A stream of talent

Relief in Seoul as Tencent renews spending on Korean TV formats


What they are all aiming to emulate: financial success story SNH48

After Beijing and Seoul agreed to dial down their dispute over the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system (see WiC357 for the background to the falling out), media experts predicted that it wouldn’t be long before South Korean dramas and reality shows were back on Chinese television.

“Contacts from China’s online video services are asking about drama line-ups for next year. I can see that the Chinese market will be open to K-culture once again,” Hwang Ki-young, head of the drama production division at South Korean talent agency iHQ told the Korea Times.

Although the unofficial embargo has been in place since early 2017, it hadn’t stopped Chinese producers from copying their South Korean counterparts (see WiC369).

One of the biggest hits on Hunan Satellite TV last year, Chinese Restaurant, was seen in Seoul as ripping off Korean cable network tvN’s Youn’s Kitchen. Dear Inn, another Hunan TV show, also bears surprising similarity to Hyori’s Homestay.

But it is iQiyi’s latest show Idol Producer (see WiC405) that has been the most controversial. Its resemblance to Mnet’s Produce 101 is so striking that when the South Korean network protested to FRAPA, an international organisation that represents producers and distributors, the Chinese show scored 88% on its infringement scale – the highest ever in an allegation of copying.

Mnet has a lot at stake because it had already sold the licencing rights for Produce 101 to Tencent Video to remake the show in China. That left the possibility that the Tencent-backed version wouldn’t arouse much interest among Chinese audiences.

But with Tencent’s powerful marketing machine blasting out promotional videos around the clock, Produce 101 has been generating a lot of buzz and the first two episodes have accumulated about 900 million views.

The format follows the physical and emotional turmoil of 101 contestants (also known as “trainees”) as they receive instruction from different mentors, like singer Ella Chen (a member of the Taiwanese girl group S.H.E.) and rapper Huang Zitao. Based on online voting, contestants are discarded each week until the final 11 form a girl band.

Winning could be hugely rewarding for the artists. The first season of South Korea’s Produce 101 resulted in the formation of girl group I.O.I, which has gone on to become one of the most popular acts in South Korea. Similarly, Nine Percent, the winner from Idol Producer on iQiyi, has created a legion of fans in China without even releasing a song of its own.

Many of the trainees in the competition have already gained some form of fame from the internet. Lu Xiaocao has over a million followers on Sina Weibo – she’s an influencer known for giving make-up tutorials online. Liu Julin has name recognition after competing on another talent show Street Dance of China. Other notable contestants include Australian singer Kimberly Chen and Yang Yunqing, formerly a member of a Taiwanese girl band, reports Entertainment Unicorn.

It’s not only the artists that get a publicity boost by going on the show. Their agents, too, bask in the spotlight, given how popular boy bands and girl groups have become in China.

Talent agencies are name-dropped frequently throughout the episodes. One of the most talked about talent incubators is Banana Culture, which is owned by Wang Sicong, son of Wanda Group billionaire Wang Jianlin. His company has dispatched five female artists to compete on the show. Similarly, HIM International Music, one of Taiwan’s pop music factories, has put up seven contestants for Produce 101.

Pop groups can become industrial scale businesses in China. Last May, SNH48, a Shanghai-based girl band with a rotating cast of members – around 220 at last count – raised more than $150 million from a group of venture capitalists. TF Boys, one of the most successful boy bands, sold more than $17 million worth of merchandise in a single month, says the New York Times.

But these bands are expensive to create and maintain, requiring songwriters, managers, voice coaches and dance instructors. Most record labels are reluctant to invest unless they are confident that they have got a winning formula.

That’s where the likes of Tencent step in.

Like reality formats the world over, the contestants in Produce 101 will do anything to secure audience affection. Some of them soon choke up on camera in the first episodes, revealing themselves as former members of other singing troupes that have been dismissed because they weren’t making enough money.

They sob that they lack any current means of supporting themselves so Produce 101 is their only real hope .

Hu Yanbin, one of the talent mentors, admits that the career prospects in the genre can be bleak, blaming the short-termism of many of the sponsors. “There are so many companies in China these days, whether it is a tech firm or a game developer, that say they want to form a girl band… But in the end, they aren’t behaving responsibly to their trainees. Without warning, they are being dismissed. I know a lot of people have struggled with that,” Hu rued.

Show Luo, another mentor, agrees. “Showbiz is a cruel industry. A lot of bosses have probably promised you that you will be in so many films. But after three years, you are still waiting for your opportunity. But it’s too bad because you have already signed the contract… It is especially harsh for girls because time is so critical. So don’t just look at the glamour of the industry, first, think about whether you have what it takes to succeed.”

Despite that gloomy note, back in Seoul the runaway success of the Produce 101 format is producing a happier reaction: delight that Korea’s creative types are finally making money in China again after an 18 month hiatus thanks to the THAAD missile row…

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