Televisa localizing 'Love' with CCTV

Local 'Ugly Betty' producer looking to replicate success

BEIJING -- Mexico's Televisa is working with China Central Television on a localized version of the telenovela "Distilling Love,"  hoping to repeat the branded content success it had with four seasons of a Chinese "Ugly Betty" on CCTV competitor Hunan Satellite TV.
 
Arturo Casares, Televisa's chief Asia adviser, told The Hollywood Reporter that he and Ma Runsheng and Chen Chunli, executives of  CCTV unit China International Television Corp., expect the planned co-produced series to begin shooting in early 2011.
 
Televisa's Spanish version of "Distilling Love" (dubbed in Mandarin as "Ai Zai Jiuchang," or, "Love in the Distillery") already was a hit on CCTV-8, the statecaster's dedicated drama channel. The story of a family of Mexican tequila makers rose to No. 3 in the late 2009-early 2010 nationwide rankings for its 10 pm-1 am, three-episodes-at-once timeslot, according to CSM Media Research. It was outranked only by the Winter Olympics at No. 2 and by "Ugly Wudi," China's "Betty," in the top spot.
 
Now, Televisa, CITVC and CCTV are searching for the right Chinese cultural product on which to focus the localized version of "Distilling Love" so its script is appealing at home and saleable overseas.
 
"It could be we make it around tea or baijiu," said Beijing-based Casares, using a Mandarin word for a common grain alcohol. "But it could also be about red wine and set at a vineyard, because that's China today, too."
 
Indeed, China's swelling middle class nowadays is among the world's largest consumer of imported red wine and has, in recent years, caused something of a product placement frenzy on television --a medium that reaches 95% of the population of 1.3 billion.
 
Televisa was right in the middle of that frenzy when Casares helped  "Ugly Wudi" ("Chou Nu Wu Di," in Mandarin) take product placement to new heights in China with in-show spots from U.S. fast moving consumer goods giant Unilever.
 
"Wudi" was set in an ad agency rather than the original show's fashion design agency, allowing for discussion of all kinds of products. Chinese TV industry talk has it that Beijing asked producers to dial down the commercialism frowned upon by conservatives in the Communist Party.
 
Casares denies knowledge of any crackdown sparked by "Ugly Wudi," but acknowledges that regulators now are watching more closely. A Jan. 1 regulation from the State Administration of Radio Film and Television said ads during radio and TV programs should not exceed 12 minutes per hour.
 
By some analysts' estimates, China's paid product placement spending topped 1 billion yuan ($146.5 million) in 2009, accounting for 5% of total ad spending, leaving plenty of room for growth.
 
One of the challenges of branding on Chinese TV is the schedule, which, in the case of "Ugly Wudi," often crammed two episodes or more into a single evening and ran them seven nights a week -- as opposed to the more predictable once per week model that doesn't risk advertisers becoming overexposed.
 
But the motivation behind a Chinese version of "Distilling Love" is not purely commercial, Casares said. In fact,  CCTV signed a memorandum of understanding with Televisa in hopes that the telenovela format might promote Chinese TV and Chinese culture overseas, he said.
 
Chinese media companies of all shapes and sizes are getting the message from China's top leaders on down that establishing a Chinese society on par with the nation's rising economic power must include Chinese subjects, faces and voices on television.
 
Casares said the talks with CCTV started when Jose Baston, Televisa's president for television and content visited China earlier this year.  Naturally, Casares said, it was discussed how Televisa could help a Chinese version of "Distilling Love" get broadcast overseas.
 
"If we do this right, this could be groundbreaking for Chinese television around the world," Casares said.
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