broadcasting, when director Wei Wenbin took the helm and introduced sweeping changes to the provincial TV station. Wei last year became Vice Chairman of the Hunan Committee of the CPPCC – a government-run elite advisory body.
Wei started afresh by setting up a sister channel – Hunan Satellite TV – with a new system for staffing, production and remuneration. He promoted a culture that favoured innovation and creativity, and encouraged breaking with the hitherto standard fare of staid content. The Hunan network was among the first stations to show matchmaking programmes. It was also the first to transform news broadcasting, offering news anchors presenting news standing up, in conversational Chinese.
Within a year of commencing nationwide satellite transmission in 1997, the Hunan network introduced its popular variety show Happy Camp. This broke away from the old gala format, where glitzy hosts introduced musical acts in eloquent and flawless language. The new flagship show unveiled energetic young hosts, with a mixed bag of games, interviews and performances with no fixed format. After 12 years, Happy Camp ratings are still solid, and rumour has it that the Taiwanese model Lin Zhi-ling may join the host cast.
Around the same period in 1998, Hunan Satellite TV also pulled off a high profile cross-strait collaboration by producing the tremendously popular drama series Princess Huanzhu, based on a work by famous Taiwanese romance novelist Qiong Yao, which incidentally launched the career of actress Zhao Wei (see WiC25).
“China’s media had long ignored the fact that its core function is to entertain, and thus lost its appeal. Our team was able to seize the moment and outdo our peers by strengthening the sense of entertaining our audiences, thereby creating ‘happiness’ for the masses,” Wei noted when asked to explain his successful formula. The media group now includes an e-shopping channel and website, as well as 11 TV channels, including the Hunan TV World channel that launched this May in search of a global audience. Its motto is ‘Be Happy, Be Chinese’.
The network’s most recent success is the Happy Girl show (formerly Super Girl) which serves as China’s version of The X-Factor.
Hunan TV’s success and creativity has made it the bellwether of China’s provincial TV networks, with ratings and revenues second only to the state-owned giant CCTV, which holds 80% of the nation’s viewership. The media group hopes to record revenue of Rmb2 billion ($292 million) this year, up from Rmb1.5 billion last year, according to China Business.
In many ways, Hunan TV is the media equivalent of Wenzhou – the coastal manufacturing city.
No one would have predicted either success: both were in unfashionable locations and seemingly lacked innate advantages.
But with nothing going for them, an entrepreneurial DNA evolved, carrying both to national prominence. Both are now business school case studies.
Hunan TV now faces a problem: having successfully out-thought state monolith CCTV, its own formula is under threat as other channels emulate its formats.
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