Legal disputes continue to plague reality show ‘The Voice of China’

Once one of China’s most popular reality shows, The Voice of China (中国好声音 Zhōngguó Hǎo Shēngyīn) has found itself embroiled in one legal controversy after another. In January 2016, license renewal talks broke down between Talpa Media, the Dutch media company behind The Voice of Holland (upon which The Voice of China is based), and its Chinese partner, Shanghai Canxing Cultural and Broadcast Company (上海灿星文化传播 Shànghǎi Cànxīng Wénhuà Chuánbò). Talpa sued Canxing for trademark infringement in a case that it eventually won, causing Canxing to create a spin-off singing competition show called Sing! China (中国新歌声 Zhōngguó Xīn Gēshēng). Meanwhile, Talpa signed a $60 million deal with Zhejiang Tangde Film & TV (浙江唐德影视 Zhèjiāng Tángdé Yǐngshì, also known as Zhejiang Talent) to produce more than 200 variety shows in China, including seasons 5–8 of The Voice of China.

Sing! China struck back earlier this year. On May 18, Zhejiang Radio and Television Group (浙江广播电视集团 Zhèjiāng Guǎngbò Diànshì Jítuán), Canxing’s distribution partner, filed a lawsuit against Zhejiang Tangde, alleging unfair competition and illegal usage of the trademark “The Voice of China.” The Dutch company Talpa immediately rallied to Zhejiang Tangde’s defense, issuing a statement (in Chinese) saying the company was “surprised and offended” by Zhejiang Radio and Television Group’s claims and that several legal proceedings in China have affirmed that Talpa was always the rightful owner of intellectual property rights regarding this singing show.

In a sudden twist, on November 13, Zhejiang Tangde posted a notice (in Chinese) on its Weibo account claiming Talpa had unilaterally terminated their The Voice of China licensing contract. According to (in Chinese) Entertainment Capital, Talpa’s decision was due to delayed payments of licensing fees from Tangde. Tangde, on the other hand, claims it had been purposefully withholding payments as a negotiation ploy because Talpa had not fulfilled its contractual obligations, though the company didn’t specify what those obligations were. This is all happening during production of Season 5 of The Voice of China, which had already been experiencing significant delays because of Zhejiang Radio and Television Group’s ongoing lawsuit.

Even if The Voice of China manages to overcome all these legal roadblocks, industry analysts are skeptical about whether the show will still be popular with audiences. The world of reality show programming has changed drastically since The Voice of China debuted in 2012. There is stiff competition (in Chinese) from newer shows such as The Rap of China (中國有嘻哈 Zhōngguó Yǒu Xīhā) and The Coming One (明日之子 Míngrì Zhīzǐ), as well as more stringent regulations from China’s top media regulator, which has cracked down (in Chinese) in the past year on shows with imported television formats.

China’s financing of Hollywood plummets

On November 13, Q Daily reported (in Chinese) that China’s financing of Hollywood studios this year totaled $489 million, a mere tenth of the $4.78 billion it poured into Hollywood the year before. The retrenchments in Chinese investments, Q Daily opined, will likely deal a heavy blow to Hollywood, which has, in recent years, relied on overseas funding to offset as much as 35 percent of its movie production costs.

The figures detailed by Q Daily will hardly come as a surprise, as 2017 is shaping up to be a turbulent year for Hollywood’s relationship with China. This year has seen several high-profile missteps between Hollywood studios and Chinese corporations, including Dalian Wanda’s failed bid to acquire Dick Clark Productions, the production company behind the Golden Globes, and the hiccups that Recon Group (睿康股份 ruìkāng gǔfèn) faced in its takeover of Millennium Films (in Chinese). The scrapping of many of these deals has been blamed on heightened capital controls from the Chinese government, which made clear in a notice (in Chinese) issued by the National Development and Reform Commission and the State Council in August that it was restricting Chinese companies’ financing in overseas entertainment industries.

One of the latest casualties of the policy has been the scuttling of a $1 billion film financing deal between Paramount Pictures and Huahua Media (华桦传媒 Huá Huà Chuánméi). Per the agreement, announced in January with great fanfare, Huahua Media was to finance 25 percent of the movie studio’s film slate from 2017 to 2019. While Paramount has attributed the deal’s collapse to “recent changes to Chinese foreign investment policies,” Variety has pointed out that overhauls in senior management at Paramount, as well as the questionable profitability of the movie studio’s film slate, may have led to Huahua Media getting cold feet and withdrawing.

The reduction in Chinese funding coincides with what appears to be slackening interest from Chinese audiences in Hollywood fare. While Hollywood movies still make up half of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in China this year (link in Chinese), it is worth noting that the highest-grossing film was the domestic action film Wolf Warriors 2. In addition, the China box office success of non-Hollywood foreign imports like Dangal and Bad Genius is, according to analysts (in Chinese), further indication that the tastes of Chinese audiences are changing, and that Hollywood’s grip on the world’s second-largest movie market is loosening.