Earning the big bucks

TV stations pay record amount for new drama hit

Sun Li w

Sun Li: China’s best paid actress?

Early this year Netflix committed the staggering sum of $100 million to make two seasons of House of Cards, an American political drama based on a series made more than 20 years ago in the UK. It was a bit of a gamble as Netflix only boasted 25 million subscribers at the time. But the punt paid off. The company‘s stock has been on a tear, more than tripling in value for the year.

In China another hit series has become the most talked-about story on TV – and again it’s because of its cost. That’s after four satellite television stations and an online video site were revealed to have paid about Rmb200 million ($32.66 million) to produce the 38-episodes of Hot Mom. At about Rmb5 million an episode, the total surpasses the previous record held by last year’s hit The Legend of Zhen Huan, which commanded Rmb4 million per instalment.

“This is something that is unheard of in the history of the Chinese TV industry. And it’s a record that’s not going to be easily surpassed in the near future,” says TV show producer Cao Huayi.

Hot Mom, which finished on Sunday, was shown during primetime on the Zhejiang, Dragon, Anhui and Shenzhen networks, as well as online at Tencent’s video site. It is not unusual for rights holders to licence content to more than one cable station. The Legend of Zhen Huan was also broadcast on two satellite networks and online simultaneously.

So how did the show fetch such a high price? The comedy series follows the life trials of Xia Bing (played by actress Sun Li) who becomes pregnant. She and her boyfriend decide to get married. After giving birth, Xia arrives at the sudden conclusion that she can’t go back to her old way of living. The show follows her transition from a girl who knows only how to party to a responsible, caring mother, as well as a career woman.

Sun, the actress who plays the ‘hot mom’, is China’s biggest female TV star at the moment. After a breakout performance in The Legend of Zhen Huan, her salary demands grew substantially and a large chunk of the production costs of Hot Mom is said to have been paid to lure Sun back into the studio after she gave birth to a child of her own.

The commentary on weibo suggest that it was money well spent. “Sun Li’s interpretation is perfect. A ‘hot mom’ is not only about wearing trendy dresses but she is also a young woman who transforms from an aimless, selfish brat to a strong provider for the family. This process is very empowering for viewers. I’m very moved by this portrayal of young women today,” was the verdict of one netizen.

For studio executives, television productions generally promise more predictable profit margins than feature films. “Unlike films, which makes money by selling tickets to consumers, TV shows are essentially a business-to-business model, which means satellite stations are the real buyers. So that means before the show even airs on TV, studios already know how much they can make from the programme, and that income is not very volatile. The film business, however, is a lot more unpredictable, there is no way of telling beforehand whether it is going to be a hit or a flop,” an analyst told CBN.

Studios also make money from product placement. According to ChinaSSPP, a news portal, the producers of Hot Mom have made Rmb200 million in placement fees too. The studios behind the show, New Classics Media and Hai Run Movies and TV, say 14 brands paid to have their products featured during the series (the clients ranged from BMW to Ping An Insurance).

“In Hot Mom, we have a rule: you don’t want to interfere with the main storytelling in the show and you don’t need to force-fit something into a world that may not be appropriate for it. All the brands that are featured on the show have reasons to be there so they blend in seamlessly with the story,” says Gao Jinxi, one of the producers.

The increasing prices being paid to secure hit shows like Hot Mom and The Legend of Zhen Huan are also likely to encourage other producers. “Several TV shows have made a huge impact. This has quickly attracted an influx of capital into the industry,” says Wang Changtian, head of one of the largest TV and film producers in the country, Enlight Media.

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