An embarassment of riches

Feisty dating show gets muzzled by a worried censor

An embarassment of riches

Spoiling the tone: show has become boringly nice

With the wealth boom in China creating unprecedented riches – and greater opportunities for gold-digging – mercenary unions are increasingly common. At least, that’s the way things look if you watch Chinese television these days.

As reported in issue 56, If You Are The One is a dating show on Jiangsu TV. Since it first aired, it has become one of the most popular programmes in the country. It has also created overnight celebrities like Ma Nuo, a 22 year-old model from Beijing whose blunt remarks have kept viewers entertained. One of Ma’s observations got netizens excited – when she dismissed a poor suitor with the catty quip: “I’d rather be crying inside a BMW than smiling on the back of your bicycle.”

It’s the kind of remark that is earning the show a more critical response too. Newspapers like Southern Weekly say the show’s values are an affront to society. The female contestants are materialistic and money-obsessed. The male guests are constantly showing off their bank balances, luxury cars and property. Worse, it reflects the growing anxieties over the widening gap between rich and poor, and the difficulties in finding a spouse in a country where young men significantly outnumber women, says TIME. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by 2020 one in five Chinese men will be unable to find a wife.

Thanks to the controversy, viewers tuned-in in droves. According to Beijing-based CSM Media Research, the audience share for If You Are The One increased from about 1% in its first month to a peak of 4.2% in May. Its popularity has also inspired copycats like Hunan TV’s Let’s Go On A Date and Zhejiang TV’s Run for Love.

But industry insiders say the reality TV show is all scripted. Cao Kefan, a presenter on Shanghai’s Dragon TV, another satellite station, claims a large part of these dating shows is staged, according to a report by CNN. “All the contestants are actors or models, they were carefully selected to attend the show, and they have scripts,” says Cao at a Chinese TV conference. “It’s not about really finding a match, but rather having a debate, a staged debate.”

The controversies surrounding the show have not gone unnoticed in Beijing. SARFT, the country’s media censor, issued a set of new rules in early June for matchmaking programmes. “Incorrect social and love values such as money worship should not be presented in the shows,” the notice read.

It also banned “fake participants, morally provoking host and hostesses, and sex-implied comments”.

Producers seem to have taken note. The quota of barbs and vicious quips from female contestants has fallen. In a recent episode, a successful businesswoman rejected an ordinary salesman for his age, and not his income. In another episode, a gardener surprised viewers when he became the first male contestant to be favoured by all 24 females on the show.

There was also a lot less talk about people’s wealth and background. Instead, the hosts highlighted the contestants’ volunteer work and positive attitudes toward life and love (and even their preference of pets), says the China Daily. Producers of the show also introduced a counsellor named Huang Han, a psychology professor at the provincial Party school, to dish out relationship advice.

The new format may please the censors. But the fans are less than impressed. Netizens say the earlier shows were fun to watch because they reflected social realities. The newer version lacks the same bite.

“You can see the show as a reflection of our society today,” wrote one online contributor, referring to the old ‘bitchy’ format. “The reason we like watching is because real life conflicts are supersized on the shows.”

Too supersized for SARFT and the Party bureaucrats, it seems.

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