Expected to launch in late 1997, Zhima Jie will be the first Chinese version of Sesame Street. The 130-episode, half-hour show will take place on a Chinese ‘street.’ Like the American original, it will feature animation, live action and Muppet characters, with some popular characters likely to travel overseas. Zhima Jie is targeted at kids three to six years old.
Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), U.S.
Shanghai Television (STV), China
How the partnership began:
At the request of the Chinese, a team of international production, research and business affairs executives from CTW holds seminars in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, China, to introduce CTW and the concept of Sesame Street.
‘CTW has a very important mission in that we want to reach as many children [as possible] around the world to educate through entertainment,’ says David Jacobs, CTW’s regional vice president, Asia/Latin America. As well, the growth in broadcasting and production in China and the interest on the part of the Chinese in creating children’s programming had convinced CTW to approach this marketplace. CTW had worked with China Central Television in the early 1980s to develop the hour-long special Big Bird in China.
CTW finds that there is ‘very strong interest among all different groups of people in China-producers, broadcasters, educational specialists, as well as government officials-to create a project that was local,’ says Jacobs.
During this visit, CTW first meets Shanghai Television.
Upon return from China, CTW begins looking for a partner to co-produce a Chinese version of Sesame Street.
After considering a long list of criteria, CTW chooses STV as its partner. As the largest provincial broadcaster in China, STV has a reach of more than 100 million adult and child viewers. ‘They (STV) were very interested in working with CTW,’ says Jacobs. A group of four STV executives visits CTW’s headquarters in New York.
The two companies begin negotiating an agreement and discussing how to make the show. As with its 14 other co-productions, CTW will act as the consulting producer, while STV will create the program based on local goals and curriculum. ‘We believe very strongly that we provide the tools for creating a local version,’ says Jacobs, ‘then they do it themselves.’
By early summer, the two companies agree to develop the show if they can raise the financing.
The project development involves an ‘endless exchange of information about Sesame Street, about Children’s Television Workshop, and about Shanghai Television,’ says Jacobs. Four STV staff visit CTW’s office again in December 1994.
The high costs of travel between the two countries and of producing versus acquiring a show in China, the lengthy fundraising process and language barriers are challenges for the partners. Despite these difficulties, the companies share a ‘very strong commitment’ to the project, says Jacobs.
Funding from General Electric and The Ford Foundation falls into place. General Electric takes on the primary role in financing the project as the show’s multi-year sponsor. The Ford Foundation provides a grant for research concerning children and television in China.
Entering the anticipated 18- to 24-month production phase, STV and CTW hold a week-long curriculum seminar in January with about 20 Chinese specialists in children’s education to set the goals of Zhima Jie.
CTW sends a resident producer to Hong Kong to participate in pre-production.
STV executives, including the full production crew, spend two weeks at CTW’s office to decide materials to be used in the series and to discuss other issues. For its part, CTW has made 10 to15 trips to China since its first visit.
At MIPCOM, STV and CTW will introduce the show to other Chinese broadcasters, and will talk about recent developments on the co-production.
Scripting is scheduled to start soon, and Jacobs says the show is ‘pretty much on track’ to kick off in 1997, running five days a week in the late afternoon.
Evaluating the Partnership
‘We hope that this is the beginning of a very long-term relationship,’ says Jacobs. Beyond the 130 planned episodes, he hopes the two companies will continue to work together on Zhima Jie and possibly on new program ideas.