On the small screen to entertain for big money

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2015-09-14 07:58:15

On the small screen to entertain for big money

[Image by Wang Xiaoying/China Daily]

The news that retired superstar Brigitte Lin (Lin Ching-hsia) will appear in an upcoming reality program on the tube was greeted with a wave of subdued ambivalence rather than elation.

Lin, active from 1973 to 1994, was considered to be the ultimate screen goddess. Many renowned filmmakers have reportedly attempted to entice her out of retirement, but she has made only occasional public appearances, such as for her biographies-until now.

The platform that succeeded in cajoling her back into the spotlight is a new reality show on Hunan Satellite Television called Up Idol.

Her fans are less than glad, because reality TV is seen by many as too low-brow for her persona.

There are about 30 reality shows that run through the summer season, when legions of students stay at home with little to do. It is the hottest television genre, which often makes or breaks a TV station. But its popularity has some negative fallout, which regulators are trying to manage.

Li Lan, a researcher associated with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the regulating body for the television industry, recently lambasted reality programming for being tasteless and over-dependent on high-priced entertainers.

Stars may offer glimpses of their true feelings, he says, but more often they are simply putting on a show.

That's not surprising. A reality show is still a show, and entertainers know exactly what the audience wants. They are on the small screen to entertain-in return for big money.

The going price for a top star is 1 million yuan ($156,000) per episode and some of the A-listers, such as Stephen Chow and Huang Bo, are rumored to fetch several times that. This is competitive with the highest pay for television drama and big-budget movies. No wonder it can convince even the most reclusive or most fastidious into taking part.

What it gives back to the participants is wide exposure. Zheng Kai had been in showbiz for eight years, starring in many movies, television series and commercials, but his name recognition did not shoot up until he inadvertently broke wind on Running Man, a reality show on Zhejiang Satellite TV.

His micro blog fan base expanded by 1.5 million overnight and he gained the nickname "Farting kid".

I'm sure Zheng did not plan the act. It is this kind of spontaneity that the show wants to capture and, through such awkward moments, bring those on a pedestal down a few pegs so that viewers find a sort of affinity with them.

In a wide range of shows, movie star Xu Qing comes off as dreamy or out of touch with reality; Cecilia Cheung seems to struggle in the shadow of her divorce; the wife of singer Cao Ge is suspected of having a facelift; and actor Huang Lei is rumored to be having an affair with the director of the show he is on.

Where is the Chinese Greta Garbo when we need her? Honestly, there are select stars the public do not want to see as one of us, but rather in a constellation far, far away. Brigitte Lin is one of them.

The current trend of reality programming started with the 2005 Super Girls, a singing contest adapted from American Idol. The reigning champion in the genre, however, is The Voice of China, a show licensed from The Voice and now in its fourth season.

Most of the "formats", the overall concept and branding of a television program, are licensed from Europe and South Korea. When one genre breaks out of the pack, say, stars who travel overseas, there would be a dozen clones until every drop of fun or spontaneity is squeezed out, often leaving just one winner in the ring.

You Are the One spawned numerous dating shows, but the Jiangsu show, which premiered in 2010, remains the last one standing, a testament to first-mover advantage, among other things.

Nothing says "Winner takes all" better than a hit show. In its first season, Dad, Where Are We Going?, licensed from South Korea, sold its naming rights for 28 million yuan; it rose to 312 million yuan in its second season and 500 million yuan in the current, third season. That is just one item out of a multitude of revenues.

No wonder Chinese television stations are chasing top-rated shows from other countries rather than taking the time to innovate and create their own.

That makes sellers very happy. With constant bidding wars, one South Korean copyright holder sold a format to its show to a Chinese buyer for a reported 180 million yuan, enough to pay back its debts accrued over the years.

As in so many areas, the financial success of a TV genre often carries the seeds of artistic timidity and homogeneity. The inflow of big capital has ratcheted up the stakes, with the prices for marquee names becoming stratospheric, and soon even big players will be burned when their high-priced and low-rated shows under-perform.

On top of such competition, the uncertainty of regulation acts as a monkey wrench that tends to wreak havoc when good intentions end up driving more viewers away from the tube and onto the Web.

When reality programming first broke out in China, it offered a glimmer of the raw, the true and the democratic. Soon it descended into a game for manipulators who are in it for a quick buck.

There is nothing wrong with that-except that what's touted as real often caters to some of our basest impulses.

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