Taiwanese TV goes mainland prime time
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - Taiwan's cash-starved TV industry is to have easier and quicker access
to the mainland China market, giving investors new reason to pump in money to
co-productions to titillate the mainland's one-billion-plus viewers.
On November 30, China's Taiwan Affairs Office, the body in charge for
Taiwan-related policies, proclaimed three steps that will create increased
opportunities for TV co-productions brought out through partnerships of
mainland and Taiwanese companies. That will be good news for Sanlih
E-Television and Formosa TV, the Taiwanese producers of dramas most popular in
The process of reviewing and approving the broadcast of television dramas
jointly produced by Taiwan and mainland China will be
speeded up. Regular broadcasts of such joint productions will be scheduled
during primetime on China Central Television (CCTV), the major Chinese state
television broadcaster. And the mainland pledged to generally create more
opportunities for Taiwanese entertainers to work in the Greater China market.
Until those measures are implemented, Taiwanese dramas cannot be broadcast
during primetime on China's TV stations because they are considered foreign
productions. The review process has long been subject to complaints by the
Taiwanese as, according to them, it was subject to displays of official
TV from Taiwan has been considered in the mainland as cool for at least eight
years, when initial cable TV broadcasting there of several Taiwanese TV shows
proved hugely popular, and a striking contrast to offerings from CCTV and other
On the mainland side: painfully conformist presenters and their stiff guests,
all dressed in dark shades of gray and blue; on the Taiwanese side: a
flirtatious, sexy, extroverted and vociferous bunch of people. That window was
soon closed - the loud Taiwanese style proved a bit too much for the mainland
broadcasting authority, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television,
and the rules were tightened in September 2005.
"Hosts and hostesses ... have an unshakable responsibility to spread advanced
culture and national virtue …," the authorities decreed, and, as a broad hint
directed at the Americanized Taiwanese compatriots, "creep of vulgarity and
non-Chinese influences must be halted."
Even so, the mark left on the mainland media landscape by the Taiwan TV
footprint was irreversible. Mainland presenters longing to appear trendy
themselves adopted the slang and accent of their Taiwanese counterparts, and
inevitably, droves of young Chinese viewers followed suit, beginning to speak
and gesture like Taipeiers.
Then, in 2008, the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) took over the political
helm in Taipei, helping to warm up cross-Strait relations to unprecedented
level. Interaction in the arts, as in other fields, was rapidly
institutionalized, and 14 co-produced dramas were released in 2009 and 2010
Taiwanese channels remain unavailable on mainland cable TV, and Taiwanese
expats living across the strait (and mainland citizens) must resort to direct
broadcast satellite (DBS) to see its offerings.
The island's film industry is also still waiting to see meaningful
liberalization. In 2009, a local mega-hit Cape No.7, directed by Wei
Te-sheng, became the first Taiwanese film to secure a mainland release in 17
years after grossing US$15 million at home. The film, which has secured 15
awards, cost only US$1.5 million to make.
Last year, the two sides signed an agreement on intellectual property rights
(IPR) protection, which theoretically allows Taiwanese films to enter the
mainland market without quota restrictions, but so far no Taiwanese films have
been permitted to do so.
The 2010 hit movie Monga, which grossed US$9.8 million, is one victim of
continuing restrictions. The gangster film, directed by Doze Niu and starring
Ethan Ruan, was controversial even in Taiwan for alleged glorification of
organized crime. It was banned from the mainland because Beijing labelled the
film "detrimental to China's good and honest traditions".
Last weeks' announcement on cross-Strait TV dramas will give Taiwan's
television industry a long-waited kick-start, according to industry watchers on
the island. York Chiou, a professor at Taipei's Shih Hsin University Department
of Radio, Television and Film, told Asia Times Online that the mainland is the
biggest possible market for Taiwanese TV dramas mainly due to shared language
"The mainland audiences have a high degree of acceptance toward Taiwanese
productions. It's very easy for the Taiwanese to be popular in China if only
plot and actors are good," Chiou said. Now that Beijing actively encourages the
Taiwanese to cross the strait, production companies as well as actors will feel
much more secure when active there as in the past, rules and processes were
Chiou believes that the new measures will lead to an investment wave to the
benefit of the Taiwanese TV industry.
"It's expensive to shoot a good drama, but the investment is difficult to
recover with commercials alone. The production companies must rely on copyright
income or produce jointly to reduce costs. How much the further opening of the
Chinese market will help is illustrated by the matter that in the past, those
Taiwanese TV dramas that managed to enter China earned more than two-thirds of
their total copyright income from overseas in China alone."
Chiou, however, cautioned that the Taiwanese cannot take their advantages in
trendiness over their Chinese competitors for granted for long.
"TV audiences are very pragmatic; as China's production standards are rapidly
increasing, the Taiwanese will have to be good to stay competitive on the
Taiwanese TV dramas are still way ahead of the mainland's, particularly in
terms of fashion styles and the modernity of scripts and for financial reasons,
there's no other direction to turn for the Taiwanese, Nelson Tsai, a professor
at the same department, said.
Budgets for the production of one hour of drama here in Taiwan used to reach
NT$3 million (US$100,000); today, they have to make do with less than
NT$600,000. The Taiwanese market is so cramped that the expansion to China will
benefit business greatly."
Still, as Tsai points out, Hong Kong's TV and digital animation industries
experienced a similar boom after they began to produce jointly with mainland
companies. In many cases, Hong Kong staff were then gradually replaced by
mainlanders. The cross-strait story could go in that direction, he said.
"If China goes ahead with the opening, its own TV drama industry will undergo a
major upgrade and might eventually uproot Taiwan's superiority. The Taiwanese
government will have to react to the opening measures by coming up with some
own precautionary ones," Tsai said.
It also crucial that productions are popular with audiences on both sides of
the strait, according to Angie Chai, known as Taiwan's "Queen of Idol Drama".
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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