How 'The Voice' Creator Cracked China's TV Market — Then Didn't

Courtesy of Star China
Star China produced four seasons of 'The Voice' before launching the comparable 'Sing My Song,' above.

The Chinese version of the singing competition show was a massive hit until a similar show popped up and regulators shut down foreign programming.

Talpa was one of the first Western companies to crack the Chinese market. On July 13, 2012, The Voice of China, a local-language version of Talpa's iconic spinning-chairs singing competition show, launched on satellite network Zhejiang Television and was an instant success, drawing upward of 120 million TV viewers and some 400 million online.

The show's status only grew from there. By season four, which aired in 2015, The Voice topped the ratings virtually every week. The season finale was watched by nearly a third of all TV households in the country of 1.2 billion people. Buoyed by the success, Talpa lined up multiple deals for the Middle Kingdom, including with internet giant Tencent, to produce an online-only version of the Dutch group's social experiment format Utopia, renamed The 15 of Us for China.

Then Talpa ran into the roadblocks familiar to any foreign company working with China: those of government regulation and copyright theft. The alleged theft came from Star China, the local group that produced four seasons of The Voice of China but then launched its own, strikingly similar competition format Sing My Song. Talpa sued and signed a new deal with media group Zhejiang Tangde to produce seasons five to eight of The Voice of China and to develop and produce some 200 new shows for the market. But before anything could happen, the government cracked down, effectively banning imported television formats in favor of "domestically invented TV programs that convey the Chinese dream — core socialist values, patriotism and Chinese traditions."

"We've been a forerunner in the Chinese industry, and I think our experiences have been very positive, but if you look at the current situation, not just for us but for all international players, you see that the current developments have quite an impact on our business," says Maarten Meijs, managing director of Talpa Global. "[Beijing] has essentially closed down the domestic market for foreign formats."

Despite the setbacks, Meijs remains optimistic about the Chinese market and Talpa's place in it. "We aren't turning our backs on China," he says. "It's a difficult market, but you can't afford to ignore it. We'll find a way to work with China, to find a way to adapt and produce for the market without running afoul of the regulations." 

This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.