And Finally

Mid-life crisis?

Mixed reviews for world’s most watched TV show

"Are you amused?”asks host Li Sisi

How very droll. The lead-up to CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala saw rumours that Warren Buffett would turn up for a musical skit. And sure enough the billionaire did appear, but only in a short video clip playing the ukulele and singing I’ve Been Working on the Railroad (presumably a jokey reference to his investment in BNSF Railway, the second largest rail network in the US).

In fact Buffett didn’t record the song for the gala – a five-hour variety show aired annually to welcome in the Chinese New Year. Instead, the clip was made for a charity event a year ago, says Wu Zheng, a media executive and friend of the fabled investor.

But even the appearance of the Sage of Omaha couldn’t save the gala from a chorus of criticism from Chinese netizens. The complaint is becoming a familiar one: that the show is dull and uninspiring. Even Faye Wong – China’s Queen of Pop – came in for criticism, with many saying that her performance on the night was unbearable.

It was actually the gala’s 30th anniversary this year, although this doesn’t seem to have stopped one of China’s most popular entertainers from dropping out.

Veteran comedian Zhao Benshan – a fixture at every gala since 1983 (see WiC6) – announced he would not be participating due to health reasons. There was widespread speculation that Zhao had dropped out after an edgier satirical skit submitted to the show’s organisers didn’t get their approval. But netizens also thought that Zhao knew the event would be panned by the public. One wrote on weibo: “Clearly Zhao could foresee that tonight’s Spring Festival Gala would be a complete dud so he decided not to show up. Smart move!”

On Sina, a popular internet portal, 48% of 71,000 respondents said the gala fell short of expectations, and only 10% said that it was splendid. Even as the show aired, millions in the weibo community were posting their criticism online, seemingly having much more fun slamming the spectacle than actually watching it.

Not all the comment was negative, mind you. A ‘peacock’ dance by Yang Liping (in remarkable shape at 53) seems to have won widespread plaudits. Likewise the stage got praise for its impressive hydraulics (at one point simulating the Great Wall, the next a dramatic forest of bamboo). Grudgingly, the show’s critics also recognised that producers seemed to have toned down the traditional propaganda effort. There were fewer spurious telegrams of congratulation from around the globe to read out, as well as fewer references to rallying around the Party’s banner and such like.

Past galas had also led to viewer suspicion that mediocre performers were bribing producers to get on the billing. At its worst this saw songs haplessly divided up, in an attempt to get as many artists onto the stage as physically possible. This year there was much more elbow room, with a number of older singers from the 1980s taking to the stage, often alone. This too, wrote netizens, brought back nostalgic memories of the show’s ‘purity’ in its early years – a period now viewed (by some) as a golden era of sorts: a time when the Chinese had ditched their Mao jackets but not yet discovered materialism.

Despite becoming such a lightning rod for public criticism, the gala remains the world’s most watched television show (practically every Chinese family tunes in).

And, as usual, the most talked-about segment of the evening was the magic show by Liu Qian, the Taiwanese magician who has become something of a fixture on the gala’s schedule. This year Liu earned his accolades from an impressive illusion that seemed to conjure a hand through a mirror.

But netizens then took less than an hour to post the secrets to the trick on weibo (nothing flash, as it turns out, as the table was actually a cupboard, with a person hidden inside). In fact, within 24 hours, entreprenurial types had put replica tables up for sale on Taobao, the country’s largest consumer site.

For WiC readers interested in conducting a magic show at home, the conjuror’s kit looks reasonably priced, with the prop costing just Rmb699 ($110).


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