Metan brings entertainment news to China

'Hello! Hollywood!' expands, gains sponsors

A Los Angeles-based production company started by E! co-founder Larry Namer and former News Corp. exec Martin Pompadour is gaining traction in China with a year-old syndication model up and running in 48 cities and on several video portals with nationwide reach.

Bypassing top markets Beijing and Shanghai and targeting second-tier cities such as Guangzhou (population 10 million), Shenzhen (9 million) and Tianjin (12 million), Metan Development Group and its Chinese production partner have landed sponsors Ford, Colgate and Philips for its flagship entertainment news program "Hello! Hollywood!"

Subtitled "THRtv," Metan in 2008 licensed the name The Hollywood Reporter to raise its profile at industry events and has occasionally shared video footage with the online unit of the 80-year-old newspaper owned by e5 Global Media.

"Hello! Hollywood!" airs Saturdays at 10 p.m., and Metan has taped 40 episodes since it began production last summer. It's hosted in Beijing by China Radio International personality Andy Dong and, in Los Angeles, by newcomer Yang Yang. Their peppy Mandarin commentary over jump-cut footage of everything from Malibu celebrity fund-raisers to Hollywood premieres reaches 250 million Chinese TV households.

Barbara Wellner, Metan's programming head, started shows such as "The Soup" for E! and other fare for Twentieth Television, Bravo and others. Wellner said she never imagined she'd start a show in a language she can't understand.

"China has a rampant love for pop culture, but starting a show is a process in building trust -- both the publicists' and that of the audience," she said. "First we'll get C- and D-list stars, and once publicists understand the value of the Chinese audience, they'll give us their B- and A-list talent."

She tells her Hollywood contacts: "You might not be in China now, but you will be."

Metan's ratings are respectable, according to media research agency CSM. Cumulative ratings measured at the end of May showed "Hello! Hollywood!" drew 0.76% of the market share in its time slot in Tianjin and 0.34% in Shenzhen, said Jean Zhang, president of Metan's Chinese partner, the similarly-named Meitian, in Beijing.  In Yunnan, Province, where the capital, Kunming, is home to 7 million, "Hello! Hollywood!" drew 2.12% of the audience, Zhang said.

So it was that Ford, at the advice of New York-based advertising agency JWT, was willing to try out "Hello! Hollywood!" -- boarding the show as title sponsor this month to promote the Chinese-made Ford Fiesta to upwardly mobile urban car-buyers in their 20s.

"There have been local game shows in the past, but no show had the international flavor in a Chinese production until now," said Mike Nash, who handles Changan Ford's account for JWT from Shanghai.

"Hello! Hollywood!" also appealed to Ford because it has the potential to reach many more viewers via 12 partner websites, including Sohu, Youku and Tudou, three of the most-viewed by the world's largest online population -- now more than 400 million Chinese strong.

"The clincher was the digital portion of the platform, which made it much more attractive than just a TV deal," Nash said.

One recent episode of "Hello! Hollywood!" features an interview with Janet Yang ("The People vs. Larry Flynt") and the cast of "Disney High School Musical: China," which Yang produced. The localized movie version of the hit global franchise is due out in August, just as China's boxoffice gross is poised to outstrip last year's 43% jump in ticket sales.

CAA, which represents Yang (and the director and lead actress of "Disney High School Musical: China,"), set up the interview because the agency believed in the reach of "Hello! Hollywood!" which repeats each Sunday at noon. Namer said Metan is adding one new city channel a week.

Metan is not alone in attempting to bring Hollywood to China. The big studios have tried it but have been disappointed by Chinese law that says imported content can't run in primetime.

Comcast launched an Asia-wide initiative without the Chinese piece of the puzzle. In 2006-07, a Mandarin-language "Access Hollywood"-branded show co-produced in Beijing by New York-based Small World TV aired 80 episodes before being canceled by Inner Mongolian Satellite TV.

Metan appears to have avoided the risk of cancellation by a national broadcaster by going the city-by-city syndication route.  It also avoids trouble from news censors in Beijing by sticking to celebrity and lifestyle stories, rather than addressing Hollywood's complaints about market access and piracy.

"I have to watch content very carefully," said Zhang, previously the founder of the Sino-U.S. trade consultancy AmeriLink. "I have very good connections with people in the government to make sure we're not crossing the line," said the daughter of two retirees from the government of Tianjin, Beijing's closest port.

As Metan navigates a tough market, producing "Hello! Hollywood!" for $20,000 an episode, investor-partner Oganes Sobolev, a co-founder in 1992 of Video International, which turns around more than half of Russian television's ad budgets, said Metan should break even by the end of the fourth quarter.

Metan recently hired Neil Strum, a career studio executive with a legal and operations background who most recently worked for William Morris. Strum's job is to try to sign content for Metan to produce for Chinese viewers.

"The important thing is that we don't inundate and insult China's new sophisticated consumers," Strum said.

To source other content and talent, Metan is developing a relationship with CAA and WME, Wellner said, and Namer said the company hopes to work with Los Angeles-based Comcast International Media Group to create Chinese versions of shows from its cablers that includes E!, Style, G4 and Versus.
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