The premise of the hit British TV drama Lost in Austen is of a modern girl transported back through time to the Regency era. Amanda Price (“of Hammersmith”) finds herself face-to-face with Mr Darcy and the other characters from the literary classic Pride and Prejudice. It’s entertaining and very funny.
Similar creative possibilities haven’t been lost on the executives at Hunan TV (see WiC38, ‘The channel that revolutionised Chinese TV’).
With a mix of politics, romance and a good-looking cast, Hunan’s latest hit show Gong tells the story of a modern-day girl who accidentally travels back in time to Emperor Kangxi’s era. Aside from the challenges of navigating 17th century life, the time-traveller is also torn between the romantic attentions of two local princes.
Unlike Lost in Austen, the critics weren’t especially enamoured with the show. “A hotpot of shanzhai (knock-offs)” was one review. “A first class production but a third class script” was another. Stay clear, warned Liaoshen Evening News, as Gong must been designed for those of very low IQ.
But what do the critics know? Gong went on to become the show of the moment on Chinese television, attracting 3% of viewers nationwide. It is also the most watched series on the internet, getting over 300 million views on Youku and Tudou, the two largest video-sharing sites (see issues 94 and 84). Hunan TV announced early this month that it will soon start filming the sequel.
Dramas like Gong appeal deliberately to the younger demographic, and are designed accordingly (with a young, good looking cast delivering a plot geared to romance, with a script not too demanding on the grey matter).
No surprise, then, that Hunan TV, a cable station with a reputation for commissioning populist content, is one of those cashing-in on the trend. Hunan has gone for the commercial jugular before, coming out with Meteor Shower in 2009, which became a big hit even though the story was a straightforward rip off of the popular Taiwan drama Meteor Garden (not that its title did much to disguise the link). The producers of Gong admit that their own series was “inspired” by Meteor Garden too.
The original Taiwanese hit, captivated millions of (mainly female) audiences across Asia when it was first shown in 2000, telling the tale of an impoverished girl hooking up with a member of the brat-pack at an elite Taipei high school.
China’s authorities, however, were not impressed. Beijing banned the show after a few episodes were aired on local television stations, saying it misled impressionable young viewers (fans of the show could still download bootleg copies on the internet.)
But now teenage dramas are big business, rivalling costume dramas and wartime spy series for popularity. Many admit that they tune in for the mindless escapism: “The problem with Chinese TV series is that they lack appealing characters and emotional storylines,” says Flora Song, a teenage drama fan. All the same, Song admits to the Shanghai Daily that she still watches every week.
The first teenage drama in China dates back to Jiang Ai Qing Jin Xing Dao Di in 1998. The show created a stir nationwide and helped propel its two stars Xu Jinglei and Li Yapeng into the national eye, telling the story of a campus love affair. The series was recently made into a film, which premiered on Valentine’s Day (see WiC95).
Zhang Yibai, director of both the series and the film, says that when the show first aired 12 years ago, his expectations were not high and he doubted its staying power. But the series ended up being more influential than he had anticipated. “Later, when people told me that the series was welcome and even shaped the view of love of many young people, I thought they were flattering me,” he told the China Daily.
Sadly for many of the critics, there’s likely to be no shortage of such lowbrow shows ahead given the habit of Chinese cable TV stations of unashamedly copying winning formats. But for marketers looking to target a 15-to-30 year-old female demographic they are just the ticket. Indeed for any company looking to promote a skincare product the forthcoming season 2 of Gong looks likely to be the ideal place.
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