Reality TV woes and the 2008 China Media Yearbook


2008 China Media Yearbook and Directory

The Beijing-based media consultancy CMMI has released the 2008 edition of their China Media Yearbook and Directory. The excellent “yearbook” section of the publication features essays with summaries, analysis and forecasts on the development of China’s media and media policy. The book also includes a directory of China media businesses, publications and broadcasters, and more statistics and numbers about the Chinese media business than I have seen anywhere else in one place.

Below are excerpts from two chapters of the yearbook, republished with permission. The first outlines the meteoric rise in popularity of reality “talent” TV shows on Chinese television and the subsequent regulatory crackdown. The second looks at what this trend might mean to the future of TV programing.

You can visit buy the yearbook on CMMI’s online store or call the them at (8610) 8418 6468 ext. 120.

Reality & Talent Shows on Chinese TV

If 2005 was the year reality “talent” shows appeared from nowhere to win the ratings wars and 2006 was the year they consolidated their position in China’s primetime schedules, then 2007 will be remembered as the year the government fought back to regain control of the “moral standards” of the nation.


Super Girls we hardly knew ye

As early as January, SARFT Minister Wang Taihua was talking openly about, “too many reality shows on our TV screens,” plus “strengthening the supervision of entertainment programs, and restricting the number of reality shows to upgrade their quality.” Despite these comments, the first reality show to pass censorship and obtain a license from SARFT in 2007 was Jiangsu Satellite TV’s Absolute Singing.

Much of the focus of SARFT attention has been on Hunan Satellite TV’s Super Voice Girls, the breakout series from 2005 that catapulted its winners to national stardom and continued to top ratings in its 2006 edition. Hunan Satellite TV had already seen its application to produce a male version of the same show in 2006 turned down. When it finally received SARFT permission in March 2007, the producers had to make several compromises, such as dropping “Super” from the title of the show and restricting the national broadcast of the series to a 10 week run from May to mid-July. The producers of the resulting Happy Voice Boys series were instructed to include only “healthy and ethically inspiring” songs, to try to avoid “gossip” about the contestants, plus scenes of fans screaming and wailing, or vanquished contestants in tears.

To limit the logistical chaos of dealing with the more than 100,000 applications received in 2006, the producers of the series auditioned potential contestants via the Internet, asking them to make 60 second clips. SARFT made the minimum age of the contestants 18 years old and demanded “no weirdness, no vulgarity, no low taste.” It said hairstyles, clothes, fashion accessories, language and manners must be in line with mainstream values. The regulator also banned shows from having controversial judges, or judges who mocked or humiliated contestants.

SARFT also banned contestants from outside mainland China from participating in the show without providing any reasons for this decision. Hunan TV President Ouyang Changlin said the station would abide by the SARFT rules and advocate a spirit of “braveness, creativity and moral inspiration” in the program. Ouyang denied the new rules would have a negative effect on ratings, saying “SARFT started to guide the Super Girls in 2005 by setting rules for us and the ratings stayed high.” Asked whether the station would show scenes of fans wailing and contestants’ crying, he said that he believed SARFT would show tolerance as long as the scenes were positive.

2006’s My Hero (莱卡 加油, 好男儿), with effects stolen from 24

Despite SARFT’s decision not to allow foreign contestants, the Shanghai-produced shows My Hero and My Show invited people from all over the world, including non-Chinese speakers, to showcase their talents to nationwide audiences. Dragon TV even allowed contestants in the latter show to sing songs in English. The shows were huge hits in 2006 and created several commercial spin-offs for the main contestants, including a role in a TV series called The Frog Prince.

In another format innovation in 2007, the final ten contestants in My Hero were isolated in a “Prince’s Castle” where they received professional training under the constant gaze of TV cameras. Winners of My Show, which this year admitted group contestants for the first time, were promised the chance to perform in a musical drama and study under Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung.

April saw the conclusion of the first stage of The Disciple, Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan’s search for the next generation of kung fu actors and actresses. Produced by Chan’s production company, Beijing TV, and two other film companies, the series attracted over 100,000 entries before ten winners aged 18-28 were selected. The winners were awarded seven month internships with Chan’s film stunt team, followed by appearances in a Chan movie that is scheduled for release before the 2008 Olympics.

Shanghai further extended its reality output in April with the launch of Skating with Celebrities. The weekly show invites famous people to take to the ice to train for a series of elimination performances. Describing the series, Producer Tian Ming remarked, “Shanghai is a warm city with virtually no snow or ice, so we hope it can generate public interest in figure skating and other ice sports.” Given the difficulties of gaining SARFT approval for new series, she added revealingly, “It’s a tribute to the Beijing Olympics.”

The 2008 Games were also cited as the raison d’etre for a Zhejiang TV talent show called True Boys Dreaming of Olympics. The program starred sports celebrities such as diver Tian Liang and commentator Huang Jianxiang and asked competitors to compete in major Olympic sports.

At the end of May, Qinghai Satellite TV aired the casting stage of new reality show Bike to Paris sponsored by Skoda, part of Germany’s Volkswagen Group. The castings were held in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai and attracted more than one thousand participants from all over the country. The three best cyclists crossed Europe in August, passing through Prague, Vienna, Munich and Milan.

Building on the success of prime time TV talent shows, Channel-In, Love Radio and Shanghai Media Group Broadband (SMGBB) in Shanghai launched an online talent contest in August that fed back into TV only in its later stages. Anyone or any amateur singing group could upload original song clips for free. Over 5,000 karaoke talents registered and uploaded more than 6,000 clips ahead of the registration deadline. More than 7 million online votes decided the best 20 contestants with winners presenting road shows in downtown areas. Afterwards, the winners appeared as guests on Happy Time, a top Channel- In show. The final winner was then being chosen by a jury in a live final before holding an outdoor concert.

Many producers aimed to avoid SARFT scrutiny by increasing the proportion of “politically and socially responsible” activities in their formats. In 2006, My Hero contestants re-traced part of the epic Long March, raised donations for typhoon victims in Zhejiang and performed for senior citizens at a nursing home. In 2007, the Happy Voice Boys were dispatched to erect tents in an earthquake disaster zone and present gifts to a baby born on the day of the earthquake.

With such moves, the producers hoped to escape censure in other contentious areas essential to captivating reality TV audiences, such as the choice of judges. One of the controversial judges spicing up the Happy Voice Boys spectacle in 2007 was Yang Erche Namu, a celebrity from the Mosuo ethnic minority group in southwest China.


Yang Erche Namu, cover girl and reality TV judge

She is most famous in China for her western lovers, which are rumored to include a Norwegian diplomat and a National Geographic photographer. She made headlines with her provocative statements to contestants, such as “I want to plant you in my garden,” and sparked a fierce debate about taste and decency.

It was in this context that the September launch of Qilu TV’s new reality show, Exchanging Housewives caused fractured debate within SARFT. Like the international Wifeswap format, the show asked married women contestants to swap lives and families for a period of time. The problem for the government was that, in order to make better reality television, one family was selected from the city and one from the countryside, exposing the huge differences in development.

Despite the administrative problems with Exchanging Housewives, a simple bout of vicious bitching by three outspoken female celebrity judges on Chongqing TV talent show First Crush on You caused SARFT to suspend the series. The regulator then issued a fierce notice on September 20th that swept Happy Voice Boys and other reality TV shows from primetime schedules in China. The extent of the regulations went further than any interim notices issued over the last two years.

Apart from demanding that all broadcasters’ receive SARFT permission for talent shows and limiting satellite channels to just one series per year, SARFT re-affirmed that no series can run for more than two months. Programs are limited to a maximum of 10 episodes, with each episode no longer than 90 minutes in length. Talent shows were also banned from asking audiences to vote for participants, including voting via cell phones, telephones and the internet. Only the final show in a series can be broadcast on satellite channels, which is a sure way to limit the national audience as nobody will know the contestants involved.

SARFT also went to some length to clip creative wings, insisting that 75% of songs come from mainland China and that the participants do not “deviate from the aesthetic ideas of the masses,” as determined by itself. Shows even have to submit their choice of judges for approval. In case the above restrictions were not enough to deter international format companies looking to invest in the massive potential of the China market, special permission is now required for foreigners to be involved in talent shows in any way.

Zhejiang TV and TV drama producer Zhang Jizhong were the first to receive government approval for a talent show under the new regulations. They initiated a national casting competition for all the roles in the new version of the TV drama series Journey to the West. To comply with SARFT’s requirements, each episode was 90 minutes in length and live broadcasts ran for just two and a half months.

The first month of 2008 also saw some more movement on the international formats front. Granada International signed one of the largest foreign format deals of the year when it licensed the popular Saturday Night Takeaway format for an undisclosed sum to Hunan TV. The station broadcast the format to an Asian audience for the first time in January 2008, after revising the name to Super 2008: Friday Night Takeaway and changing the format to cater for the local audience.

Looking Forward

Now that TV talent shows have been slapped with crippling restrictions, new space in domestic prime time schedules will open up to Chinese producers and directors with some predicting a return to more traditional cultural fare such as evening galas. Others warn that the loss of talent TV, a commercial mainstay of free TV worldwide, and the inexorable shift of premium film and sports content to niche pay-TV channels spell the end of the entertainment line for traditional broadcasters. Until the next creative breakthrough, this valuable space will be filled with more TV dramas.

According to CVSC-SOFRES Media (CSM) statistics released at a seminar on national cooperation and development of film and TV dramas on December 7th, TV dramas dominated Chinese television in 2007, accounting for 24.1% of the content broadcast on all TV channels and 33.9% of audience ratings. This follows the trend that was established last year, when TV dramas accounted for 22.9% of broadcasts and 32.3% of audience ratings. This situation would not normally be expected to change in 2008, but 2008 is, in so many ways, a very special year.

In addition to broadcasting every minute of all the competitions of the 2008 Olympiad, China is gearing up for the biggest celebrations of its national and regional cultures that have ever been seen. In terms of the content production sector, 2008 will be a seminal year across all genres from news and current affairs to entertainment, where spectacles of unprecedented scale and scope are planned. TV drama, documentary and animation producers will reveal their special features to mark Olympic and Chinese landmarks and Olympic education will be the dominant public service driver.

Lest international companies get too excited, SARFT Director Wang Taihua has promised that protection for Chinese animation will continue with rigorous policing of rules that 70% of broadcast time on dedicated channels must be domestically produced. Much more hope lies with the relaxation of restrictions on mainland-Taiwan coproductions which promises a real chance for greater creative and financial collaboration in the coming years.

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