Asian Media: Reality in Asia

From male beauty pageants to surviving on a budget, reality TV shows are making headway among the drama-obsessed TV viewers of Asia. Pippa Considine reports.

A new breed of Asian pop star is waiting in the wings. With the format of Pop Idol now sold to India, Malaysia and Indonesia, there will soon be Asian competition when it comes to the World Idol showdown. Although you can't tear Asian viewers from their beloved soaps, reality TV formats, such as Pop Idol or Survivor, are finding a home in the continent.

Reality TV seems to have global appeal. Recent research by Eurodata TV Worldwide showed reality TV grew across the world last year to represent around 18 per cent of top entertainment shows. It also revealed a jump in average Asia-Pacific viewing hours, adding 47 minutes a day to reach three hours and 23 minutes.

But those two figures don't go exactly hand in hand. Reality TV is on the increase, but it's still knocked out of the picture by dramas, especially soaps. "In India, mainstream formats such as soaps are still the most popular formats by a large margin," Mansi Kumar, the media controller with Universal McCann in India, says. The Star Plus channel is the home for a number of leading soaps, including Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Kii ("She was also a daughter-in-law"). One of the star actresses in the drama is even standing in the Indian elections.

The Japanese also love soap opera, while Korean drama is the flavour of the moment. But variety shows, such as The Fountain of Trivia, and comedies, such as Rich Mr A, Poor Mr B, are also popular.

China is almost overwhelmed by drama. More than 800 soap opera producers in China make more than 20,000 hours of TV dramas every year. The top ones include Princess Ge Ge, The Yong Zheng Dynasty and Bronze Teeth.

In general, soap operas set in China's imperial past attract larger audiences in the north, while modern love stories are more popular in the east and south.

Primetime TV in China is dominated by drama and game shows, although, more recently, broadcasters have had some success with crime shows, talk shows, such as Shihuashisuo and Dialogue on the state-owned CCTV network, and talent- search formats.

But there's a cultural shift happening in China that could favour reality TV. In the past, the only real people who would go on air would be politicians, teachers or other authority figures. Now ordinary people can become celebrities and the tide is turning. There have already been one or two significant reality TV shows.

Survival Challenge was one of the first reality programmes in the country.

"It was one of the first and best," Bessie Lee, the chief executive of MindShare in China, says. Then, Into Shangri-La saw two teams competing in the foothills of the Himalayas, with the emphasis on comradely bonding, rather than beating each other to the prize. Another Big Brother lookalike saw 13 people confined to a house for 12 weeks with 72 cameras. And in Hong Kong, a production of Temptation Island, called The Wedding Race, has been a success.

The acceptability of such formats is something that the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star Group has picked up on and reality TV features strongly on its Chinese Xing Kong channel (meaning Starry Sky). As yet, the Chinese authorities have only licensed Xing Kong to air in a couple of rather unprofitable provinces, but that hasn't stopped the channel from beginning to make a library of local programming, including some reality TV corkers.

TV Court is a lookalike for America's courtroom series Judge Judy. Then there's a real-life police show, Wanted! In China, as well as China's first male beauty contest, Women in Control. Murdoch is clearly hoping that locally made reality TV will prove the secret weapon in Asia.

In Japan - the land of endurance spectacles - reality TV of one sort or another has been on air for decades. "It could be argued that they were the inventors of reality TV," Kevin Jennings, a senior manager of research and strategic planning for Star, says. Reality TV shows are relatively cheap to make and are watched by the younger Japanese. However, the brasher, new-wave formats are frowned on by a large chunk of the population.

"This kind of programme is typically not so popular in 'polite Japan' where watching other people's lives for amusement and fun would be seen as intrusive and inappropriate," Andrew Meaden, the chief executive of MindShare in Japan, explains.

The Japanese don't need western formats, they've plenty of their own.

One show, called London Hearts, involves a dating "sting" where a suspicious boyfriend has his unsuspecting girlfriend invited out on a date by a stranger and cameras follow her on the date.

A more "acceptable" reality TV slot is Ikinari! Ogon Densetsu, which follows people living on an impossibly tight budget for a month, with the winner being the one who saves the most.

In India, where TV has mushroomed in the past decade or so, reality TV has played a small but significant part. One or two formats, which have been given a complete Indian remake, have been hits in the country. Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, which went out on Star Plus, was an important factor in the channel's rising popularity in the 90s. It was completely adapted for the Indian version - anchored by the Bollywood mega-star Amitabh Bahchan and given the feel-good factor.

The show, Kaun Banega Crorepati in Hindi, was hailed as a programming phenomenon, redefining the way television was viewed in India by encouraging people to interact with the show like never before. KBC triggered a barrage of copycat shows and pulled in audiences ITV could only dream about. At its peak, it attracted around 30 million viewers.

But, according to Jennings: "There are limits on the number and style of imported reality shows. Some would not be suitable for the Asian markets and certainly overt sexuality would not sit well with broadcasters and viewers alike."

They might need a bit of toning down, but reality TV formats are still finding their way into the region. James Gibbons, the vice-president of programming for Discovery Networks in Asia, says there is a demand for high-quality documentary, but he has tested the water with the US reality shows Body Challenge and Faking It. Discovery has now developed a local reality-type pilot show called Feng Shui Makeover, a similar idea to Changing Rooms.

Meanwhile, Star Plus has been pulling in viewers with American Idol and the Sony network in India hopes to steal some of this thunder, having scooped the rights to Indian Idol. Madan Mohapatra, the media director at Mediaedge in India, observes that a handful of reality TV formats are in the pipeline. "This year looks likely to be the year of reality TV format programming in India," he says.

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