Girl Power


Dick Hobbs. TV-Bay Magazine
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This month I was going to write about something important about the future technological platforms of our industry. It would have been incisive, enlightening and enriching. It really would have been.

But I have just got completely derailed by the discovery of what I hesitate to call a cultural phenomenon. And while it is almost certain that you all know about this and I am years behind the times - I am, after all, not known for being up with the latest trends - I still felt I should share it with you.

I would like to introduce you to SNH48, a Chinese girl group based in Shanghai. It is not an original concept, I understand: it has been licensed from the originator, Yasushi Akimoto, who founded AKB48 in Japan.

Akimoto's idea is of "idols you can meet". It is a group of girls who sing and dance and wear rather dodgy outfits. Think The Spice Girls but on an epic scale: there are currently 119 girls in the SNH48 company. 22 is the upper age limit for auditions; some are as young as 14.

They are formed into a number of sub-groups so they can sustain the load of almost constant performance. That includes daily shows in their own theatre in Shanghai, as well as regular appearances in Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Shenzhen.

Sisley Xu is a 20 year old nurse who attends the band's concerts about every two weeks. "Their performances are so mind-blowing," she said. "I want them to get a bigger stage and have more resources, so that more people will get to know about them."

You can find out much more about the group at www.snh48.com. Although good luck with that, as virtually all the text is in Chinese. Apart, interestingly, from the omnipresent pop-up which offers you "quick register". But if you do a bit of light googling on SNH48 you will quickly come to an extended piece from Bloomberg. It's where I found the quote from Sisley Xu.

For SNH48 is not about making dreams come true either for the girls or their fans. It is a spectacular money-making machine. The headline on the Bloomberg piece suggests that the people who are really going wild for SNH48 and the girl groups that will inevitably follow are venture capitalists.

The man behind the scenes is Wang Zijie, who was in internet games before he spotted this opportunity. He values Shanghai Star 48 Culture & Media, the holding company, at several hundred million dollars. Last year's revenues were 30 million yuan - just over £3 million - but next year he predicts 300 million yuan. The growth will include concepts alien to me at least: digital flowers, for example, which fans can give to their favourite band members while they watch concerts online.

You remember I introduced the group as "idols you can meet", and one of the money-spinners (or innovative ways to engage with the audience, if you prefer it) is what is called the "handshake meeting". Yes, the ordinary fan can arrange to meet their favourite performer. For 10 seconds - just about long enough for a handshake. And provided the fan has bought enough of the group's songs.

Each year there is a process called a general election, to choose the most popular member of the troupe. Rankings in this are important for the performers: the higher up the list they are, the more they get paid. And fans are encouraged to vote as often as they like. Because they have to pay for each vote.

Tickets for the group's shows, priced at the equivalent of £8 to £17, are snapped up as soon as they go on sale, despite doing at least seven shows a week at their own 350 seat theatre in Shanghai. So to keep the engagement up, they now have their own online channel streaming all their performances live. It was thanks to Elemental, which provided the headend, that I first heard of SNH48. Mandarin speakers will probably be able to sign up to the HD service on the website.

Now I am of course simply being a grumpy old man in bringing this to your attention. Just because it wasn't like this in Mozart's day, does not mean it is not appropriate now, you will be shouting at your magazines.

And anyway, I am hardly in the target market: according to Wang the majority of fans are young men, with only about 15% of the band's followers above the age of 30. He hopes, according to Bloomberg, to broaden its age and gender appeal by emphasising the wholesome image and youthfulness of the performers. What could possibly go wrong?

James Roy of the China Market Research Group points to this phenomenon as part of a trend. "While the luxury sector, for instance, has really plateaued in China, what people are really shifting their spending to is more experiences, more things for fun." The television industry is part of the fun market, so maybe there is good news ahead.


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Contributing Author Dick Hobbs.

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