Hunan TV Weaves a Creative Network

Lester Hu, the head of formats and international business in the R&D Center at Hunan TV, talks to TV Formats about the company’s International Biu Project and the creative network of international partners it has formed over the years.

Last year, Hunan TV launched the first International Biu Project by sponsoring MIPFormats’ International Pitch competition, with a support package of a cultural exchange visit to China and a possible co-development deal. In return, it received 60 original format ideas from 23 countries and regions. “There were some really interesting ideas with fresh perspectives, although further development would be needed to make it stand out and eventually put on-air in the Chinese market,” says Lester Hu, the head of formats and international business in the R&D Center at Hunan TV. “The original plan was to invite all five finalists to come to China, to meet with our team and have a better understanding of our culture and the market. It’s a pity that we couldn’t follow through due to the global pandemic. In all likelihood, we will stage new rounds of the International Biu Project when the time is ripe.”

Over the years, Hunan TV has formed a creative network of international partners. With this network, co-developed formats such as Sing or Spin have been produced and aired. “We feel that working with creators from different cultural backgrounds is an invaluable experience,” Hu says. “There is often a higher level of creativity with add-on elements that will improve the formats’ adaptability. By introducing the International Biu Project to the world, we hope to expand our creative alliance and work with a greater number of international talent to co-create the next big hit in China and formats that can travel internationally.”

Hunan TV is a female-skewing channel, targeting younger audiences with a broader appeal to family viewers. Accordingly, entertainment genres offering a co-viewing experience are central to its offering. “Music shows, dating shows and reality competitions with a unique and fun twist are always on top of our list,” says Hu. “Given the current circumstances, we pay special attention to lighthearted and escapist formats that can deliver positive values and uplifting messages to the public.”

Key to Heart, for example, is a studio dating show that explores how smartphones change the way we meet and date someone. Singletons gain full access to potential dates’ smartphones before seeing each other and making their decisions. “It was one of the first productions resumed last year and became the number one show in its time slot with an impressive 8 percent share for Gen Z,” says Hu. “With a universal theme and an iconic giant phone screen in the set, this dating format has the potential to adapt to any cultural setting.”

The competition in the Chinese market for non-scripted formats is fierce, he adds. “Our audiences always want something new and fresh. That means we have to keep up and more often think beyond boundaries. Ten years ago, we were one of the first Chinese broadcasters in the international licensing business, leading to a breakthrough in our programming genres and scales, as well as enhanced production quality. More recently, we’ve duetted with international partners on creating original IP in China, giving a further boost to content innovation. And now, we have a fast lane open to all producers and creators for ideas to be pitched, tested and eventually commissioned through the International Biu Project and a pilot production system. The format business is all about content innovation and, equally important, the capacity to drive creativity working with the smartest people across the global industry. Being open, practical and flexible, we are always on the hunt for the next big thing.”

Hu says that the global heat of Asian formats is on the rise. “We’ve been approached by an increasing number of producers and distributors showing interest in our in-house developed formats. Our catalog now owns some of the most popular entertainment formats from China, ranging from the celebrity dubbing competition The Sound and pop-opera music talent show Super-Vocal to the action-packed game show The Rocking Bridge. Our latest launch, Key to Heart, has already attracted inquiries from the U.S., Italy and a few other Asian countries. Looking ahead, we are excited about the export of Hunan TV’s original formats. Apart from that, we have hundreds of original ideas within our internal pipeline that are ready to be further developed with future partners. There is a lot more we can do.”