Opposing voices

Dutch firm wins row over TV hit, as regulator pushes for Chinese content

Joey Yung

Joey Yung: Possible contender to be a judge on the ‘new’ Voice?

Since The Voice of China first appeared on Zhejiang Satellite TV in 2012, it has been a massive commercial success. So Canxing Productions, the firm behind the hugely popular television franchise, can’t have been too pleased when its legal agreement with Netherlands-based Talpa, which owns The Voice franchise globally, was terminated.

Canxing said Talpa was demanding “unprecedentedly high” licence fees to renew the contract that were “more than hundreds of times” the initial price four years ago.

“We worked so hard to make the The Voice of China show, and Zhejiang TV made an enormous promotion of the format. We were using the total Chinese way and created value in the international format during the process. We made great intangible assets for China. The format owners and the new Chinese agent contributed very little,” Tian Ming, the head of Canxing Productions, vented to Xinhua.

Because of the show’s meteoric success in China, Talpa said that it was only fair to revisit the licence arrangements when the contract came up for renewal.

“This show is more and more popular every year, it’s natural and normal for prices to rise, and no country is an exception. However, we found that our partner, in making the terms of a contract proposal for the fifth season, wanted to pay a fee lower than for the second season,” Pim Schmitz, chief executive of the Dutch firm, said in a statement.

Talpa didn’t have a problem finding an alternative buyer for the rights in China. After ending the collaboration with Canxing, it quickly inked a deal with Zhejiang Talent to produce the show over the next five years for $60 million. Talent is said to be committing another $50 million towards a joint venture to be used for the development of other local formats.

Talent was a lesser-known player in the television world until it spent heavily on acquiring a majority stake on an entertainment company controlled by Fan Bingbing, the actress (see WiC322). To date, it has no experience in producing these kinds of shows. And apart from paying for the rights from the Dutch owners, making the series will cost another Rmb300 million ($44.85 million), says Yuleguan, an entertainment portal.

Talent seems unfazed, saying that it is already in the middle of the production process and that it expects to launch the latest series early next year. It is also in talks with different media platforms on promotional opportunities.

While this all sounds rather straightforward, there is a complicating factor. At the end of the licencing contract, Canxing decided that it would keep producing a reality show very similar to The Voice of China.

It also maintained that it would keep the same name for the series in Chinese (China’s Good Voice), arguing that Zhejiang Satellite TV had come up with the name and that it was approved by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television for network production and broadcast. (Canxing ended up calling its ‘new’ show 2016 China’s Good Voice.)

Unsurprisingly, Talpa and Talent were deeply unimpressed. The Dutch firm sought an injunction in Hong Kong to prevent Canxing from producing or broadcasting the next season of its singing contest. Talent filed a lawsuit with the Beijing Intellectual Property Court demanding that its rival use a different name for its singing competition.

The Beijing court sided with the plaintiff, saying that Canxing must “immediately cease using the name China’s Good Voice in all publicity, promotions, auditions and advertisements for its singing competition talent show,” the People’s Court Daily reported.

Last week Canxing’s appeal was rejected and it said it would change the Chinese name of the show to China’s New Voice.

The Voice of China has been a key component of Zhejiang Satellite TV’s primetime programming. Even though the ratings dipped slightly after the first season, they picked up again in the most recent one when Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou appeared as one of the singing coaches on the show. It was the top-ranked programme for all 13 weeks in its most recent run, according to CSM Media Research, a TV ratings provider.

The franchise is a cash cow that keeps on delivering. One industry insider told 21CN Business Herald that the marketing arrangements made over Rmb600 million for Canxing and Zhejiang Satellite TV last year. That doesn’t include the broadcasting rights sold to online video sites and overseas networks, with the same insider estimating that the show has generated several billions of yuan in revenue for the two parties.

Despite the naming row, Canxing’s new vehicle looks like becoming a commercial success too. Skincare firm Franic has already agreed to pay Rmb400 million to be the lead sponsor. And advertising revenue could bring in another Rmb2 billion, says NetEase, a portal.

While the four coaches – Na Ying, Harlem Yu, Wang Feng and Chou – are all regulars, viewers tuning into the new season will find a few changes to the format of the show, which is scheduled to premiere today. For instance, instead of the iconic revolving red chairs, the four celebrity judges will be seated in arcade-style race cars. If they like what they hear, the cars will speed down the track dropping the coaches right in the centre of the stage.

Canxing also says it has learned an important lesson from its experience, vowing not to buy any more formats from international owners in future.

“We will do 100% original shows and own the full intellectual property rights,” says Tian, Canxing’s boss.

That is music to the ears of the media regulators, who have just announced new rules to limit programming based on international content (like The Voice of China) during primetime.

“Only domestically invented TV programmes in the Chinese cultural tradition can properly convey the Chinese Dream, core socialist values, patriotism and Chinese traditions,” the regulator advised last month, adding that “audiences are craving more Chinese original programmes.”

The viewing figures tell a different story, it seems. But along similar lines, the People’s Daily published an editorial about the Canxing case saying that producers “need to be careful” in purchasing the rights to adapt foreign TV formats.

“Producing your own original programming is key. Perhaps Canxing’s pain at the moment should prompt all the other producers who are interested in importing foreign concepts to the Chinese television to pause what they are doing and restrategise?”

Meanwhile, the new producer of The Voice of China will have to hire a new panel of star coaches. Perhaps it might take a lead from the American version of the Voice franchise – which starts its eleventh season this winter – and which has opted for two female coaches for the first time, choosing Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys. Were the Chinese producers to follow suit, they might choose to combine two of the most recognised voices in Chinese pop music, namely Faye Wong and Joey Yung. Wong is arguably China’s biggest diva while Hongkonger Yung is famed for her slick live performances.

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