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Chinese television screens dominated by copycat reality shows featuring local celebrities

Flick through the channels on any TV screen in China and you can’t help but notice the dominance of reality shows featuring celebrities from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Mainland satellite TV channels carry more than 100 different reality shows, many of which are so popular that some young Chinese say they don’t have time to meet their friends in the evenings, as they would rather watch such shows to be entertained and relax.

Experts, however, said the proliferation of such shows comes with obvious shortcomings – the programmes lack creativity and their popularity leads to a lack of motivation on the part of producers to make high-quality shows with rich cultural content.

Almost all of the offerings are either localised from popular foreign shows, or copied from domestically produced programmes that have proved popular with viewers.

Entertainment industry consulting firm Ent Group reports that nine out of 10 of the most popular variety shows since this year are reality shows.

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The highest ratings belong to Go Fighting – a game-variety show broadcast on the Shanghai-based Dragon TV. It has harvested more than two billion clicks from six major broadcasting websites this year, the firm said. The show features six male stars completing different tasks.

Shanghai resident Tina Deng is a loyal fan of the show, and said she has been watched it for the past one and half years. “Actually, all the members of my family, from my 70-year-old parents to my 7-year-old son, like Go Fighting,” she said. One of the attractions for her is that the show is so easy to watch. “I don’t need to use my brain. Instead I just feel relaxed and it’s a lot of fun.”

Over the past three years, TV reality shows have mushroomed in China after several of the genre, based on popular shows purchased from overseas, recorded high viewing rates. The shows have diverse themes, including tourism, matchmaking, education, cooking, sports, parenthood and outdoor survival skills, among many others. Many are shot in an outdoor environment, with some teams travelling overseas, and one group travelling as far as Antarctica.

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In order to catch the attention of young people, producers follow the tactic used on such international shows as Survivor to make stars perform embarrassing or even demeaning tasks. One such show, Stars in my House, took four female celebrities, including Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi, to live in the countryside for weeks as “daughters-in-law” of an elderly farming couple. The usually glamorous stars had to perform farmwork, with their tasks including feeding livestock and ploughing the fields.

Cui Ni, the producer of Hubei Satellite TV’s reality show If Love, a matchmaking show for stars, said reality shows didn’t involve scripts or rehearsals, but simply recording what happened, and therefore they appeared less mysterious and closer to the lives of everyday people.

“In reality shows, in contrast to their alluring image on stage or their roles in TV drama or films, stars can just be themselves when experiencing joy, anger, sorrow and happiness,” she told the Hubei Daily. “It can to a great extent satisfy people’s curiosity about stars’ private lives.”

Chen Shaofeng, deputy dean of Institute of Cultural Industries of Peking University, said the format and content of reality shows has become homogenised and many of them are similar to each other.

“There is excessive investment in this area and I think they are just copying unscrupulously,” he told the South China Morning Post.

For instance, after a show funded by Hunan TV, “Dad, Where Are We Going”, based on an original show from South Korea, achieved unprecedented success, six similar programmes appeared on domestic screens. In one of these, six celebrity fathers and their children were recorded living together in a challenging environment for three days.

Chen said the celebrity reality shows mainly target young people who are fiercely loyal to their idols and prefer entertainment to other types of programming. They seldom care about cultural content or artistic quality, Chen said.

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“It’s part of the ‘fan economy’. These fans are interested in everything about their idols and follow shows featuring their idols.”

The popularity of such shows has attracted many stars to participate – and, of course, the pay is lucrative. First-tier stars such as Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chow, Hong Kong comic actor Stephen Chow, Hong Kong actor and dancer Aaron Kwok, mainland actor Huang Xiaoming and director Feng Xiaogang, have all been paid at least 10 million yuan (HK$11.6 million) for a single season of a reality show. Huang is considered China’s version of Matt Damon while Feng is a leading director of commercial films in China.

The furore surrounding such shows and the amounts of cash being steered their way has aroused the attention of the state broadcasting regulator. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a circular in July last year, requiring that reality shows “abandon the wrong conception of relying on stars to achieve viewing numbers”, said such shows should not competing for stars or show off excessive wealth. That order from the top authority has been generally ignored.

The authority also rubbished reality shows by saying they were “interesting”, but not “meaningful”. Despite being popular, they don’t express “social values” and sometimes spread wrong values or feature vulgar content, the administration said.

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Gu Jun, a sociology professor at Shanghai University, said that for years, TV producers hadn’t paid much attention to programme content, but to the “faces” appearing in the programmes. “In their opinions, in order to attract a wider audience, it’s better to hire stars than to produce high-quality programmes,” Gu said.

Those producers may need to go back to the drawing board to revitalise their content, however, as audience numbers for celebrity reality shows have dropped a little from last year – their peak time. This is due to the scarcity of creativity in these programmes, said Catherine Liu, a research supervisor with Ent Group.

“People began to get a kind of ‘aesthetic fatigue’ in the face of so many reality shows, saying that the difference among the shows isn’t much,” she said.