Talent and dating shows have ousted the traditional fare of state documentaries and historical dramas from television sets in the world's most populous country. And the huge audiences have advertisers salivating, reports Daniel Bardsley of The National.
Reality television fever has gripped the world's most populous nation.
While historical dramas and revolutionary series have long been staples of Chinese television, viewers are now enjoying shows of a very different kind.
The Voice of China, a talent show launched in June, has featured a contestant performing "Price Tags," a recent hit from the edgy British singer Jessie J, while another sang Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." It is hard to imagine a greater contrast to the old-style historical sagas.
Based on a format originating in the Netherlands, The Voice of China is another reality television show joining the ranks of Super Girl, China's Got Talent, and The X-Factor.
"They've been really popular...Most of the TV stations are very commercially driven at this point and they're doing these shows because they attract big audiences and advertisers love the big audiences," says Doug Young from Shanghai's Fudan University, whose book on the Chinese media, The Party Line, will be published later this year.
The commercial significance is hard to overstate in a country where TV ad revenues totaled 75.9 billion yuan ($11.9 billion) in 2010, and are forecast to reach 114.4bn yuan next year. That compares with the global total for television advertising last year of $191 billion, according to Deloitte.
In its second series in 2005, Super Girl reportedly attracted 400 million viewers—quite an achievement given China has more than 3,000 television stations—and grossed 766 million yuan in advertising and other revenue.
China's Got Talent, launched two years ago, is said to have beaten this with 500 million viewers, making it the most popular program in the world.
"You have a lot of potential when you open the market...and [viewers] do have a choice, competition and creativity can emerge," says Lin Fen of the department of media and communication at City University of Hong Kong.
"The people even joked that though you cannot vote for your political leaders, at least you can vote for your favorite Super Girl."
American Idol generates a little more than four times as much as Super Girl, at $500 million annually in advertising and nearly 10% as much again in sponsorship, according to the International Format Lawyers Association. Although much smaller commercially than American Idol, at its peak Super Girl was still one of the most commercially significant TV events globally.
While some talent shows have been developed within China, several internationally franchised formats have also proved successful, including The X-Factor and China's Got Talent, both originating from the British entertainment tycoon Simon Cowell.
Selling television formats to China has been one of the most effective ways for foreign players to enter Chinese broadcasting, given that overseas ownership of TV stations is highly restricted.
In 2010, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (NWS) revealed it was selling controlling stakes in its three Chinese stations, reflecting the difficulties foreign entities have had in achieving success. Reality television also faces regulatory hurdles.
Rules imposed from this year by the State administration of radio, film, and television (Sarft) mean 34 satellite channels can each broadcast a maximum of two entertainment shows a week, with no more than 90 minutes on any day.
Perhaps the only surprise was Sarft took so long to impose the rules. The regulator was making its lack of enthusiasm for reality shows clear back in 2007, although concerns were based on cultural factors.
"The design of the show is coarse. The judges' behavior lacks grace. The programming lacks artistic standards. The tone of the show has cheapened. The songs performed are vulgar," the organization said in an uncompromising statement about a talent series called The First Time I Was Touched.
A scowl from the authorities is, however, unlikely to put advertisers off popular shows. "Advertisers want eyeballs. They don't want to be associated with politically difficult programs, but these shows are not politically difficult—the government just thinks there are too many of them," says Young.
"The shows that are still on the air probably still get lots of viewers. The Chinese government cannot dictate to people what shows they should and shouldn't like."
The types of reality show that have proved successful in China are limited by cultural as well as regulatory factors. Most are studio-based talent or dating programs, while formats such as Big Brother, where contestants live in a house together and expose their inner selves, are perhaps a step too far. Still, this format has been sold to dozens of countries worldwide by Endemol, its creator.
In the United Kingdom, Channel 5 paid Endemol £40 million for the rights to Big Brother in the past two years. Given it has attracted up to 2 million viewers in Britain, the show has been worth the investment, helping Channel 5 grow its advertising revenues last year by 28% to a company record of £350m.
In Hong Kong, where residents are shaped by similar cultural values to mainland China, this type of program would not work, says Donna Chu, an assistant professor in the school of journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"If it's something like Big Brother, I'm not sure if Hong Kong people are ready to expose their lives in such detail under the gaze of others," she says.
Ultimately, fatigue may set in and audience enthusiasm for the studio-based reality shows in China may lessen, causing the TV stations to move on to the next big thing. "In the West, these shows seem to have a lot of legs on them—they're coming out with new conceptual glitzy reality TV shows that get high audiences," says Young."But in China, it's a lot less imaginative and the production quality is a lot lower...All these things definitely are cyclical. It's possible it's peaked in China and will naturally go down by itself."