Hunan TV’s Global Aspirations

Lester Hu, the head of formats and international business at Hunan TV, talks to TV Formats about how the broadcaster is looking to make a name for itself as a creative hub for innovative format ideas.

Hunan TV has brought more than 30 international format brands to China, among them The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Your Face Sounds Familiar. Over the last two years, however, the broadcaster has shifted its focus to original content development, and it is now looking to make a name for itself as a creative hub for innovative format ideas. “We think that with the fresh and original ideas generated by our in-house production studio and teams, we can do this,” Hu says.

Among those ideas is Super-Vocal, which Hunan TV was heavily promoting at MIPTV earlier this year. The new spin on the singing talent format features aspiring opera singers as they vie to become part of a “popera” group. “We’re always looking for a ***Image***niche market where we haven’t done something before, and something people have never seen before,” Hu explains. “These [singers] are at an extremely high level of talent. They received the best quality of education in music, but there is no stage for them to show their talent. That’s what the format is all about, giving them an opportunity to shine.”

Super-Vocal is also distinctive in its format structure, Hu notes. “There is no elimination at all.” The six best performers in each episode are selected for the “apprentice group,” Hu explains, while the remaining 30 compete in challenges “to fight back to the stage. That creates a very intense atmosphere among those contestants. Even though you might be one of the best six in the last episode, you can’t say you will keep that seat; you can be replaced at any moment. There are so many selling points for the format.”

Hunan TV is open to working with international partners to bring its concepts to the global market. It has a deal with The Story Lab for the voiceover talent format The Sound and is co-developing properties with Endemol Shine Group. Hu is optimistic about the prospects for the global export of Chinese IP, especially in the wake of the success of The Masked Singer, which originated in South Korea. Craig Plestis, who brought The Masked Singer to the U.S., has optioned a Hunan TV format, Hu says.

“I do think China will be a future center for creative formats,” Hu says. “The Chinese audience is looking for something new every day. It’s really competitive in China. The other thing about the Chinese market is that the money is there. There is always money for good content. That’s why I believe China will be a future format creator, someday. People want new ideas. We’re creating them constantly, ***Image***and there is money to support good ideas and good content. So that will keep us going forward.”

Hu is conscious that ideas may need to be adjusted to appeal to the international market. “Our first goal is to make sure it’s a success in China. That means every format we put out to the international market has been a success in China. And then we think, How can it be Westernized or Americanized? When we used to do acquisitions, we tried so hard to understand the format. Why had it been such a big success in the U.K., for example, but didn’t suit China that well? So we had to do the localization ourselves. I think our potential buyers should look at things that way as well. They should think about how they can abstract some of the key points from a Chinese or Asian format and make it work in a Western market. Hunan has worked on so many international formats; we know how to localize things. I believe that is something we can provide to buyers or producers in other countries—our experience. And we’re not that strict on the format. We can be quite flexible and cooperative and offer them our experiences and what we can do to help them to really make a success in other countries.”