What is the magic sauce needed for a blockbuster children’s TV show in China? Peppa Pig has certainly got it, given the 34 billion views the cute little porcine has attracted since she was launched on an unsuspecting Chinese public late in 2015.
Olivier Dumont, the man behind eOne Family, the company that has produced the franchise since 2004, says the formula is quite simple.
“It’s pigs and it’s red. Both work well in China,” he tells the Animation World Network of the ‘Peppa fever’ that has hit the country.
(It’s not without a certain irony: China has a history of exporting pig disease around the world, so this must be one of the main instances in which it has imported a different kind of swine fever from abroad: about 236 million under 14 year-olds are susceptible to Peppa Pig.)
Last week, Dumont’s London-listed parent, Entertainment One, told investors that sales of Peppa Pig content are expanding “ahead of expectations”. Dumont’s news has come as a welcome relief to investors concerned about the impact of a government clampdown on children’s books by international publishers. In March, the South China Morning Post reported that publishers had been told that a quota system was coming to curtail the “influence of foreign ideas” and enhance editorial control. The news led to a rash of headlines in the Western media, many of them scornful.
Some involved Peppa. The Guardian, for example, suggested that Beijing was worried about granting access to the world’s foremost propagandist for muddy puddles (Peppa – or Pei Pei Zhu, as she is known in China – loves jumping in them).
But last week, Andrew Carley, eOne’s head of global licencing told the BBC the group had sold 18 million Peppa Pig storybooks in China since 2016. He also said sales have blossomed because parents want their children to learn more English.
This is backed up by the People’s Daily, which has analysed why English-language cartoons are so popular. It suggests wealthier families push their children into watching English-language content and look down on local fare.
The newspaper then quoted one mother who says this is rubbish. “I don’t look down on domestic cartoons,” she replies. “It’s just that English-language cartoons are entertaining, as well as helpful for learning English.”
Economic Observer estimates that 80% of cartoons on Chinese TV are imports. That suggests there is more to Peppa’s success than the ‘pig in a red dress’ formula. eOne’s Dumont explains that local cartoons veer between being too violent for some parents or too moralistic and “worthy” which “kids can smell a mile off”, he says.
Netizens back this up. “Chinese cartoons are too shoddy,” says one blogger. “Boonie Bears and the Pleasant Goat are like horror films.”
But the cartoon world is a market worth fighting over. Animated spin-off merchandising was worth Rmb38 billion ($5.72 billion) in 2016, according to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. In a recent report, it estimated that the ending of the One-Child Policy should also result in as many as 21 million more newborns over the next few years.
Content producers also say China is one of the most interesting countries they deal with because there are so many channels to distribute their product.
Peppa Pig, for instance, is broadcast on CCTV 14 Kid’s Channel, where it holds the record for being the most-watched cartoon in the key 7pm slot. But the programme is also shown across multiple video streaming outlets, including iQiyi and Youku.
Dumont says domestic production is developing and that his company is keen to find a local partner, which can develop exportable content. Cartoons are generally an easier cross-border sell because they typically don’t feature a recognisable ethnicity and can be dubbed. But in the meantime, foreign production firms are keen to cash in on China’s craze for international cartoons. Earlier this year, the BBC established a partnership with CCTV to broadcast CBeebie’s content, while its Octonauts has also proved a huge hit.
As for Entertainment One, since it released the good news about Peppa’s progress in China it’s stock has risen about 5%.
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