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24 asialife HCMC


Local audiences remain critical of Vietnamese television,

but it’s hard to deny the demand for homegrown content.
Tom DiChristopher speaks to industry insiders about
delivering better programming in Vietnam.

The house is a typical residence in a young rector. Until recently, Ha and his crew worked in a foreign language with subtitles,” says
hamlet of District 7. The façade is a mix about 14 hours per day, seven days a week. Thanh Mai, explaining that audiences don’t
of local tastes and provincial European Ha lobbied the project’s investors for a six-day always grasp everything they’re watching in
flourishes—Chateau Vietnam. Behind the work week, and they eventually relented. With English.
exterior wall a tangle of motorbikes occupies a slight smile that betrays irony, he says, “I Othello Khanh of production house Crea
the courtyard. The street on which it is located won.” TV says the influence of Korean and Chinese
is too new to have been named. programming is also waning. “People used
Inside, however, the scene is anything A Love Affair with Foreign Content? to love it, but [that was] because there was
but typical. Crew members dart around One could be forgiven for overestimating the no Vietnamese programming,” says Khanh.
the ground floor, carrying film equipment. A national taste for foreign television program- “The Vietnamese decided to create Vietnam-
makeup artist touches up Dai Nghia, who ming; surfing through the 65 channels now ese programming … and now people want
portrays the husband of the household, for commonly available, movies and soap operas more as they discover that you can do local
his next scene. On the next level, one of the from China, Korea and the United States in content.”
two bedrooms off the hallway is flooded with particular still occupy the airwaves much of Like many aspects of Vietnamese society,
set lighting, while the other serves as a control the day. the television industry is both underdeveloped
room, presided over by young Vietnamese “The general perception is that the Viet- and growing rapidly. For nearly 30 years fol-
director Nguyen Manh Ha. namese love foreign-made products and we lowing reunification, only a handful of channels
This is not a home at all, but the set of a don’t really appreciate our country,” says Tran were available to Vietnamese viewers, but
new television series called May Rau Lam Vo Thi Thanh Mai, managing director of media in the last decade, the number of channels
(Mr. Housewife). studies firm Kantar Media. has grown at a clip. Cable television, once
It’s immediately clear that Ha is busy these As evidence against this assumption, primarily consumed by foreign diplomats and
days. He excuses himself intermittently during Thanh Mai points to the success of SCTV7, expatriates due to its prohibitive cost, was
the interview to issue directions into a walkie a relatively new channel that focuses on significantly reduced in price in 2005, giving
talkie, and his gaze never strays far from the programming steeped in Vietnamese culture, local viewers even more options.
pair of monitors on which the scene across including cai luong, or traditional opera. Ac- Concerned with the ratio of Vietnamese to
the hallway unfolds. cording to the People Meter system, which foreign content, the Ministry of Culture issued
Across town in a far-flung neighborhood of Kantar has used to track viewership in HCM a decree in 2007 recommending that 30 per-
Tan Binh District, the atmosphere is similar on City since 2008, SCTV7 has consistently cent of programming be made up of original
the set of Vu Dieu Tinh Yeu (Love Romance), occupied the top spot this year. In total, five Vietnamese serial dramas and comedies.
the latest serial drama by veteran director of SCTV’s channels have cracked the top 20, Consequently, directors like Ha and Bao are
Dang Luu Viet Bao. On any given day, Bao will and other Vietnamese channels like Vietnam in demand.
wake up at 7am, shoot until the evening and Television (VTV) and Ho Chi Minh City Televi- Ha, a relatively young director at 34, has
afterwards edit the footage shot the previous sion (HTV) are also dominating. studied in workshops at the University of
day. Then it’s back home to work on scripts “Like in any other country, the local people South California and in Europe, and has
or prepare a new project before turning in at prefer to watch in the local language,” says experience in the better-developed Thai film
about 2am. Mai. “The movies on Star Movies, HBO and industry. After shooting wraps on his current
This is the life of a Vietnamese television di- Cinemax are quite good but of course they’re project, he’ll fly to Singapore to get the ball

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rolling on a documentary he’ll direct for the they’re making.” improve post-production while making their
Discovery Channel. When asked how many Achieving high production quality in Vietnam films, but it's hard to do that by themselves,"
Vietnamese television directors have compa- has been a defining struggle for Jennifer Ravo- says Ha. "You can only improve the quality
rable experience, Ha says, “At my age, not so let, creative director for Yan TV. Launched last of film if you have a healthy and professional
many. Maybe four or five.” year, the local music channel has been able filming environment. We have to build up the
to set itself apart by investing in professional market. If you want to keep fish, you must
Coming up to Speed production and drawing on foreign expertise. have a fish tank and clean water first."
Still, Vietnamese viewers aren’t ready to give “When everything is grey, nothing looks
television producers a free pass. A recent great,” says Ravolet, referring to the drab Making Ends Meet
article on VietNamNet reported that the na- colour in locally produced shows. “It’s a matter The time constraints placed on directors
tional penchant for puns had been applied to of production, how you set up your lights, your have much to do with the current fund-
a few flagging shows: We Are In Love, Really? set. It’s a matter of colour grading in post.” ing structure behind most productions. In
was rechristened We Turn Off TV, Really? and The premium placed on production quality Vietnam, television stations do not finance
Sorry for Love has become known as Sorry is in part what led Ta Thuy Minh, an entertain- programming, so production houses must
the Audience. ment journalist turned talk show host, to Yan turn to outside investors and then present
One of the biggest obstacles to quality TV. Her current VTV talk show, IME ("I am the finished series to networks. Compound-
programming, says Ha, is local knowledge of me"), was inspired by Western-style formats ing the problem is that payment is made
like The Ellen DeGeneres Show, upon broadcast—often one year after filming
and she has become known for wraps—so production houses can quickly
“Nowadays, films are made quickly to challenging her celebrity guests run into cash flow problems.
be broadcast in time. Many directors more than is common on Today, there are about 60 production
Vietnamese talk shows. When houses, big and small, in Vietnam, but televi-
don’t even have enough time to review she began developing a lifestyle sion station expansion has outpaced their
the editing” show, Yan TV was a natural fit. ability to create homegrown content.
“I love it when they try to “The government is asking the TV stations
Dang Luu Viet Bao bring the audience something to fill up 30 percent of Vietnamese content,
beautiful, something nice, but it’s impossible to fill it up now because
something well-designed,” says we don’t have enough resources,” says
production practices, particularly at the pre- Thuy Minh. “I like that about Yan TV. Television Chanh Tran of Crea TV.
and post-production stages. “In Vietnam, we needs that.” Although Crea TV has the capacity and
do not have a professional film industry,” says To achieve better quality, Bao points out skill to provide production work for clients
Ha. “I have to fight with people in Vietnam. another asset that would help: time. such as The Amazing Race Asia and MTV’s
They ask, ‘Why do I have to do it like this?’ “Nowadays, films are made quickly to be Road Rules, they’re not immune to the
They don’t think [pre- and post-production broadcast in time. We have a rather short travails of the Vietnamese television industry.
are] important.” time for post-production. Many directors don’t They’ve produced about 150 hours of televi-
Bao also emphasizes the importance of even have enough time to review the editing,” sion over three years, but the goal is to pro-
professionalism on his sets, pointing to the says Bao. “Editing in every shot needs to be duce at least 120 to 150 hours of program-
fact that his crew is able to carry on while he is checked carefully by the director. Especially in ming per year, spread out over three or more
being interviewed. “In order to do that, it takes films in which sound is recorded directly, it’s series so there’s always money coming in for
a long time to prepare in pre-production,” very important to edit every sound and noise.” the next project. That might not seem like
he says. “The script must be edited carefully Currently, that’s a luxury that few directors much content, but according to Chanh, the
and even small props must also be prepared have, and until they do, says Ha, Vietnamese maximum any production house in Vietnam
sufficiently. Each member of the crew needs television won’t be as good as it could be. is turning out is about 250 hours per year.
to thoroughly understand the idea of the film "The film producers in Vietnam know how to To keep money rolling in, filmmakers have

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to keep investors happy, which can affect the dawn of the second decade of television how you produce a music video.”
everything from casting to production sched- in Vietnam, signs point towards a shift from Hiep acknowledges that being a pioneer
ules. For example, investors prefer for well- a one-size-fits-all approach to strategies in Vietnam can lead to a slippery slope. In
known singers and models to be involved, rooted in identifying market segments. That, pushing the boundaries, Yan TV must be
reasoning that popularity in one medium careful not to venture so far beyond them
will transfer to another. For directors, this that their content loses its relevance.
often means coaching amateur actors and “We have different accents, “The challenge is really remarkable,” says
actresses, as well as contending with their
overlapping commitments to the stage and
cultural habits. So no one Hiep. “At first we had long arguments. Do we
set a high standard and make the audience
runway. When scheduling conflicts arise, is really confident that reach us, understand us? Or do we produce
budget problems follow. they’re going to cover all of the content that they will accept? We came
Currently, says Chanh, the average to a point where we said, ‘OK, the creative
amount spent on an hour of television the market in Vietnam” people like Jen, they are used to a high stan-
programming is USD $10,000, which he Ta Thuy Minh dard, but then you have to make your story
estimates is half the average in Thailand and understandable to local tastes.’”
one percent of the cost in the United States, As difficult as it can be to resolve foreign
where one hour of production easily reaches however, will be a challenge for culturally and local sensibilities, Bao believes that
the $1 million mark. Those budgets in part diverse Vietnam. international involvement is essential to the
explain why most television series are slated “We have different accents, cultural future of television. As a lecturer at the Ho
for about 30 to 40 episodes. habits,” says Thuy Minh. “So no one is really Chi Minh City University of Theatre and Cin-
“You cannot get the commitment of all confident that they’re going to cover all of ema, he says looking beyond Vietnam pres-
the actors,” says Othello Khanh. “You get a the market in Vietnam.” ents opportunities to supplement the young
contract for, like, three months to shoot the There’s also a line between older viewers, industry. “[The University] should invite some
series. You don’t have the financial power to who tend to consume traditional program- lecturers from other countries that have suc-
lock everybody in for five years.” ming, and teenage audiences, who have cessful movie industries to come and share
Under good conditions, where the cast is grown up with international-standard pro- their practical working experience, as well as
able to commit fully, Bao and Ha both report gramming and Internet content. Since teens to teach several periods,” says Bao, adding
that they can shoot one episode in two days, will be tomorrow’s audiences, it’s no wonder that there’s currently a shortage of lecturers
with an additional two days on either end for they’ve become prime targets. and few internship opportunities.
pre- and post-production. Yan TV is one of the channels trying to at- Ha agrees that bringing today's students
“If the film is just about the lives of the tract their attention. In lieu of qualified music up to speed will make for better films tomor-
members of one or two families, it’s finished video directors, they’ve turned to creative row. "If workflow isn't good, it will also affect
rather quickly, within about two months,” director Jennifer Ravolet to direct videos and the next generation of filmmakers," he says.
says Bao. “But if the film is staged in the devised an agreement that benefits both Yan "Nothing carries over like mistakes."
countryside, all the crew have to spend time and the artist: low-cost, high-quality produc- While help may come from outside
moving, so it’ll take a longer time, maybe tion in exchange for rights to the video. Vietnam, real change will come from within.
three months.” “Producing music videos is not a core Bao and Ha both stress the importance of
Not an ideal situation, but for now it’s the business of a television channel,” says Do source material. You can throw all the money
status quo. Quoc Hiep, CEO of Yan TV. “But then what in the world at a production, but without a
happens is you see there are not so many solid script that speaks to local audiences, a
Finding (and Keeping) an Audience good quality music videos out there, and television show will fail.
Few expect change to come overnight, but we happen to have someone like Jen in the It boils down to a simple maxim, Bao
everyone surveyed believes it will come. The company, so we do the job of the pioneer. says: co bot moi got nen ho. No flour, no
last five years have been evidence of that. At We open another way for people to look at paste.

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