INTERVIEW: William Tan, Managing Director, Endemol Shine China

William Tan, Endemol Shine’s Beijing-based Managing Director for China, talks about a business and creative approach able to rock super-sized entertainment demand and roll with the punches. 

Chinese co-developments of scripted series Humans, Younger and Broadchurch, along with a slate of co-developed entertainment formats, are on their way as part of hard-won agreements between Endemol Shine’s China team and mainland broadcasters, platforms and production houses. At the same time, an international version of Chinese mega-format, The Nation’s Greatest Treasures, is being readied for a debut at Mipcom this month along with a slate of new Asian content. 

All of the scripted deals were unveiled over the past 16 months, and all are in line for broadcast/streaming slots in a gigantic but tightly regulated content market. Humans, with local production house, the Huace-linked Croton Media, was announced in July 2018, when filming on the sci-fi series, was already under way. A local version of British drama Broadchurch was announced in October last year, with licensee /producer Blue&White&Red Pictures and IP trader Cloudwood. A 40-episode Chinese version of Younger with the Huace Group was announced in March. 

In typical China fashion, none of the series has a broadcaster (or at least not one Endemol Shine is willing to confirm or name) attached, and won’t until the final government clearances are complete. It’s the China way, Tan, who has led Endemol Shine’s China strategy since early 2015, says. And it has clearly never been for the feint-hearted. 

Humans breaks new ground in China, with its near-future backdrop and themes. Set in 2035, the series revolves around highly developed robotic servants that become integral members of busy homes and offices. For all its differences for China, the series, starring Ray Ma and Stephy Qi, retains the slightly sinister emotional narrative of the U.K. original, exploring the role of artificial intelligence and the revolving relationship between humans and technology. 

Tan acknowledges the risks of doing anything for the first time in China, where rules are strict and regulations can turn on a dime. But, after well over a decade on the ground in the market and with strong local partnerships, he says levels of uncertainty can be managed as far as is humanly possible. “We have been very careful,” he says. 

The near-future setting of Humans was part of the series’ pivot for China, putting the time frame beyond the scope of, for instance, regulatory scrutiny of extravagant period drama. But Tan says the time shift also made a lot of sense for the market in being able to present viewers with something they have not seen before. 

Another major adjustment to the way Humans will be presented in China also has to do with the market rather than with censorship. The first season of Humans in the U.K., for example, went out as an eight-episode series. This has swelled to 30-episodes for China, written by a large team of about seven scriptwriters from the U.K. who joined the China team. Tan says 30 “is not really a magical number”. Series in China commonly run to 70 or 80 episodes. Because costs are high, “it makes sense to amortise over 30 or 70 episodes instead of over eight or 10,” Tan says. In addition, streaming platforms as well as satellite TV services tend to strip episodes, which means they need volume.   

Making sure audiences know about a show before they see it is part of the broad industry challenge for marketers in China. Uncertain release dates make marketing campaigns difficult to plan. Tan says being on the ground gives him an edge. A series “could be cleared for broadcast in six months time or it could be tomorrow. So on one hand we need to always be well prepared, with all the marketing done ahead of time. At the same time, we need to be flexible to make sure that we allow time for a show to move or be delayed,” he says, adding: “This is why being near to the market works”. 

Tan’s other two current scripted projects – Broadchurch and Younger – couldn’t be more different in tone and theme from each other and from Humans.

British crime investigation series, Broadchurch, is perhaps more challenging in China than Humans or Younger because the crime element triggers a need for police clearances. Even in the announcement in October 2018, Endemol Shine was careful to say that the show would be “adapted in line with local regulations” – a commitment not specifically mentioned in the Younger announcement in March 2019. 

Endemol Shine is, with partners Blue&White&Red Pictures and Cloudwood, pressing on with Broadchurch. Tan says scripts are being written, but it’s not yet clear how the story might change. The original Broadchurch explores what happens to a small community after the death of a young boy. 

The Chinese version of Younger is a 40-episode lighthearted series based on five seasons of the original U.S. show about a woman who lies about her age to get a job. Earlier this year, Huace Group’s international business VP, Cecilia Zhu, said the goal was to create “a fun representation of the professional and personal lives of young people in China, reflecting their views and the realities of modern life”.

If premium drama is the flavour of the day, China retains a little of its old taste for unscripted format acquisitions and a high appetite for entertainment co-development, such as the acting reality show, Acting Up, developed by Hunan TV with Endemol Shine China. Another musical reality talent show is on the way, also with Hunan TV. Much of this is driven by quotas on foreign acquisitions, the ability to adapt to whatever the rule of the day is, and the lure of an international distribution network. Tan says he always tells his China partners about his “Three Go’s – Go out. Go in. And go down further”. Sounds so simple.

Published in ContentAsia Issue Five 2019, 3 October 2019