Masking its origins?

South Korean studio sues Chinese partner over non-payment of royalties

Rainie Yang-w

Rainie Yang: one of the pop stars to feature in TV show Mask Singer

There were plenty of surprises at this week’s Emmy Awards. For a start, Amazon’s Fleabag toppled long-running favourite Veep as top comedy. The savagely funny British series also won awards for best leading comedy actor and best writer for its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge (and yet another Emmy for the comedy’s director).

As the Emmys are broadcast on Fox, viewers were less surprised by something else: the network took the opportunity to plug the second season of one of its own hits – the music competition Masked Singer. The format is based on a South Korean series, with celebrity performers donning elaborate costumes to sing incognito, challenging viewers to guess who they are. The South Korean network MBC, which owns the show, also signed a licencing deal in China. In the first season, which aired on Jiangsu Satellite TV in 2015, popular singers like Gigi Leung made appearances. Now in its fourth run, the format is so popular that it has even revived the careers of singers whose stardom had faded – including Zhang Shaohan who enjoyed a revival in her fortunes after appearing.

However, last week news surfaced that MBC has filed a lawsuit against Shanghai Canxing Cultural and Broadcast, the production company best known for The Voice of China and China’s Got Talent, claiming that Canxing has failed to pay licencing fees due on the format in China.

MBC’s gripe is that after signing a contract in May 2015, Canxing began airing The King of Mask Singer (the show’s Korean title) on Jiangsu Satellite TV the following month. Although the contract stipulated that the Chinese firm had to pay a share of the profits to MBC, it delayed the payments, saying that remittances were held up by a political spat when Beijing blacklisted South Korean cultural exports (see WiC357 for more on the THAAD missile saga that led to the ban).

With the Chinese government encouraging a deep freeze in commercial collaborations with South Korean entertainment firms, Canxing went on to make what it called an entirely new and original show, rebranding it as Mask Singer.

The new iteration also appeared on Jiangsu Satellite TV and made its ‘first season’ debut in 2016 – with star contestants including Taiwanese singer Rainie Yang.

“Since season two, Canxing has insisted that Mask Singer is an original show. It only paid MBC a licencing fee for the first season and never even settled the money from the revenue-sharing programme. By the second and third season, even the licencing fees were not paid,” the Korean network complained in its action.

It is not the first time Chinese broadcasters have been accused of plagiarising South Korean content. Two talent shows produced by iQiyi, The Rap of China and Idol Producer, ran into allegations that they were direct copies of South Korea’s Show Me the Money and Producer 101. Tencent’s Let Go of My Baby also bore a striking resemblance to another South Korean programme (see WiC369).

“For a long time, South Korean variety shows have been the biggest contributor to the prosperity of Chinese television experiences. Some producers bought the copyright, others blatantly plagiarised. In 2016, with the government placing a cultural ban on South Korea, a lot of collaborations between the two countries came to a halt. To get around that, a large number of Chinese producers simply renamed the shows and continued to air them. Plagiarising became even more prevalent,” Sina, a news portal, explains.

Plenty of viewers are aware of the allegations too. “Sometimes, I really don’t feel like watching Chinese variety shows. Not only do producers blatantly rip off other people’s ideas, they also mislead audiences to think we are watching an original show. They really don’t care about intellectual property,” one netizen acknowledged.

In Canxing’s defence, some fans of the series say there were noticeable differences between the first and the second seasons (which is when the Chinese firm stopped paying the licencing fees).

Even though the premise was very similar (disguising singers in costumes and masks), the rules were changed a little. The first season saw the heavily disguised performers split into four groups, with two pairs competing head to head to advance. By the second season, six singers were grouped together and the judges were being given more leeway to decide which two would perform in duets. “In other words, the first season focuses more on the competition, while the second season is more about the music,” one TV critic expounded.

Others weren’t entirely sold on MBC’s accusations either. “This is an economic dispute, so what really happened may not be as MBC claimed,” warned Shanghai Hotline, a local news portal.

At least legal issues were absent when the second series of the American version debuted on Wednesday, with Fox describing it as “TV’s biggest guessing game”.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.