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Archive for Saturday, September 1, 2007

China tightens TV controls amid wave of talent shows

September 1, 2007

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Fans of Jia, one of China's "Super Girls," stand behind a police line as they watch the singer perform during an October 2005 concert in Beijing. Inspired in part by the U.S. hit series "American Idol," Chinese talent shows have captivated millions of viewers in the past two years - and unnerved some Chinese officials in the process.

Fans of Jia, one of China's "Super Girls," stand behind a police line as they watch the singer perform during an October 2005 concert in Beijing. Inspired in part by the U.S. hit series "American Idol," Chinese talent shows have captivated millions of viewers in the past two years - and unnerved some Chinese officials in the process.

— Inspired in part by "American Idol," Chinese talent shows have captivated millions of viewers in the past two years - and unnerved some Chinese officials.

In August, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) labeled one talent show "coarse" and shut it down. Also this year, it ordered producers of another show to avoid scenes of screaming fans and tearful losers, and to stick to "healthy" songs and a "mainstream" wardrobe, state media reported.

Behind this crackdown, experts say, is official concern that programming standards are deteriorating as the shows proliferate - by one estimate, more than 50 are currently on air. Some also suspect that the government fears that viewer polls, which some of the talent shows use to select winners, could somehow be turned into a platform for public dissent about issues that have nothing to do with electing a pop idol.

"Popular grievances have been accumulating for the past few years, such as mine accidents and fake products," said James Sung, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. "This livelihood-related dissatisfaction is building and could be vented through this kind of show."

As people grow accustomed to voting via the Internet or their mobile phones, the concept could be extended to social issues, added a Hong Kong-based media executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak to the press.

Until two years ago, talent shows on Chinese television were rather drab affairs, with conservatively dressed contestants belting out tunes for a panel of judges.

Then came "Super Girls 2005." The Hunan Satellite show brought in contestants with spiky hair and ditched professional judging for a popular vote.

More than 400 million viewers tuned in its finale, and several million voted via mobile-phone text messages. The show shattered ratings records, according to state media, beating the most prestigious Chinese television show of all - state broadcaster CCTV's Chinese New Year Festival Gala.

Hunan Satellite's advertising revenue surged. The show's sponsor, milk company Mengniu, saw its sales rise fivefold in major cities, according to ACNielsen figures.

Other Chinese broadcasters eagerly copied the format.

Yin Hong, director of the Center for Film and Television Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, estimates that there are at least 50 talent shows on satellite channels and dozens more on regular broadcast television.

The Chinese government began to clamp down in 2006, ordering that no more than three satellite TV talent shows may be broadcast during any time slot, and that each individual contest can't last more than 2 1/2 months.

Then, in April, SARFT issued its instructions about proper dress and screaming fans to Hunan Satellite for a planned sequel to "Super Girls 2005" dubbed "Happy Boys Voice."

The shutting down of a Chongqing Broadcasting Group show in August was sparked by a bizarre though seemingly trivial gift-giving stunt staged by a contestant, according to Chinese media reports.

In the episode, competitor Dai Chuang suddenly approached judge and pop singer Ke Yimin after his performance and asked her to sell him a personal item. Ke gave Dai a ring, which Dai then presented to another judge, singer Yanger Chenamu, praising her as a beautiful woman. But later in the show Dai called Yanger "very stupid."

"The design of the show is coarse," SARFT said. "The judges' behavior lacks grace. The programming lacks artistic standards. The tone of the show has cheapened. The songs performed are vulgar."

Despite the government restrictions, Rita Chan, head of Nielsen Media Research China, predicted that Chinese producers would find ways to carry on.

"Producers will keep coming up with new ideas," she said. "If the 'Super Girls' format isn't as popular, they'll start a dance show. If the dance show format isn't that popular, they'll do something new. At the end of the day, they want to improve their ratings and increase their advertising revenue."

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