A Loose grip on reality
Is Hong Kong too uptight to join in the television franchise phenomenon? Lee Wing-sze casts her eye around a region of rip-offs
PRINTED T-SHIRTS, tops and safari jackets have been emptied from a jam-packed wardrobe and lie in a pile before Heidi Ho Kam-sau. The thirtysomething housewife from Tuen Mun is getting a makeover from image consultant Tina Liu Tin-lan, and sorting through her clothes is part of the process.
'There's nothing wrong with these clothes, but they don't reveal your character,' Liu says after her subject describes her lifestyle. But by the end of the day, Liu and her team have transformed the formerly plain Ho into a stylish, well-groomed woman.
Ho's fashionable new look is the result of Looking Good With Tina, a makeover programme recently launched on ATV and one of a handful of reality television shows being made in the city.
Originating in the west, reality TV has swept the world in recent years thanks to (largely) unscripted plot twists, created by ordinary people in challenging circumstances. Top-rated western imports such as Survivor have spawned a raft of regional imitators. Adaptations of the hugely popular American Idol can be found in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, and the mainland has Wise Man Takes All, inspired by The Apprentice. Regional broadcasters have come up with their own versions of shows such as Fear Factor and Big Brother. And the Thais even lifted the Mexican fame school show La Academia.
Yet, despite Hong Kong viewers' appetite for imported reality shows, few local versions have taken off. Cultural differences may be a key barrier: TV executives say Hong Kong people are too uptight to make a fool of themselves in public.
The 'face' factor may be one reason local shows tend not to mock participants as they do in the west, says Chinese University psychologist Winton Au Wing-tung. When TVB launched its version of British game show The Weakest Link in 2001, for instance, acid-tongued host Dodo Cheng Yue-ling had to soften her barbed comments after complaints.
On ATV's makeover programme, Liu and her team take a gently-gently approach. Like the US hit show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Liu repackages a member of the public from head to toe after assessing their wardrobe, looking into their background and talking to their family and friends. But where subjects on Queer Eye are often the butt of much teasing, Liu prefers to go easier. 'I don't set out to be different from overseas shows,' says Liu. 'It's just that I don't like criticising people. It's meaningless to put people down. It is not in my values and I don't think we should encourage that.'
The local temperament is another barrier. TVB had wanted to make its own version of shows such as America's Next Top Model and The Apprentice, says Pang Cha-choi, its programme development manager. But producers shelved the idea after considering the character of Hong Kong people. 'Unlike westerners, Hong Kong people are not enthusiastic and open in front of the camera. They don't want to show their real side on TV,' says Pang. 'We thought participants may not accept the idea of being followed by a camera around the clock.'
Singapore-based SPE Network Asia - which recently recruited participants from across the region, including Hong Kong, for the Asian version of The Amazing Race - has a different view. The network received as many applications from Hong Kong as other Asian markets such as Taiwan, South Korea, India, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.
'The video entries of Hong Kong applicants were of excellent quality and they definitely demonstrated the colourful personalities of Hongkongers,' says SPE general manager Ricky Ow.
He attributes Singapore's more enthusiastic response to audiences there being more comfortable with English-language entertainment, and therefore having greater exposure to the US reality shows. 'With the popularity of reality TV shows in Singapore, it's easier to adapt foreign imports to the local market,' Ow says.
The Japanese production, Denpa Shonen (Electric Youths), which featured local DJ Tse Chiu-yan and Japanese participant Takashi Ito travelling the world on a shoe-string budget, was a big hit when TVB introduced it in 1997. The primetime show attracted 2.17 million viewers.
That success led to spinoffs such as Wild Castaway (2001) and Mission Reality (2002), in which TV starlets and participants undertook sky-diving and survival challenges in the wilds of Australia and Africa. The shows were well received and drew more than 1.38 million viewers. Yet reality show success continues to elude local stations.
At TVB, Pang blames fickle viewers. 'Local audiences always look for new ideas and new topics,' he says. 'The production [of reality TV shows] isn't difficult, but we need people and time to do a lot of preparation work.'
Besides, Lam says, most viewers prefer a steady diet of the serial dramas that have been the primetime staple at its Jade channel.
But Lam Wing-sze, a marketing executive and fan of shows such as Project Runway, rejects that conclusion. Lam says local productions are generally not as appealing as overseas programmes. 'The local shows aren't as dramatic as the imports. The way they portray the participants is a bit bland.
'The programming on the Chinese-language channels is too boring. It's always drama series. They should show a greater variety of programmes.'
TVB's solution has been to inject more reality elements into its so-called infotainment programmes, such as Kitchen Accomplished, rather than produce straight reality shows. Hosted by former Miss Hong Kong Tse Ling and actor Tse Tin-wah, Kitchen Accomplished takes participants through cooking lessons led by leading local chefs. The first episode, for instance, follows a husband as he takes a crash course in Japanese cooking from two experts to make a special Valentines' Day dinner for his wife.
'It's close to reality TV,' says Pang. 'Hong Kong people love food. And we try to combine the elements of a cooking programme and reality TV.'
Some broadcasters say the market for Cantonese programming is relatively small, which limits the development of the genre. 'Even if you have a good idea, it takes time to develop and prepare the production,' says Kwong Hoi-ying, ATV's senior vice-president of programming. 'Time equals cost. The [Cantonese] market is too small and it's not justified. And although we can make a Mandarin-dubbed version, authenticity would be lost.'
Compared with more populous countries such as Thailand (64 million) and the Philippines (76.5 million), Hong Kong's 6.8 million people are a small audience. Yet Singapore, with a population of 4.4 million, will later this month launch the second season of its franchise of American Idol, after the first series proved a hit, drawing 1.8 million viewers for its finale. Singapore Idol's popularity also prompted broadcaster MediaCorp to create other reality productions such as Super Band and entrepreneur game Street Smart.
Veteran TV producer Robert Chua Wah-peng, founder of Interactive Channel, criticises local TV stations for being narrow-minded. Chua, who helped launch TVB and introduced Hong Kong's first variety show, Enjoy Yourself Tonight, in the late 1960s, says one broadcaster is too afraid to take risks while the other lacks the financial resources to try new formats.
'It always takes time to build up [an audience] when you're introducing something new, but TVB doesn't have the incentive to do it because their advertising market is saturated.'
'I don't like criticising people.
It's meaningless. I don't think we should encourage that' Tina Liu TV host