Meet the Man Who Made 'The Voice' a Hit in China

Chad Ingraham

Want help cracking China's TV market? Look no further than Ming Tian, a programming visionary who turned a Western singing show into a phenomenon

This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

There is a general air of hysteria outside the studio at Jiaxing University Stadium, about an hour's drive from Shanghai, where ratings smash The Voice of China shortly will be recorded for broadcast on Zhejiang TV.

Fans mill around, eager for a glimpse of one of the show's judges, but security muscle holds them off. The talent entrance is through an underground drive-through.

The Chinese take on the Dutch-originated Voice format, with its alchemy of passion, heartache and triumph, has struck a major chord in the world's biggest TV market.

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The third season of The Voice of China racked up more than 100 million downloads within the first 15 hours of its premiere in July on the Tencent online platform and has topped the ratings every Friday night this season, attracting up to 6.1 million viewers.

"Star China is thrilled with the success of the third season of The Voice of China, our best season ever," Star China CEO Ming Tian tells THR.

That success is all Star's to enjoy. At the start of the year, the investment fund China Media Capital bought out the remaining 47 percent of Star TV held by Rupert Murdoch's Fox to become sole owner of the channel. The Voice isn't Star's only hit. The company's other shows include China's Got Talent and a local take on So You Think You Can Dance.

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"We started with China's Got Talent; before that, there were no stations buying imported TV formats. They just made copycat shows," says Ming. "After the success of Got Talent, we realized the strength of the intellectual property of formats. So we started looking for the next powerful format, and in 2012, that was The Voice."

U.S. fans of The Voice would recognize the Chinese format with its three phases of blind auditions, battle rounds and live performance shows. Similarly, the four Voice coaches are picked from among the country's best-known recording artists. This season, that includes Na Ying, a singer who has sold more than 10 million albums, singer-songwriters Yang Kun and Chyi Chin and rock star Wang Feng.

But cultural differences between the Chinese and Western versions of the show remain. Asked what motivates them, TVOC contestants most often cite "parental approval" as the primary factor. Instead of hoping to become an overnight superstar, most of these amateur singers are trying to convince their folks that entertainment is a viable career in China.

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Another difference, as always in China, is the role of the state. The huge success of TVOC's first season spawned a host of imitators, and soon 19 copycat music talent shows were on the air. Concerned about the popularity of this imported Western entertainment, the communist government media watchdog stepped in to regulate. In a statement, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said they aimed to stamp out "vulgarity" and offered the opaque admonition that music shows avoid "extravagance, putting on dazzling packaging and playing up sensational elements."

Looking ahead, Chinese producers are hoping to break free of foreign formats and go it on their own. This year, Star China created the first original Chinese singing format, Sing My Song, in which contestants sing tunes they composed themselves. It was a hit, drawing a total viewership of 480 million for its first season.

"We can create new formats by combining them with the Eastern culture," says Ming.

Behind the fan hysteria lies a well of vast business potential. "The Chinese market is very unique," explains Ming. "International formats are very popular, but they have to match the [taste] in the Chinese market and viewing behavior of Chinese audiences. The Chinese TV market will become the largest in the world."

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