Reel world of TV documentaries

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China is a country that is eager for TV documentaries and people stories about its breathtaking economic surge, social changes, rapid urbanization of the countryside, and the fallout from galloping GDP.

More and more filmmakers are making documentaries about everything from food to fashion, from love and dating to the high cost of marriage and housing, from saving traditional operas to saving wildlife.

Domestic documentary productions used to be criticized for being boring, doctrinaire and lacking creativity and artistry, however, today many high-quality documentaries are being filmed.

Acclaimed works include "The Palace Museum" (2011) about the art collection in the Forbidden City, the nature documentary series "Forest China" (2011) and the food culture series "A Bite of China" (2012).

After several years of cultivating audiences, China's documentary film industry is now flourishing, Ying Qiming, director of the local Documentary Channel, says, meaning there is interest and quite a few films are made. However, broadcast channels and financial backing are still problems for filmmakers themselves.

A good sign for the Documentary Channel is that the viewership rate of most Chinese documentaries is triple that of foreign documentaries that are broadcast.

In Shanghai, Chinese documentaries are shown during prime time from 7:30pm to 11pm and account for more than half of the total broadcast schedule.

Just three years ago, foreign documentaries made by Discovery and National Geographic represented around 70 percent of the channel's schedule and were watched by far more people than domestic documentaries.

Despite the global economic slowdown, last year the channel made a profit of around 12 million yuan (US$1.94 million), mostly from advertising and program copyright sales.

"The largest proportion of our audience are male intellectuals from 40 to 55 years," Ying says. "Thought-provoking social documentaries that take a sharp look at social issues is their favorite type of program."

"The 25th Hour," one of the most popular local documentary programs, turns its lens on the current varied living conditions, diverse attitudes and often the confusion of people swept up in economic and social changes.

According to Guo Jing, producer and director of the one-hour program, each documentary takes two to three months to make and requires considerable preparation and research.

"Last year we documented young people's difficulties in finding a spouse, the dragon lunar year (2012) baby boom, and the vanishing traditional Shanghai breakfast," Guo says. "All of these topics are popular with viewers because they are close to their own lives."

CCTV 9, China's other professional documentary channel, was launched in 2011. Over the past two years, its advertising has risen rapidly. This year its advertising revenue is expected to reach 400 million yuan, double that of 2012. Since most viewers have higher education, it attracts high-end advertisers.

Liu Wen, director of CCTV 9, has said the channel will continue to develop the teen market since high school and university students are potential viewers.

This means documentaries must be vivid, insightful and employ good story-telling skills. They provide useful information in a light way that is not preachy and moralistic.

Although the domestic documentary industry has good prospects, it faces challenges, including the lack of broadcast and showcase platforms.

China has only two professional documentary channels, the Shanghai Documentary Channel and CCTV 9. Documentaries are seldom screened in cinemas because they lack big commercial appeal. Many are shown at documentary festivals in China and overseas.

"Few people want to invest in or sponsor the production of a documentary, which doesn't yield as much profit as a commercial film or entertainment reality show," Ying says.

"This could create a cruel and vicious circle of lower budget and lower quality in artistry."

In many countries, documentaries can get financial or tax break support from governments. In Canada, both the production company and the TV station can share a documentary's global broadcast and sales copyright to ensure the sustainable and healthy development of the industry.

Inspired by the business model of Discovery Communications, which now has more than 100 channels in more than 180 countries, Ying is interested in collaborating with the regional TV channels in China's small and medium-sized cities.

Ying says that they can supply original and high-quality content while the local TV channels can benefit from the diversity in their broadcast schedule.

In addition to documentaries made by TV channels and production companies, every year there are some independent Chinese documentary productions. These works are mostly shown on the video-sharing websites or aiming at domestic and international TV and film festivals.

Li Ying, a 30-something business professional, says documentaries can spark heated discussion on the Internet and prove to be a "dark horse" in programming.

"One day people will get fed up with superficial entertainment shows and look for new ideas from thoughtful documentaries," she says.

TV experts and critics expect that interesting commercial documentaries and historical reenactments with good originality and perspective will have big potential to draw audiences and investors.

"Documentary filmmakers will meet higher story-telling requirements," says Li Tian, a local TV expert. "They should be able to think philosophically and find interesting angles to depict the truth."

Li cites the successful examples of "This Is It" (2009), a documentary with footage of Michael Jackson's rehearsals for his planned London concerts, and the 3D German documentary film "Pina" (2011) about Philippina Bausch, the contemporary choreographer. With novel ideas and good positioning, documentaries can also draw big investment and generate big returns.

The Documentary Channel

The channel will produce a nostalgic series of China's disappearing food and delicacies. These dishes used to be common on the table but due to pollution and people's plundering of the natural resources they are now rare to find. For example, daoyu, or knife fish, is an ordinary freshwater fish species in the Yangtze River. It used to be a common springtime delicacy. However, overfishing and polluted water conditions have pushed the fish to the edge of extinction. Nowadays a knife fish weighing about 150 grams sells for 1,000 yuan.

Shanghai's landmark architecture such as the Customs House and bell tower on the Bund will be featured in another series.

The tremendous transformations in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region over past decades will be explored in another series. It will also look at the culture, customs and lifestyle of people living in the far northwest.

The documentaries are to be aired by the end of the year.


CCTV 9 next year will release its highly anticipated sequel to the hit documentary series "A Bite of China." It will feature more delicacies and reflect on the relationships among people, culture, customs, nature and food.

According to director Chen Xiaoqing, the series will feature an interactive section for food lovers around China. Viewers will be encouraged to be "food detectives" and recommend dishes.

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