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Pop Idols to jazz up TV dramas

IDOL dramas" and sitcoms starring pop figures - especially with love scenes - are hot and profitable in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but the Chinese mainland has yet to cash in on the trend that captivates young viewers.

Still, with new production and distribution channels, the idol drama genre is likely to develop soon and flourish on both Chinese mainland television and Internet platforms, according to industry experts.

"The boom in Internet video-sharing websites whose users are mainly young people provides a huge potential market and business opportunity for this genre," says Yao Jia, director of marketing at Hunan-based Golden Eagle Broadcasting System.

Yao and other experts recently discussed the issue of using more stars in new dramas and sitcoms and how to appeal to young Chinese viewers. They exchanged views during the recent Magnolia Forum of the 16th Shanghai Television Festival.

For a long time Chinese people have preferred family TV dramas, costume dramas and wartime spy series, and the most dedicated viewers today are generally middle-aged women. The pop stars haven't shone and China's efforts to use celebrities haven't extended much beyond using the "Happy Boy" stars in 2009 for "Meteor Garden," a knockoff of the popular Taiwan drama. Although it was considered a critical flop, many fans like it.

For everything except TV star-making talent and controversial dating shows, most young people prefer the Internet where idol dramas from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are shown.

Some domestic websites are targeting this market for idol dramas and want to go beyond broadcasting and become content suppliers of Chinese star comedies and dramas. They also want to handle the entire production process., one of China's largest video-sharing websites, is now shooting a 12-episode Internet idol drama series starring Taiwanese heartthrob Joseph Cheng and mainland actress Li Fei'er. It is to be released in late August.

The series titled "That Love Comes" is about the romance between an ordinary girl and a famous fashion photographer who is always surrounded by beautiful models. Many scenes are filmed in the scenic seaside city of Qingdao, Shandong Province.

Chen Hanze, the production director from, says the aim is to change people's stereotyped viewing habits for this type of series.

"Viewers will be encouraged to share their views on the site while watching the drama," says Chen. "It has become very popular in Japan and Taiwan to adapt manga for idol dramas. But we want to make a totally original drama based on real life."

In addition to script, cast and sets, the series needs a planning and marketing strategy. It will also be aired on satellite TV and mobile phones.

So far, buyers from Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan have indicated interest.

A veteran film crew and technical support will be provided by Taiwan's Sanlih E-Television Co Ltd (SET), which considers the collaboration win-win, since Taiwan TV is also losing much of its young audience.

Love, love, love

SET President May Su, a veteran Taiwan idol drama producer whose credits include "Station Agent" and "Destiny Love," says they are seeking new broadcast outlets for domestic dramas.

Taiwan produces fewer than 20 idol dramas a year and they face stiff competition from Japan and South Korea.

"To win the battle, we need to establish long-term cooperation with websites to vie for a larger percentage of Internet viewers."

Su emphasizes originality, and unlike some South Korean and Japanese works, her love stories seldom have open endings.

"The most essential thing for an idol drama is always its unique and irreplaceable romantic story," Su explains.

Her next project will be a comedy, starring Cheryl Yang and Matthew Lin, in which the main character returns to the past as patriot Zhong Wuyan, a brilliant but ungainly martial artist and strategist in the Warring States Period (476-221 BC). She plays a role in transformative historical events. Besides TV, it will be broadcast on the Internet and cell phones.

"Back Dorm Boys," a Chinese duo who gained Internet fame for their lip sync videos of the Backstreet Boys and other pop stars, are starring in "Seven," an Internet idol drama on

It's about a salesman who is deeply in debt and on the verge of breaking up with his girlfriend. But his life is changed by a mysterious cell phone call asking him to take part in a game.

Interactive elements are incorporated and netizens can be involved in plot development and outcome.

It was not until the broadcasting of Japanese romantic drama "Tokyo Love Story" in 1995 that Chinese people became acquainted with idol dramas.

Three years later, the Chinese mainland's first idol drama "Cherish Our Love Forever" made its premiere. The series about the love and lives of new college students was fairly well received.

Since then, there have been very few successful productions: most have been cheap imitations of Japanese, South Korean and Taiwan shows, with little dramatic value or appeal.

Emotional storyline

Flora Song, an HR professional and fan of idol dramas, says she loves the heartthrob actors, colorful sets, gorgeous costumes and lavish lifestyles portrayed.

In the opinion of Song and many others, no Chinese mainland dramas starring pop idols come close to the 2001 Taiwan production "Meteor Garden," which is about a plain and poor teenage girl called Shan Cai and a gang of handsome but arrogant students called F4, who are the heirs of the most influential families in Taiwan. The show was an Asia-wide hit.

The big problem with Chinese mainland series is that they lack appealing characters and emotional storylines, says Song.

Angie Chai, Taiwan TV producer of "Meteor Garden" and "Mars," says these shows should also be rooted in real life, no matter how romantic.

She shared her views at the Magnolia Forum.

"A basic rule for anyone who hopes to make a touching idol drama is that he or she should believe in dreams and love," she says. "Wonderful cinematic skills and fantastic settings are also needed."

Chai is known for her keen talent-spotting eye. The F4, the four actors in "Meteor Garden," themselves became idols with crowds of screaming fans, though they had no acting experience.

"Actors in an idol drama don't have to be beautiful or handsome, but they must have a pure heart that makes their performance unsophisticated and impressive," Chai says.

International casting and collaboration is another trend.

Veteran mainland TV drama film director Gao Xixi plans to collaborate with South Korean actress Jang Nara in "The Mischievous Queen," a comedy romance series set in ancient China. The international cast is expected to boost overseas distribution.

Taiwan model and actress Lin Chi-ling recently starred in Japanese romance drama "Moon Lovers" with Japanese superstar Takuya Kimura. Some episodes were filmed in Shanghai.

Li Tian, a TV expert, says idol dramas will become important on Chinese TV but won't become a main course since they are unlikely to appeal to the middle-aged female viewers, a major segment of viewers.

"Though the 'Cinderella' story is a characteristic of idol dramas, people can find relaxation in watching them," he says.

"In the future, the boundaries between idol dramas and other genres will be blurred. Idol dramas will not be so fanciful and unrealistic in storylines and other dramas will adopt elements of the idol drama, such as lavish settings, romantic music and interested shooting styles."

Chinese mainland film makers can't seem to get it right when they copy other productions featuring pop stars and heartthrobs.

The earliest, and even considered one of the most successful, was Hunan Satellite TV's "Meteor Rain" (2009). It's a heavy-handed version of Taiwan's TV hit "Meteor Garden." In the remake, the new F4 leading men, all rich young guys, are played by the "Happy Boy" TV talent show finalists, including Yu Haoming and Wei Chen.

But the copycat version is just that, an imitation without life, poorly acted, featuring ridiculous dialogue and product placement.

In the first episode of "Meteor Rain," there are long camera shots and views of a particular car brand. Whenever there is a supermarket scene, a particular shampoo brand gets big close-up.

Compared with the original, the new version lacks luxurious and romantic settings for the characters who are from the richest families in the city.

They are supposed to live in imposing villas, but one character's home appears to be a hotel and the home decor for all characters' homes comes from the 1980s.


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