Going Dutch

Zhejiang TV pays for rights to show – and ends up with a major TV hit

Going Dutch

China’s top rated show: The Voice’s judges are Harlem Yu, Liu Han, Na Ying and Yang Kun

When The Voice made its debut in Holland in 2010 and became the most popular show in the country, NBC took heed. The network bought the rights to the singing competition and bet big on its success – spending $2 million to produce each episode.

The punt has more than paid off. The show was so popular in the US that it received better ratings than anything NBC has aired for almost 10 years. In February The Voice even displaced Fox’s long-running American Idol as the America’s top-rated TV series.

And now, after dominating ratings from Australia to Vietnam, The Voice has taken China by storm too. The show, which is broadcast every Friday night on Zhejiang Satellite TV, has attracted more than 120 million television viewers and 400 million internet users since its launch in July.

The format? Like its original version, the show sees a group of four coaches, all well-known artists, listen to songs without seeing the vocalist. Coaches then decide on the basis of this blind audition if they will add a contestant to their team. If more than one coach expresses interest, the singer gets to pick the coach he (or she) prefers.

In a second phase, the coaches themselves eliminate team members week by week in what they call the ‘battle’ rounds. They also work on the performing styles and look of their team members.

In the final stage, the remaining contestants – an equal number for each coach – compete, until each mentor is down to one contestant.

In these stages, the Chinese format has largely followed the original Dutch design. But a significant difference emerges in the final round. Elsewhere, TV audiences usually vote for the ultimate winner. Not in China, where authorities aren’t keen on empowering TV viewers to such a democratic degree. Instead, the Chinese producers plan to settle their finale by inviting media representatives to act as judges. The eventual winner will get a recording contract.

So far the show is proving so successful that advertising slots have sold for Rmb360,000 ($56,600) for 15 seconds – generating up to Rmb16 million a week for the one-hour show. The slots are getting more expensive every week, says Economic Observer. “Every advertiser desperately wants to squeeze in. The cost has now risen to Rmb400,000 for 15 seconds,” says Cheng Wei, a producer at Zhejiang Satellite TV.

So why is it so popular? TV critics say the show puts the focus less on the glitz and more on the the quality of the singing performance.

“I like the sense of honesty and respect for music shown by the contestants,” agrees one weibo user.

“In the past I never watched talent shows but I watch this show every week,” a viewer by the last name Tong told Shenzhen Economic Daily. “The format of the show is straightforward: there’s no glossy packaging, no tear-jerking life stories, no rubbish-talking host and no ‘poison tongue’ from the judges. The music alone is moving.”

But of course, certain contestants have stood out. For instance, there’s a country girl who likes to sing UK artist Adele’s songs despite not understanding any of the English lyrics (her rendition of Someone Like You is uncannily close to the original). And then there’s a 30 year-old musician who struggled for years to pursue his dream and credited his girlfriend with boosting his flagging morale during the lean years (naturally, he proposed to her after the show).

The celebrity coaches are also fun to watch. Unlike other singing contests, the four mentors – renowned musician Liu Huan, pop diva Na Ying, singer-songwriter Yang Kun and Taiwanese singer Harlem Yu – participate closely in the weekly song selections. They are also very supportive, dishing out more compliments than criticisms. In fact, they seem to go out of their way not to criticise the contestants, even those coached by their rivals.

The producers of the show, Star China Media, reportedly paid Rmb3.5 million to acquire the copyright from the Dutch originators. That is unusual: Chinese broadcasters have long been accused of apeing TV formats from elsewhere, but rarely buying the rights from the original owner.

“Why did we pay for the copyright despite the prevalence of pirates? Because we believe there was much to learn and reap from a show that has succeeded across the world,” says Lu Wei, publicity director for Star China Media. “We can avoid taking the wrong path. I think paying for the copyright is very worthwhile.”

According to Liu, the Dutch production company sent over a 200-page production manual to advise Chinese producers. It contained everything from competition methodology to specific details on the colour formats for the show’s logo. Even the swivel chairs used on set were shipped from Holland to China.

The Dutch also made suggestions about the casting of coaches. “We wanted to have famous record producers as judges. But they insisted that all judges should be singers, including a woman and a grassroots singer who has struggled for their dream for years,” says Liu.

“We were doubtful at first, but now Yang Kun, the grassroots judge, has become the most popular figure in the show. And even the shirts he wears on the show have become a hot sales item online.”

Could the show’s success convince other television producers to pay for copyright instead of knocking off other formulas, asks Economy and Nation Weekly?

“A lot of successful variety shows in foreign countries may appear simple on the surface but there is a large amount of operational details and technical skills hidden behind the scenes. Many domestic local TV stations take that for granted and thus they have a hard time capturing the essence,” says Yang Ping, a TV producer.

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