Hunan TV’s Cheng Ding

One of China’s top-rated channels, Hunan TV has carved out a niche in a competitive landscape with its locally developed prime-time entertainment shows. With its Biu Project, Hunan TV has been fostering Chinese IP development, while also collaborating with global content powerhouses, among them Fremantle and Endemol Shine Group, to co-create concepts that can work domestically and globally. Cheng Ding, the president of the company, tells TV Asia about how Hunan TV has shifted its focus from format acquisitions to developing homegrown ideas as it looks to position China as the next big format creator on the global market.

TV ASIA: Tell us about Hunan TV’s positioning in China.
DING: Hunan TV is one of the most popular entertainment content producers and broadcasters in China, particularly among female and younger audiences. We have successfully maintained a leading position for the last 22 years in terms of both ratings and advertising revenues. Housing 27 production studios and teams, we produce more than 500 hours of non-scripted content a year. Like the channel’s tagline, “Happy China,” we are committed to conveying positive values and uplifting messages to the public through our passion for creating innovative, entertaining and buzz-worthy content.

TV ASIA: What makes Hunan TV’s content innovative in the Chinese landscape?
DING: The Biu Project, Hunan TV’s original content development pipeline, is working out nicely. We created an environment for innovation, with pilot production opportunities where new ideas get pitched, developed, tested and eventually commissioned on a regular basis. With successes like The Sound and Super-Vocal, the Biu Project has become a driving force for Hunan TV’s original content innovation. Meanwhile, we actively seek creative partnerships from around the world, brainstorming with international masterminds for new ideas for our audiences. Sing or Spin, a co-development format with Endemol Shine, and Dance Smash, a collaboration with Armoza Formats, are weekend prime-time entertainment shows that are winning their time slots with impressive ratings. Our in-house production talent understand what the viewers of their own ages want on tele­vision. That’s why the initiative of “Under 30” was set up to discover young talent and encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Last year, we sent a couple of winning ideas from the “Under 30” initiative to the ATF Formats Pitch and won second place. We are doing this again this year.

TV ASIA: There are many digital platforms in China; how are you maintaining such large viewership on Hunan TV’s linear channels?
DING: Social responsibility is at the center of our content creation. We are known for high-quality entertainment shows and our IP, but behind the surface, there is an ongoing quest for meaning. We insist on this and put our hearts into it, so people want to follow our storytelling and truly care about what we have to offer. Digital technologies bring challenges and fragmentation, but only content with social values will resonate with people. The other advantage we have in facing competition from the fast-growing streaming services is the role that Hunan TV plays in shaping Chinese youth culture. It’s a branding we have carefully built for over 20 years with content that entertains, enlightens and empowers generations of youngsters, and that’s not going to be easy to beat. Having said that, we try to see digital players as partners rather than competitors. Being a content powerhouse, our goal in today’s media environment is to maximize the commercial value of our IP across all platforms, including our own SVOD service, Mango TV. The way we measure our content is changing as well, from traditional real-time ratings to aggregated cross-media viewing, as well as social media data.

TV ASIA: What did you learn from your experience running Mango TV?
DING: What’s changed is the way I look at content distribution and what we can do about the fact that we are operating linear channels and one of the nation’s top streaming platforms at the same time. We granted Mango TV the exclusive rights for online streaming of our content and very recently picked up a few titles they produced to fill our daytime slots, building an ecosystem for viewers across platforms. This strategy has proved successful in driving audiences together. Regardless, content is king and that will never change. Creating innovative content will always be on the top of my list, no matter where I go.

TV ASIA: Why has it been important for Hunan TV to focus on original IP development, rather than licensing concepts from the global market?
DING: We were one of the first Chinese broadcasters in the international licensing business, leading to “format fever” in the Chinese television industry for around ten years. From Western hits like Strictly Come Dancing and Your Face Sounds Familiar to Asian concepts like I Am A Singer and Where Are We Going, Dad?, we had many stories of success. As the market kept changing, we realized that format acquisition isn’t all-powerful. We have to offer more original ideas that can reflect what’s going on in our lives and resonate with local audiences. For example, the idea of The Sound came from a celebrity text-reading performance on a traditional variety gala we did; and the idea for The Rocking Bridge came from a viral video on a local live-streaming app. These methods of original development worked out extremely well for us. So when the fever of international formats started to cool down, we quickly took another step forward and focused back on original IP creation. Now we have signed some option deals for international production, trying to take Chinese formats to the global market. I hope we will soon make some exciting announcements.

TV ASIA: How did the Biu Project come about?
DING: In 2016, we reorganized the R&D division of the channel. One of the goals was to fully unleash the creative potential of the 27 in-house studios and support the channel’s original content development. The Biu Project started as a monthly pitch competition where creative studios competed for a chance to launch their new programs. Later on, we introduced a pilot production system. Having something we can actually watch and discuss helps us make the best possible commissioning decisions. It also allows us to turn more ideas into reality and learn from our mistakes, which is a considerable boost to in-house content innovation. Now 80 percent of our non-scripted content is incubated through the Biu Project. With that record, we launched the international version of this initiative this past MIPCOM by sponsoring the 2020 MIPFormats International Pitch competition. We hope to expand our creative alliance and work with a higher number of talents from across the world. The call for entries starts this December.

TV ASIA: What are your goals for Hunan TV’s format development and sales division?
DING: I understand that co-developing formats with global partners or selling formats outside of China isn’t the easiest job to do, given the differences we have in cultures and industrial practices. In the case with Endemol Shine, for example, we had our ups and downs during the two years of hard work before the success of Sing or Spin. It’s important to be patient, learn from each other, and believe in what we do until things work out for both sides. The format launch of Sing or Spin at MIPCOM has made quite some noise. I’m happy with what the R&D center has achieved so far. I believe these experiences are invaluable as we aim to continue the partnership and explore new ones in the coming year.

TV ASIA: Are you looking at opportunities to bring Hunan TV dramas to the global market?
DING: Many of our dramas have already gained popularity among the overseas Chinese community. This business is carried out by individual affiliated companies and maintains a solid revenue stream for the group. At this moment we are looking at if we can work together with international scriptwriters to create new original dramas in China, a model similar to non-scripted format co-development.

TV ASIA: What can broadcasters worldwide learn from Hunan TV’s IP development?
DING: Most of the non-scripted content on Hunan TV is produced in-house. Each of the studios we own has its field of expertise, talent resources and management staff. All levels of the channel are there to support them, forming a highly effective working system centering around IP creation. For example, the other job of the R&D center is to conduct global market research to provide insights on content trends and build a network of creative resources. The programming department offers all-media viewing data and shares audience analysis. While all the information is communicated through a mobile app, it’s my job every day to sit down with one of our producers and discuss their ideas. With that kind of support, a national hit [can be] made within two months, from an idea on paper to grand premiere. But that’s never enough. We can always do better. That’s another reason why international partnerships such as content co-development are mutually beneficial. We keep fine-tuning our ways of working and learning new ways of thinking and exploring what we can achieve in the future.

TV ASIA: What are your hopes for China becoming a global leader in the export of content around the world?
DING: China is a big market and full of energy and opportunity for creativity. With the fast-changing technologies and social development, I believe we are capable of coming up with original concepts that can travel far. Yet there is still a lot to do. We will continue to make efforts in international exchange and cooperation, with a strong sense of responsibility to share with the world our innovative content and cultures.