YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Where 'Thorn Birds' Could Have Kept Flying

Entertainment: The TV miniseries genre is flourishing in China. Advertisers and viewers have come to expect at least 20 episodes.


BEIJING — Everyone knows that attention spans are getting shorter these days, thanks in part to television. But don't try making that claim in China, where TV itself offers almost frightening evidence to the contrary.

This country might be the world champ when it comes to a genre now out of favor in media-saturated America: the TV miniseries.

We're not talking about wimpy little four-part productions like "The Thorn Birds." Forget the gusty "Winds of War." These are marathon sessions, as befits a nation of 1.3 billion people, many of whom take their TV-watching very seriously.

Consider "Taiping Heavenly Kingdom," now screening every weeknight in millions of Chinese living rooms. It's an epic tale set during China's Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century--so epic, in fact, that it needs 46 episodes.

Or try "Kelan, P.I.," a thriller set in 1930s Shanghai, about a journalist-turned-detective who is falsely accused in a string of brutal murders and fights to clear his name. Number of episodes: 28.

Then there's "Strange Man, Strange Case," an "X-Files"-type drama: 35 episodes. "Elder Brother," about a troubled family: 20. "Loving Care," a medical drama: 26. And much, much more.

Miniseries clutter the Chinese TV schedule morning, noon and night. Many become huge hits capable of launching unknown actors, and even the singers who croon their theme songs, to fame and fortune. Even a less successful miniseries can score millions of viewers, given the overall size of China's population.

Although the form is largely passe in the U.S., it maintains a hold on viewers here for reasons ranging from the dearth of other entertainment options to China's long love affair with episodic storytelling.

Widespread TV ownership is a relatively recent phenomenon in China, a product of the country's market-oriented economic reforms of the last two decades. TV sets can now be found in 350 million Chinese households--more households than there are people in the entire U.S.

Although city dwellers, especially young people, have plenty of other choices for entertainment--nightclubs, bars, the Internet, bowling alleys--watching TV remains a major leisure activity.

In the countryside, home to the vast majority of Chinese, the tube is the No. 1 pastime, partly because there isn't much else to do. The experience is often a communal one. In poor areas, neighbors eager to catch the latest installment of a show will crowd into the home of the one person in the village who owns a TV. Even now in Beijing, it's not uncommon on a summer's eve to find a TV put out in an alleyway for residents to gather round to watch.

Trying to capitalize on this audience are dozens of TV networks, which put a premium on shows able to keep viewers tuning in night after night.

Enter the miniseries.

One of the first to make it big was "Plainclothes Police," a 12-parter so successful when it aired in the mid-'80s that the man who sang the theme song, Liu Huan, became an overnight pop sensation.

The show spawned a host of imitators, which grew longer and longer to keep viewers coming back again and again. Advertisers, who bought rights to broadcast commercials per miniseries rather than per episode, loved the trend: The more nights a miniseries spanned, the more times their spots appeared.

"Advertisers won't like it if it's not a long series," said Ding Hei, a director who is currently shooting a miniseries about police and drug dealers, called "Jade Goddess of Mercy."

"The way they look at it, a good miniseries will begin to attract notice at about Part 4 or 5, then become really popular when you hit Part 6 or 7," Ding said. "If it's only 11 parts in all, then there are few episodes left, and the advertiser won't get as good a return on his commercials."

Because miniseries can generate so much ad revenue, the stakes are high for China's television networks, which often engage in fractious bidding wars for potential hits.

"The competition is pretty excessive," said Yan Zongxiang, an executive at one of China's provincial television stations. "A lot of miniseries get made every year, but it's not easy to land the good ones."

The most popular programs these days are those that deal with crime--especially official corruption, rampant in China--and family crises, including unemployment and extramarital affairs.

Another popular form is historical drama, complete with period costumes and social commentaries that take oblique digs at contemporary Chinese society.

Famous film directors and actors are a plus, and not that rare to find on TV, because unlike in the U.S., television in China is a bigger vehicle to stardom than the silver screen. The tube is practically universal, whereas cinemas are still an urban luxury.

Never mind the patience required of viewers to sit through a 30-part serial.

"If you've got a good story, they'll follow it to the end," author Hai Yan said.

Los Angeles Times Articles