National broadcaster Vietnam Television (VTV) plans to reduce the length of Vietnamese serials on VTV1, one of its main channels for news about politics and society, from 45 minutes to 30 minutes per episode, including advertisements.
For more than two years now the 8 p.m. prime time slot on Ho Chi Minh City Television (HTV)’s HTV7 now has foreign sitcoms rather than Vietnamese serials.
Its 1 p.m. slot, which also used to be reserved for Vietnamese serials, first switched to foreign sitcoms and later to foreign soaps.
On HTV9, the 6 p.m. slot, once the domain of dramas from Ho Chi Minh City Television Film Studios, has been taken over by foreign films.
In the past SCTV14, a cable channel dedicated to Vietnamese dramas, used to have two slots daily, at 6.45 p.m and 8.45 p.m., for new Vietnamese drama series, but now mainly show old drama series, and new movies have become rare.
The drop in ratings, and thus advertising demand, is the reason for many broadcasters’ refusal to buy Vietnamese dramas. They prefer game shows and foreign movies instead.
Tra Em Kiep Nay (Give Me Back This Life), a drama series on the theme of prostitution shown on HTV9 at 10 p.m. on November 3, only had three commercials.
On VTV1, Trang Trai Hoa Hong (Rose Farm), a drama series acclaimed for its content, had lower than expected ratings. The episode broadcast on November 5 only had eight advertisements.
The drama series Hanh Phuc Khong O Cuoi Con Duong (Happiness Is Not At The End Of The Road) on November 8 only had seven.
Vietnamese dramas are unable to compete with other entertainment programs, experts say.
According to statistics from Vietnam Television Audience Measurement (Vietnam-Tam), no drama episode made it to the top 10 in the ratings in the first quarter of last year.
They were also absent in the top 10 in the country’s main cities, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang in the first and second quarters of last year.
Truong Son of HTV admits that for a while now it has been difficult to find advertisers for dramas aired at 10 p.m. on HTV9.
HTV is discussing measures to revive the time slots for Vietnamese television films, he reveals.
With TV channels refusing to show them, their production is also declining.
In the north, only the Vietnam Television Film Center (VFC) is still in operation. In the south, TFS Film Studio returned after a hiatus with three drama series: Mua Cuc Susi (Season of Chrysanthemum), Rang Chieu Am Ap (Warm Afternoon) and Rung Thieng (Sacred Forest).
Sena Film Studio has shut shop following a scandal related to delayed wage payment for artists. Recently Vietcom Film company said it has cut production by two thirds.
Bich Lien, director of Mega GS Company and a veteran drama producer, says: “In the past our studio could produce nearly 1,000 episodes a year. Now 200 is a considerable achievement.”
The fall in demand has sparked off a vicious cycle: without enough investment movies are becoming slipshod, further impacting demand for them.
Tuoi Tre quoted actor-director Phuong Dien as saying: “Television movies are produced en masse. Actors rush to their roles. Some people even arrive on the set without knowing their roles and need someone to tell them the lines. How can we have good movies?”
The mechanism of film production itself causes some problems. The broadcaster usually commissions private companies to make films and give them slots for commercials instead of paying them or give them full control over advertising.
The studio then is responsible for producing, marketing and selling advertisement slots.
This model is common around the world, but becomes problematic in a developing market like Vietnam.
“Theoretically, the television studio is in charge of controlling the quality of the movie, but when the [entire] airing slot is handed over to private firms, it is no longer in control,” Trinh Thanh Nha, a script writer, says.
“Some private firms do a good job of selling advertisements but their filmmaking process is poor. Without the ability to control the quality of films, there is a gradual collapse of the film production system.”
In the absence of funding, TV films end up with clichéd plots.
For many years now a drama episode has been paid around VND140-200 million ($6,036-8,624). After other costs, the filmmakers are only left with a small amount of money for the film itself. Thus, they stick to safe topics and simple stories which can be made within that budget.
Television dramas revolve around romance, family conflicts and crime, and films about important social themes are scarce, according to experts.
Director Nguyen Huu Phan said: “For example, urbanization, rural life, lives of workers in industrial zones, business issues, and technology 4.0 are some of the topics no one touches.”
“Because these topics are very difficult to handle, few young filmmakers can deal with them.”
Getting the subject of a film approved is also challenging.
“Sometimes, it is hard to get approval to work on these themes, so few producers are interested, even for VTV,” Phan added.
The low returns on dramas have caused many filmmakers to lose interest in the profession and even quit.
Director Nguyen Huu Trong, who made the very successful sitcom 5S Online about the office life of young people, is one of those who have quit.
Director Nguyen Huu Trong says: “It is necessary to have a market mechanism, one that appreciates the true value of a product. Dramas with high ratings must be rewarded, only then can producers have money to further develop.”