Taiwanese TV goes mainland prime time

For Asia Times Online http://www.atimes.com

TAIPEI – Taiwan’s cash-starved TV industry is to have easier and quicker access to the mainland China market, giving investors new reason to pump in money to co-productions to titillate the mainland’s one-billion-plus viewers.

On November 30, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, the body in charge for Taiwan-related policies, proclaimed three steps that will create increased opportunities for TV co-productions brought out through partnerships of mainland and Taiwanese companies. That will be good news for Sanlih E-Television and Formosa TV, the Taiwanese producers of dramas most popular in the mainland.

The process of reviewing and approving the broadcast of television dramas jointly produced by Taiwan and mainland China will be

speeded up. Regular broadcasts of such joint productions will be scheduled during primetime on China Central Television (CCTV), the major Chinese state television broadcaster. And the mainland pledged to generally create more opportunities for Taiwanese entertainers to work in the Greater China market.

Until those measures are implemented, Taiwanese dramas cannot be broadcast during primetime on China’s TV stations because they are considered foreign productions. The review process has long been subject to complaints by the Taiwanese as, according to them, it was subject to displays of official arbitrariness.

TV from Taiwan has been considered in the mainland as cool for at least eight years, when initial cable TV broadcasting there of several Taiwanese TV shows proved hugely popular, and a striking contrast to offerings from CCTV and other state-controlled channels.

On the mainland side: painfully conformist presenters and their stiff guests, all dressed in dark shades of gray and blue; on the Taiwanese side: a flirtatious, sexy, extroverted and vociferous bunch of people. That window was soon closed – the loud Taiwanese style proved a bit too much for the mainland broadcasting authority, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, and the rules were tightened in September 2005.

“Hosts and hostesses … have an unshakable responsibility to spread advanced culture and national virtue …,” the authorities decreed, and, as a broad hint directed at the Americanized Taiwanese compatriots, “creep of vulgarity and non-Chinese influences must be halted.”

Even so, the mark left on the mainland media landscape by the Taiwan TV footprint was irreversible. Mainland presenters longing to appear trendy themselves adopted the slang and accent of their Taiwanese counterparts, and inevitably, droves of young Chinese viewers followed suit, beginning to speak and gesture like Taipeiers.

Then, in 2008, the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) took over the political helm in Taipei, helping to warm up cross-Strait relations to unprecedented level. Interaction in the arts, as in other fields, was rapidly institutionalized, and 14 co-produced dramas were released in 2009 and 2010 alone.

Taiwanese channels remain unavailable on mainland cable TV, and Taiwanese expats living across the strait (and mainland citizens) must resort to direct broadcast satellite (DBS) to see its offerings.

The island’s film industry is also still waiting to see meaningful liberalization. In 2009, a local mega-hit Cape No.7, directed by Wei Te-sheng, became the first Taiwanese film to secure a mainland release in 17 years after grossing US$15 million at home. The film, which has secured 15 awards, cost only US$1.5 million to make.

Last year, the two sides signed an agreement on intellectual property rights (IPR) protection, which theoretically allows Taiwanese films to enter the mainland market without quota restrictions, but so far no Taiwanese films have been permitted to do so.

The 2010 hit movie Monga, which grossed US$9.8 million, is one victim of continuing restrictions. The gangster film, directed by Doze Niu and starring Ethan Ruan, was controversial even in Taiwan for alleged glorification of organized crime. It was banned from the mainland because Beijing labelled the film “detrimental to China’s good and honest traditions”.

Last weeks’ announcement on cross-Strait TV dramas will give Taiwan’s television industry a long-waited kick-start, according to industry watchers on the island. York Chiou, a professor at Taipei’s Shih Hsin University Department of Radio, Television and Film, told Asia Times Online that the mainland is the biggest possible market for Taiwanese TV dramas mainly due to shared language and culture.

“The mainland audiences have a high degree of acceptance toward Taiwanese productions. It’s very easy for the Taiwanese to be popular in China if only plot and actors are good,” Chiou said. Now that Beijing actively encourages the Taiwanese to cross the strait, production companies as well as actors will feel much more secure when active there as in the past, rules and processes were painfully ambiguous.

Chiou believes that the new measures will lead to an investment wave to the benefit of the Taiwanese TV industry.

“It’s expensive to shoot a good drama, but the investment is difficult to recover with commercials alone. The production companies must rely on copyright income or produce jointly to reduce costs. How much the further opening of the Chinese market will help is illustrated by the matter that in the past, those Taiwanese TV dramas that managed to enter China earned more than two-thirds of their total copyright income from overseas in China alone.”

Chiou, however, cautioned that the Taiwanese cannot take their advantages in trendiness over their Chinese competitors for granted for long.

“TV audiences are very pragmatic; as China’s production standards are rapidly increasing, the Taiwanese will have to be good to stay competitive on the mainland market.”

Taiwanese TV dramas are still way ahead of the mainland’s, particularly in terms of fashion styles and the modernity of scripts and for financial reasons, there’s no other direction to turn for the Taiwanese, Nelson Tsai, a professor at the same department, said.

Budgets for the production of one hour of drama here in Taiwan used to reach NT$3 million (US$100,000); today, they have to make do with less than NT$600,000. The Taiwanese market is so cramped that the expansion to China will benefit business greatly.”

Still, as Tsai points out, Hong Kong’s TV and digital animation industries experienced a similar boom after they began to produce jointly with mainland companies. In many cases, Hong Kong staff were then gradually replaced by mainlanders. The cross-strait story could go in that direction, he said.

“If China goes ahead with the opening, its own TV drama industry will undergo a major upgrade and might eventually uproot Taiwan’s superiority. The Taiwanese government will have to react to the opening measures by coming up with some own precautionary ones,” Tsai said.

It also crucial that productions are popular with audiences on both sides of the strait, according to Angie Chai, known as Taiwan’s “Queen of Idol Drama”.

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