How to lose 380m viewers

Why one of China’s most successful shows lost popularity

How to lose 380m viewers

Happy or Unhappy Girl: Zeng Yike

Even Simon Cowell – the world’s best known reality-show judge – would be hard-pressed to call this year’s Happy Girl dull.

China’s version of American Idol has been entertaining to watch, thanks to Zeng Yike, a 19 year-old girl from Hunan.

Although Zeng started out barely capable of carrying a tune, she has surprised millions of viewers by advancing to the finals of the talent show.

Critics say her voice resembles the baa of a sheep (and one being dragged to the slaughterhouse, thinks Raymond Zhou, a commentator for the China Daily).

One of the judges on the show also walked out live on air, claiming that he could not be part of the show as long as Zeng stayed. “It is unfair for the other contestants,” he said later. But good for the ratings, no doubt. His dramatic flouncing out would not have hurt, either.

Nonsense, say Zeng’s supporters. She managed to finish eighth (out of twenty) in the show, and her fans, including Gao Xiaosong, another judge on the show, believe she is talented. “Her style is clear and easy to follow. As long as there is a style, she can (produce an album),” Gao told the Southern Metropolis Weekly.

Happy Girl started out in 2004 on Hunan Satellite Television network. The show became such a hit it went nationwide the next year.

One factor, say critics, is that the audience votes for the winner (by phone). The chance to choose is still something of a novelty for many Chinese, and some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that Happy Girl has “blazed a trail for cultural democracy”. While such televised voting formats are common in other countries – in China it was a massive novelty. It is not, after all, a country with a strong electoral track record.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), China’s chief broadcast regulator, has also been looking at Idol-inspired shows. The latest directive says contests should contribute to “constructing a harmonious socialist society… [They] must not make a hubbub about things as they please and must avoid creating stars.”

Huh? SARFT seems to be missing the point of why these shows are successful. Some believe that authorities might be worried that the experience of voting for TV contestants might create expectation in other contexts. Others just say that Happy Girls is not providing good role models.

The new Happy Girl, as approved by Bejing, was always likely to see lower ratings. It was pushed out of primetime and the hugely popular SMS-voting process was disabled.

So ratings are down significantly on its heyday. According to media reports, the finale of this year’s show drew only 20 million, compared to the 400 million tuning in for the 2005 equivalent.

Perhaps this is one reason why the judges are squabbling so publicly over the quality of Zeng’s performance. After all, as a PR tactic it has worked well elsewhere.

Still, producers will hardly be happy with a recent survey conducted on social networking site kaixin001.com. It found that 84% of Happy Girl’s audience was disappointed with the programme this year.

“It is no longer a programme looking for divas-to-be, but clowns who attract audiences with stupid tricks,” complains music critic Ruan Hexiang.

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