Why is it that in North America, television programming is scheduled so that a ‘series’ usually comes out with one new episode per week, and one season spanning about 8-9 months, while in China, a tv series airs with two new episodes played each day, with new episodes played everyday for two consecutive weeks, until which when the series ends? Why is it also, that in China, there is no such thing as ‘season 2′; only variations and spin-offs from an original successful series?
I recently asked this question on Twitter and Facebook, but aside from the expectant “I don’t know”, or “Cause Chinese just can’t wait a whole week for a new episode”, or “Its all the government”, no new revelations were revealed.
We North American viewers understand all too well the business of American television: writers write scripts, producers select a project, then find financing, produce a pilot, and showcase to sell it to a major network. Networks then in turn produce a few more shows after the pilot, air them, and decide whether to continue producing the show after watching the ratings and also whether it attracts advertisers. (Forgive me if I’ve oversimplified, I know there are a lot of different routes a script can take to become a series). But we’re all comfortable with pilot season, first half-year battle of each network’s new line-up, and then a recalibration in the second-half of the year for those shows that will make it longer-term.
We get none of that in China. The business is different. Producers who are lucky enough to find a good script then have to find financing to produce AN ENTIRE series (20+ episodes), and then sell the whole lot to a network/channel who then may or may not even air the property. Its tough work for the producer with the odds of pay-off stacked very high against them.
I surmise the difference in TV scheduling practices has very much to do with the difference in the process of producing a broadcast property in each country. I think the reason China TV channels air an entire series within two weeks is because it is presented and sold the entire season upfront. Chinese TV stations has nothing holding it back playing new episodes back to back, while American TV networks may only have the next two episodes complete while the rest get made Just-In-Time.
This difference speaks to the state of broadcast television infrastructure in both countries. America has a developed broadcast production infrastructure, complete with bank bridge-loan financing vehicles and mature annual TV pilot fairs for network execs and advertisers. China has none of that (at least none that my friends and I in the industry know about). Infrastructure is a root cause for the difference in program scheduling practices.
Then the question has to be, why doesn’t an infrastructure like America’s grow here in China? My friend’s previous comment “Its all about the government” now comes into play. All the television networks in China are, you guessed it, government regulated or government owned (other than Satellite channels, and subscription channels, which have a bit more wiggle room). And so the typical competition you get from America’s networks, jockeying for the best line-up of shows, is drastically different in China. The competition in America produces a marketplace environment for better scripts and annual week-long events/fairs to scout for the most promising pilots. In China, with majority of networks having government mandates, competition is essentially zero, with the effect that any number of stations, even stations broadcasting in the same regions, can purchase the same series. It is not uncommon to see two separate networks showing the same ‘new’ series at the same time. There is not such thing as exclusivity, because there is no hard competition.
So if that’s the case, then a unique television series loses even more value in the eyes of the Chinese tv network. In America a network would want to milk an asset for as much as its worth (stretching out the broadcast times to get in as many ad windows as possible, spend more time and money on a few winning assets to grow the viewer base, extend the series to the ‘n’th season, to multiply a winning show). In China, there’s no need to milk the asset cause its not exclusive to your network, so why stretch it out, invest in it, or have multiple seasons.
Then if a tv network has no mentality or need to milk the asset, might as well give the viewers what they want, which goes back to my other friend’s comment “Cause Chinese people can’t wait a whole week for a new episode”. Its true, they can’t. And then it makes perfect sense to play the whole series consecutively as if it were a mini-series, because if you don’t the next tv network that has the same show will.
So I guess its a vicious cycle, a paradox that will take time, money and viewing behaviours to change. But maybe this whole discussion is obsolete anyways, since PVRs and the Internet have made On-Demand viewing one and the same in both China and America.
Now if only China could start making shows remotely interesting to foreign audiences…