Sesame Street ready to return to China

Wed Dec 15, 2010 11:51pm EST
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By Jonathan Landreth

BEIJING (Hollywood Reporter) - Twenty-seven years after Big Bird first landed in China, a short, localized, Mandarin-language version of "Sesame Street" will premiere in Shanghai on December 22.

A lot has changed in the media since the one-off movie "Big Bird in China" first brought Chinese and Western television together in 1983. The eight-foot-tall yellow bird returned when General Electric sponsored "Sesame Street" on Shanghai TV from 1998-2001, but his nest didn't last in a media landscape where regulators held greater sway than consumers.

While Viacom's Nickelodeon has managed to make "Spongebob Squarepants" among the top TV shows for kids in China, government regulations have in recent years made it difficult for other imported kids' programing to reach what 2008 data from UNICEF suggest is the potential target audience of more than 87 million Chinese viewers under the age of five.

Although those kids' parents, especially those in China's swelling middle-class, increasingly are voting with their wallets -- and with their television remote controls -- Beijing's regulators restrict foreign participation in the country's historically staid homegrown media sector. When it comes to kids' programing, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has been known to promote local companies with subsidies and bar imported cartoons from prime time TV.

But "Sesame Street" is different from offerings from entertainment-focused companies, says Gary Knell, CEO of the New York City-based nonprofit Sesame Workshop.

"Selling Sesame Street the idea into China wasn't the hard part since now all the people in offices in China are of the generation that knows who we are: educators who use the media to teach kids," Knell told The Hollywood Reporter. "The challenge was to find a sustainable strategy that will keep Sesame Street on the air in China for years to come."

Key to "Sesame Street's" Chinese relaunch was working with Ye Chao, the deputy general manager of Toonmax Media, the youth-oriented satellite channel owned by the Shanghai Media Group, China's No. 2 media conglomerate after state-run China Central Television. Ye worked on the original Chinese "Sesame Street," known, in literal translation, as Zhima Jie.

"This is a Chinese-made show. We listened to what they wanted and worked to create a local show," Knell said.   Continued...