Out of their depth

Drowning at diving show raises concerns about stars’ safety

Out of their depth

High-five my dive: Charlene Choi

While it is no secret that Chinese audiences love Transformers (the most recent iteration of the blockbuster franchise took over $165 million at the local box office), the producer behind the franchise appears to know what the Chinese want to watch on the small screen, too.

After announcing that Transformers 4 will be partially filmed in China, Paramount Studios has also launched a new TV reality show called Transformers 4 Chinese Actor Talent Search. The new competition will pick four winners – two with professional acting experience, two without – for roles in the next Transformers movie.

Since reality TV exploded onto Chinese screens in 2005 with the singing contest Happy Girls, the genre has spawned hundreds of competition and dating shows. The most popular of all is still If You Are The One, a dating show that’s been on air since 2010 (see WiC68). Butcooking shows have also got a reality makeover, with millions of viewers tuning in to watch the Chinese MasterChef on Shanghai’s Dragon Satellite TV recently. The series saw 33 year-old single mother Zhao Dan battle against Taiwanese chef Hong Hongxing to win Rmb1 million ($160,000), as well as a chance in the restaurant business.

But it wasn’t just Zhao’s cooking skills that gained her the MasterChef title. She won over the judges and the viewers with a better sob story, says the Financial Times.

Before the final cook-off, Zhao appeared on stage flanked by her mother, who is dying of end-stage liver disease. “My illness cannot be cured without a liver transplant… but I cannot afford one,” her mother explained to the judges, adding that Zhao had also offered to donate half of her own liver to save her. “My dream is to win the championship to get the prize money for my mother’s medical treatment,” the aspiring chef declared.

Mother, daughter, eliminated contestants and television audience were soon dissolving in tears.

Now two other reality shows have won national followings, and they’ve resulted in plenty of tears too. Both are about diving, one of China’s favourite sports. Zhejiang Satellite TV’s Celebrity Splash China and Jiangsu Satellite’s Stars in Danger both premiered early this month, featuring celebrities learning to plunge Olympian-like into the water beneath. Both have done well in the ratings, although their star-studded line-ups certainly help. Celebrity Splash boasts Hong Kong’s Cantopop singer Charlene Choi and South Korean K-pop star Chae Yeon, the singer Abao and the former Olympic champion Tian Liang, who was brought in as a “consultant”. Stars in Danger has featured celebrities including Hong Kong’s Li Caihua and China’s Wang Likun. The show is being made at the National Aquatics Centre in Beijing.

Some celebrities have done better than others. Sha Baoliang, a pop singer, got a full score for his inward pike in Stars in Danger, while Taiwanese singer-actor Wu Jianhao also impressed audiences with his technique, as well as his six-pack physique.

Indeed, for several contestants, the competition was an ideal opportunity to show off their toned torsos (although the belly fat on a few of the divers put a little of the ‘reality’ back into the format).

There were other talking points too. Li Caihua was eliminated quickly in the first episode but went on to become the highest trending topic on Sina Weibo after she was captured sobbing after a disappointing jump (she landed flat on her back in what resembled an inverted bellyflop).

Li’s swimwear choice – a bathing suit with as much cutouts as fabric – was also much discussed by diving fans. But another attraction of the shows is the chance to see nerves fraying among the aspiring divers. Li wasn’t the only celebrity to reveal her more vulnerable side. Several have tried to evoke sympathy by claiming a fear of heights and in one case an actress even claimed that she hadn’t known how to swim prior to the show. Virtually all the female divers have burst into tears at some point during filming.

Not everyone in the audience is so easily moved. In fact some have criticised the shows for over-playing the emotion to boost ratings. “If you are really going to jump, then jump,” New Express Daily instructed curtly. “Stop trying to be overly dramatic and stop the crying.”

Perhaps some of the anxiety is justified. On weibo, some netizens have complained the diving shows are putting contestants in danger – especially 64 year-old comedian Niu Qun, who jumped awkwardly from the 5-metre board and had to be pulled out of the water by lifeguards. Similarly, singer Charlene Choi injured her waist when she hit the water in the wrong posture. Singer Han Geng also appeared to pass out during one of the rehearsals.

“Artists and singers are not athletes,” Hong Kong singer Denise Ho wrote on her personal weibo. “How is it possible that they can just receive a few lessons and compete in a sport that requires so much professional training? Diving from 10 metres is way too dangerous!”

The warning sounded accurate when producers of Celebrity Splash released news of the drowning of an aide of actor Shi Xiaolong, one of the participants in the competition, during a training session.

“After the incident, the programme production crew and the staff on site embarked on a swift rescue operation and brought the involved individual to the hospital, but after a four-hour attempt he could not be resuscitated and was pronounced dead,” the message ran. “We feel sorry and pained about this accident, and the production team and all parties involved are actively handling the aftermath.”

Others eschewed the cautionary advice in favour of the moral high ground. An editorial in The Beijing News called the shows an “extravagant waste of money” that failed to contribute anything new to China’s long list of variety formats, which are often rehashed from US or European originals (the original format for Splash-type programming is Dutch). “Compared to the professional athletes, it doesn’t really matter how they dive,” viewer Wang Hongya agreed, before getting to the meat of the matter in her comments to the Economic Observer.

“What’s important is when sexy Korean star Chae Yeon and the model Cica Chou appear in a low-cut bikini on that springboard,” Wang advised.

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