President Xi Jinping has emphasized the importance of people-oriented art, saying art should be of the people and for the people. Chinese TV dramas would do good to follow Xi's advice and create works that enrich Chinese culture as well as benefit the producers.
The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television and four other central government departments have jointly issued a document to boost the development of TV dramas. Among the document's 14 articles, including those on how to help improve TV productions and management, better cultivate talent and provide capital support, Article 3 which requires the establishment of a scientific mechanism for investment in and distribution of TV dramas is the most remarkable.
China's TV drama market is booming. Last year, 334 TV dramas with 14,912 episodes obtained the permission to broadcast the programs. But this should not be used to gauge the success of the TV drama industry, because it has been plagued by poor production quality and weak stories.
The fact that TV dramas still manage to draw a large audience in China can be attributed to the appeal of the TV stars, who are generally good in appearance but poor in performance. And despite huge amounts of money being invested in popular TV stars, the so-called IPTV dramas don't pay attention to the script, even plagiarize stories.
Producers believe that irrespective of the quality of the story, audiences will lap up a TV drama series as long as it has popular stars as showpieces. And since TV drama scriptwriters are not paid well and don't have much say in the production, they don't bother much about the end product, which undermines the quality of the programs.
The newly released regulation to improve the quality of TV dramas targets these areas. Article 3 says original creations should be respected and encouraged, and urges all parties to reflect on the importance of creativity and knowledge in the success of TV productions. It also requires industrial associations to help TV production companies optimize the investment and distribution mechanisms. The regulation not only stresses on the significance of contents to TV dramas, but also aims to curb the unreasonably high paychecks of TV stars, in order to promote healthy TV dramas.
Capital always seeks profits. But as part of a content-based, creative industry, TV dramas' blind pursuit of profits at the cost of good contents will only lead to fake prosperity, and eventually undermine their sustainability. It's time scriptwriters are given their due.
Perhaps Chinese productions could learn a thing or two from the Republic of Korea's TV drama industry. ROK TV dramas have captured audiences' imagination not only at home but also in other Asian, even a few Western countries, because they are "scriptwriter-led" productions.
Wang Cong writes in his Economics of Korean Entertainment Industry, published in 2015, that there are high requirements from scriptwriters in the ROK. There are only about 300 scriptwriters in the ROK who have undergone strict training in professional schools. Besides, only about a third of those 300 can be the main scriptwriter of a mainstream TV drama.
The supremacy of the scriptwriters is what makes ROK television productions unique. In general, their paychecks are higher than those of the producers and directors. Plus, they play the additional role of casting directors. And unlike in China, a producer, director or an actor cannot revise the script without the scriptwriter's permission. These factors not only guarantee high quality story but also good performances from the cast.
In other words, by respecting creativity and giving scriptwriters their due importance, China's TV productions can help improve the TV drama industry, which is exactly what the document is aimed at doing.
The author is a writer with China Daily.