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PERSPECTIVE

Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

Fighting for China

By Josh Selig 30-05-2017

About a month ago, a mixed martial arts fighter named Xu Xiaodong challenged any traditional Chinese martial arts master to a public fight. Xu claimed they were all “frauds.”

A man named Wei Lei, who is a Tai Chi master, took up the challenge. With the cameras rolling, Wei Lei, wearing an elegant white silk shirt, struck a few graceful Tai Chi poses before Xu circled him like a hungry animal, knocked him to the ground, and pummeled his face repeatedly and brutally. The whole ‘fight’ was over in 10 seconds. Wei Lei’s lovely white silk shirt was red with his own blood.

A video of this awful scene went viral in China and the winner, Xu, had to go into hiding. Why? Because the Chinese population was outraged by his behaviour. Xu had, inadvertently, also given a beating to Chinese culture.

He didn’t seem to understand that Tai Chi, and all the other traditional forms, are not just a deep source of national pride in China, they’re really not, at their core, about fighting at all. Rather, they’re about balance, harmony, health and respect. Mixed martial arts, on the other hand, has only one purpose: physical dominance.

Mip China kicks off in Hangzhou

This story was on my mind all week while I attended the first-ever Mip China in Hangzhou. Perhaps this is because entertainment in China also plays a much bigger cultural role than simply trying to win a bare-fisted battle for the highest ratings. In fact, most companies involved in media of any kind in China are registered as ‘culture companies.’

I’m not sure if it was planned this way, but most of the presentations at Mip China were focused on formats and unscripted television, aka reality TV – considered by some to be the lowest form of culture ever enjoyed by human beings. And I found myself worrying that some of the attending Hollywood executives, arguably the mixed martial artists of the global entertainment business, were here simply to kick some traditional Chinese TV ass.

The keynote was given by the very charming Ben Silverman of Propogate Content in Los Angeles. “An idea is like spit in the air,” he explained. “It goes away without proper execution.”

When asked by one young producer what types of new formats might be successful in China, Silverman answered obliquely: “When you know, you know.” The Chinese audience, which was presumably attending Mip China precisely because it did not know, looked bewildered.

Silverman closed with this benediction: “I want to celebrate our shared love of consumption and commerce.”

Delegates at Mip China

Although I do wish there had been less of a focus on reality TV, I did have a wonderful time at Mip China. It was, without a doubt, the best organised conference I’ve ever attended in China (and I’ve been to a few). The team at Reed Midem knows how to host an event, and I found great comfort in the confirmation emails, site maps and the fact there were pre-arranged times for tech rehearsals. Such things rarely happen in China.

A small group of executives from some of the world’s top global entertainment companies, including Turner, Endemol Shine, All3Media and Viacom, attended. On the Chinese side, there were executives from Alibaba, iQiYi, Shanghai Media Group and Huace Group. It was an impressive if bite-sized bunch and there was a cozy accessibility to the execs that was rare at any market.

One of the most insightful comments I heard during my three days at Mip China came from Pierre Cheung, the friendly and very articulate general manager of Viacom China, who said: “The best opportunities for cooperation between China and the international market are in the area of animation.”

One-on-one meetings get under way

I could not agree more. I gave a master class on this very topic and shared a few of Little Airplane’s experiences coproducing shows with China.

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, Little Airplane has helped to develop and produce the only two Chinese animated series to have found homes on top US networks. The first one is Super Wings!, which we coproduce with Alpha, FunnyFlux, CJ E&M and KiKa for Sprout in the US. And the second is P King Duckling, which we make with UYoung Media for Disney Junior US.

These two shows seem to have created the illusion that I have ‘figured out China,’ but rest assured, nothing could be further from the truth. No one has figured out China – not even the Chinese – and I have simply been, as one local colleague here likes to put it, “one lucky-ass gringo.”

In the early morning hours in Hangzhou, I would put on my sneakers and jog as slowly and rhythmically as a water buffalo around West Lake. Dawn is when the locals seize the lake. They fly kites shaped like birds and fish. The old men strike ancient poses with long swords, while the grandmothers do ‘square dances’ wearing flowered dresses.

The ladies of Hangzhou dance in the early morning

As I sat by West Lake on my last morning in Hangzhou, I was filled with a deep respect and appreciation for the many things that make China, well, China: history, family, tradition, community, the arts. And then I recalled a presentation I had seen just the day before. It featured clips from Die Geissens, a German show about a tanned, blonde family who were, we were told by the producers, “the German Kardashians.” Is reality TV, I wondered to myself, really the best that we foreigners can bring to China?

I have no doubt that any skilled mixed martial artist can beat up pretty much any traditional Chinese martial artist. But should he? And I have no doubt that brilliant international producers can come to China and create shows that will be as brash and addictive as Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But should they?

Will China be better or worse off if the very thing that the Chinese value the most – their rich and deep culture – gets pummeled like a Tai Chi master in a white silk shirt?

Sitting by the lake watching the boats, I recalled another speech I had heard just last month at CICAF, China’s largest animation event. Gou Weihua, who runs Shanghai Toonmax, told the audience: “When we are moving forward with our body, how can we also do so with our soul? We must strike a balance between commercialisation and telling good stories that still have real cultural value.”

today's correspondent

Josh Selig Founder and president Little Airplane Productions

Josh Selig is the founder of Little Airplane Productions. He is the creator and executive producer of Wonder Pets! on Nick Jr (winner of the 2009 Japan Prize for Best Television Series), as well as 3rd & Bird and Small Potatoes, both of which aired on CBeebies and Disney Junior.

Josh is executive producer of Super Wings on Sprout and the co-creator and executive producer of P King Duckling, which premiered on Disney Junior US and airs on CCTV in China. Josh has received 11 Emmys in multiple categories.


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