TV: Insights on working with China

China’s potential as a creative powerhouse is well known, but how can western companies develop even better partnerships with Chinese TV companies? Gathered together at MIPTV, all3media, Da Neng Culture, Tencent Video and Media Caravan discussed co-productions and partnerships.

Written by Stuart Dredge (MIP Blog)

“There’s more and more interest in developing production projects with China,” said Kristian Kender, CMMI’s research director, as he introduced the session before asking the panelists to talk about certain aspects of China that western production companies may find surprising.


  • Population: 1.4 billion

  • The No. 1 retail market worldwide, projections of over US$7.086 trillion annually in 2020 (compared to US$5.5 trillion for the United States).

  • 710 million online and 656 million mobile users

  • The three leading APAC television operators are Chinese: China Radio & TV, China Telecom, and BesTV combined had 275 million subscribers in 2015, and their combined subscriber base should grow by 14% over the next 5 years.

  • The online video market is expected to increase by 400%, from 22 billion yuan (US$23.5B) in 2015 to 96.2 billion yuan (US$14B) in 2020.

  • The gaming market, the largest on the planet, is worth US$24.4 billion (compared to US$23.5 billion in the United States) – 25% of the world total.

Source: CMF's 2017 Trends Report


“The biggest mistake you can make when you work with Chinese partners is to ignore the challenges. There are challenges, but it’s important to address them and work together,” said Sabrina Duquet, EVP Asia Pacific at all3media. “We can all learn from one another.”

Hengyi Zhi, manager for Da Neng Culture in China, said he’s been surprised to discover that docudrama and current affairs have become the hottest online viewing topics in China.

Luo said that the biggest surprise he sees for overseas producers is [the fact] that, in China, “producing reality shows or factual entertainment might be a risky business […] Whenever the deal is made, you need to be careful.” For example, if a show doesn’t reach a certain rating, the producer may only get 60% or 70% of the agreed fee. “You may end up losing money!”

Wang Yi, founder of Media Caravan, talked about the production costs for non-scripted domestic productions, which are actually higher than for scripted shows—contrary to the situation in the West. “Also, how much we rely on celebrities in China. If you’re producing a show about the common people in China, you will not find advertisers nor probably even a platform,” he said.

Co-producing with China

Yi noted that every co-production project is different and operates according to its own business model. Duquet said choosing the right partner for the right project is essential. “Yes, co-production is definitely something that’s on the table, but choosing the right partner for the project is the key,” she said.


  • In 2012, the National Film Board of Canada and the Chinese company Phoenix New Media launched NFB ZONE, the first digital channel dedicated to the distribution of Canadian films in mainland China.

  • After launching on Chinese public broadcaster CCTV, eOne’s Peppa Pig made its debut on iQiyi, Youku, and Tudou VOD platforms in October 2015. Total of 5.4 billion views in 10 months. This popular children’s show was subsequently shown on Tencent VOD, LeEco, and Mango TV.

  • In 2016, 9 Story Media Group sold broadcast rights to its successful animated series Wild Kratts to CCTV and signed several digital distribution agreements with major Chinese platforms (Youku, Alibaba, CNTV, iQiyi, LeTV, PPTV, SMG).

  • Vancouver-based Big Bad Boo also sold its animated comedy to CCTV in 2016. The show is broadcast to an audience of 340 million children under age 12.

  • In 2016, DHX sold over 2400 hours of children’s content to VOD platforms (Best TV, SiTV, Mango, PPLive, Youku, iQiyi).

Source: CMF's 2017 Trends Report


Zhi talked about how this works in documentaries. “We can approach the subject from different angles. That’s the thing that really inspires Chinese audiences,” he said. “When you come into China, you’ve got to have something that we understand and are familiar with. But we also want to learn.”

Zhi added that a production company cannot come to China with a project that has no financial support already in place and expect to find potential partners falling over themselves to work with it.

Benny Luo, deputy creative director at Tencent Video, talked about how deal structures are changing, noting that more than 50% of Tencent’s format ideas were developed in-house by its team. “We know what our viewers want. And we need to share our knowledge with the Chinese indies who have a relationship with us.”

Wang Yi talked about the recent co-developing and co-financing deal to do a project based on Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years after he was pushed over a waterfall by his arch-nemesis Moriarty. “Sometimes, you want to be a part of something greater,” he said. “China will be an organic co-producer in it. Not just injecting money… We can also contribute creativity to the project.”

Duquet said that co-production deals can give Chinese producers easier access to overseas markets. For example, when a French broadcaster, a British broadcaster and a Chinese producer team up. This is something that has become easier since regulatory changes were recently made in China.

Zhi criticized projects that portray China as a backward or poverty-stricken nation, which he considers remains all too common. “Chinese producers and platforms would like to see things from a different angle, a different perspective, and focus on China’s modern development. That’s what we’re proud of! That’s the stuff we want to get international producers involved in. To portray China decently, not as a poor nation.”

Luo talked about a recent hit on Tencent—a comedy roast during which a celebrity is roistered by his famous friends. He admitted that he was not sure it would work. “In China, it’s very uncommon for me to criticize you while I am facing you!” he said. But it’s been a success, especially with Tencent’s younger viewers. “Young Chinese audiences are moving very fast and are keeping up with the outside world.”

Wang Yi continued. “If you’re a co-producer, if you want to work with China, and you come to China with a well-established plan, well, get ready to be disappointed! The market changes every day, so always upgrade your plan and your agenda,” he said. “Get to know the market, get to understand the people, and then you’ll be able to manage your project better.”

And one more piece of advice: “Never take a ‘yes’ as a ‘yes’ in China until you actually see a signed contract,” he said. “Often we will say ‘yes’ as in ‘we understand’, not ‘yes’ as in ‘let’s do it’…”

The conversation then turned to China’s political situation, where terrestrial broadcasters’ agendas can vary according to the government instructions: themes can suddenly fall out of fashion or become hot. Producers must then be flexible to adapt and prepared for the occasional disappointment.

Copyright also cropped up as a topic. “We’ve had lovely people getting inspired by a lot of our shows!” said Duquet, choosing her words carefully. “The business format is a gentleman’s business: it’s actually very hard to legally protect a format… So, based on that, yes, it’s probably even harder in China.”

But she suggested that forming strong partnerships in China is a way to mitigate that risk. Another good reason to turn towards this important market.

This article was originally published on MIP Trends and is published here as part of an editorial partnership.
© [2017] [MIP Trends]. All rights reserved.

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MIP Blog is the official blog of MIP Markets, the world’s entertainment content tradeshows, MIPTV, MIPCOM, MIPJunior, MIPFormats & MIPDoc. Its aim is to foster debate and exchange of TV and entertainment industry knowledge, as shared both at MIP Markets and beyond, all year round.
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