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China wants to make TV shows with Netflix and HBO, official says, but hurdles are huge

China wants to make TV shows with Netflix and HBO, official says, but hurdles are huge
Netflix presentation at Television Critics Assn. winter news media tour in Pasadena in 2013. (Getty Images)

Global streaming giant Netflix hasn't been able to launch its service in China, and American TV studios have had a hard time cracking the massive Chinese television market.

But a Chinese government official visiting Hollywood says his country wants to make co-productions with the likes of Netflix and HBO.

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Collaborations between Hollywood and China have largely been confined to feature films. But that could be about to change.

Yang Zheng of China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (known as SARFT), said he had met with with representatives of Netflix, HBO, Warner Bros. and the Producers Guild of America to discuss the idea of teaming up on TV shows. The government agency supervises state-owned outlets and censors content in media.

HBO has already dipped its toe in the water. Its HBO Asia arm and China Movie Channel recently signed a deal to work on TV movies together, starting with a pair of kung-fu films.

In an interview on the Paramount Pictures studio lot in Los Angeles, Yang told The Times that shows developed, produced and financed with American producers could help expand the Chinese TV industry's already expansive reach.

"The TV industry has been developing really fast in China," Yang, deputy director of SARFT's TV drama department, said through a translator. "It has to expand after it's been developing in China after several years. From the cultural perspective, we admire America's multicultural world. It's going to be lonely and less colorful if there's only one culture… We have to communicate with other cultures."

But Trans-Pacific TV collaborations could be difficult for companies like Netflix, given that the Chinese government has been restrictive about what American content its population can see through broadcasts and online. U.S. shows like Fox's "Empire" were pulled from Chinese video streaming services two years ago, and online portals owned by Disney and Apple were shut down this spring.

Netflix, which has more than 80 million subscribers globally, just last month said it has abandoned its immediate efforts to expand into China because of the country's reluctance to allow foreign digital streaming services in.

Internet video portals have been told to limit foreign films and TV shows to 30% of their lineups. And officials are discouraging broadcasters from adapting foreign programs like "The Voice" for Chinese audiences.

Nonetheless, Yang said the meetings, which he said took place over the last several days, were preliminary and only the start of China's co-production efforts in television.

Netflix and HBO declined to comment, and Warner Bros. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The possibility of co-productions was teased at the Chinese American Film Festival summit at Paramount, during a panel of Chinese executives and American movie and TV producers.

Executives from Chinese production companies like Ciwen Media Group and Huace Group signaled a willingness to work with U.S. firms and showrunners.

But in a tense exchange, Troma Entertainment President Lloyd Kaufman cautioned that censorship and other restrictive regulations could stand in the way.

"How are you going to learn from American producers if we have to conform to a system controlled by bureaucrats from the top down?" said Kaufman, whose independent film company is based in Long Island.

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In prepared remarks, Yang emphasized the size of China's TV audience numbers 1.28 billion viewers, making it the world's largest TV audience.

U.S. movie studios have made headway in China by co-producing feature films with local companies, including the upcoming "The Great Wall," from Legendary East and Le Vision Pictures. Warner Bros. last year inked a joint venture agreement with China Media Capital to make local-language pictures.

But collaborating on TV series remains a nascent idea. Stanley Rosen, a USC political science professor and China film expert, said many questions remain about what a TV co-production might look like, especially given regulatory hurdles.

"It's not going to be edgy shows," Rosen said. "There are a lot of questions. Will it be just for the China market, or will it play other places as well?"

On the film side, co-productions have continued to struggle to do big business outside of China.

Despite the obstacles, Yang emphasized that TV co-productions could become a real business in China.

"We have common goals," Yang said.

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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