The crying game

New reality TV show has contestants and audiences sobbing

Rong Zuer w

Joey Yung: one of the celebrity dancers on Dancing My Life

In 2010, a pianist called Liu Wei won the first season of China’s Got Talent. It was an unlikely triumph as Liu lost both his arms when he was electrocuted during a boyhood game of hide-and-seek. Using his feet to play, Liu won over the judges and the audience alike with a performance of the James Blunt song You’re Beautiful.

Three years on, another reality TV contestant is creating a buzz by defying her physical handicap. Liao Chi, a contestant on CCTV’s show Dancing My Life, lost both her legs in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. She continues to dream of becoming a professional dancer and completed her routine on prosthetic legs, winning a standing ovation.

“I thought about giving up on life after I was buried under the debris after the earthquake. But my father refused to leave even though everyone told him to go. That’s when I told myself I can’t give up, because my father was still waiting for me,” Liao told viewers, as the cameras zoomed hopefully around the audience looking for spectators in tears.

Hundreds of millions of viewers tuned in to watch Liao compete, making Dancing My Life the biggest primetime hit in China at the moment. The competition is produced by Brilliant Star, which was also behind last year’s breakout hit The Voice of China. It has dominated the ratings since its premiere in April, a rarity for the state-run broadcaster.

“As an old brand of China’s television, we are now bringing more encouraging and creative programmes to the screen,” says Qian Wei, a director of CCTV, about the collaboration with Brilliant Star. “We are eager to cooperate with veteran domestic and foreign producers to make our programmes appealing to younger audiences.”

Inspired by the US format Dancing with the Stars, Dancing My Life pairs up 12 celebrities with ordinary people who aspire to be dancers. The prize is enough money to open a dancing school sponsored by the show.

The series offers plenty of PR opportunities for the high-wattage celebrities. The camera follows them through the rigours of training and the pressure of competition, as they help their amateur partners to improve their technique and progress towards victory. Actress Liu Xuan, TV host Sa Beining and Hong Kong pop singer Joey Yung are a few of the stars that the show calls the “dream fulfillers”.

“Sharing their enthusiasm for dance, the stars and the dancers learn from each other and cooperate in an amusing way,” according to the producer Jin Lei. “There’s also heart-warming displays about the emotional stories behind their dance.“

That seems to be quite an understatement. Soon after the show aired, the debate started about whether the competition was being judged on how contestants were dancing or their skills at tugging on the heartstrings. Changchun Evening News says it would all be much simpler if the programme were renamed Crying My Life given the extent of the sobbing on display in most episodes.

Take contestant Han Yibo, who wants to win for his autistic sister, not for himself. After one performance he tells the audience – cue a close-up of his sibling – that it’s not the prize money that motivates him but more the chance to change her life. As he tells his story, his celebrity partner Liu Xuan quietly wipes away tears.

Not to be bested, contestant Zhang Weixiong turns up the tearjerking tension. He’s in the competition to save his critically ill stepmother – who it also happens is the woman who borrowed money from relatives to send him to dance school in the first place. Is there anything that Zhang wants to say to her? Only “I love you, Mum”. That may not sound like much, but delivered in a quivering voice, it seems to have been sufficient to get his own celebrity partner, Jin Ming, dabbing at her make-up.

The free flow of tears has become a topic for mockery among China’s more hard-hearted netizens. “The celebrities’ tear ducts are too developed! They are not competing on who dances better but on who can cry more,” was a typical comment widely reposted on weibo.

Conspiracy theories were soon being hatched too, including rumours that CCTV has been offering to pay Rmb700 ($114) to audience members who weep in front of the camera.

“Everyone is a sucker for the story behind the talent – that special something that pulls at their heart strings on top of any special skill. The producers of these shows know this all too well, and so deliberately set up story lines to exploit it… We should be cautious of the exploitative atmosphere around their story, and wonder whose pockets the gains will ultimately end up in,” warned the China Daily.

Audiences will have to brace themselves for a slug of similar shows, including another CCTV programme in September called The Kung Fu of China. WiC has a hunch that these martial arts warriors will be less likely to burst into tears at a moment’s notice. But if they’ve learned anything from Dancing My Life, they’ll come equipped with a tragic tale or two.

Industry observers say one of the reasons that reality TV is so popular in China is because the shows display such intense emotion, a rarity in a country that prefers to be more emotionally conservative.

“The reality TV genre now plays an important role in the TV industry in terms of its popularity and diversity of styles,” says Xu Xiangdong, director of Dancing My Life. “This fever will last for a long time internationally and also in China because these shows bring out a person’s personality and can evoke intense emotions in viewers.”

Although it hasn’t been discussed much in the local media, the trend suggests a minor cultural change is underway. That is to say, China’s prime time is being ‘Americanised’. After all, it was the likes of Oprah Winfrey that largely pioneered the practice of getting people to weep and share their emotions with her audience. Americans seem to be especially willing to open up and reveal the details of their personal traumas on live TV.

All of which makes us suspect it won’t be long before China gets its own version of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a reality TV show that generally centres on a family that has experienced tragedy or great misfortune and leads to a lot of crying (even macho construction workers at times find it all too much and break down in tears). The format proved so popular among Americans it ran for nine seasons…

Other Chinese cable TV stations have realised the way things are going. Hubei Satellite is set to launch Super Star China, Shanghai-based Dragon TV has also announced its own Chinese Idol, and Anhui Satellite will launch the Rmb80-million celebrity singing competition Mad for Music. The second season of Zhejiang TV’s The Voice of China will air soon too.

“If stations don’t have their own reality shows, they will have a shortage of star resources,” Hubei Satellite TV’s Zheng Xuan told the China Daily. “So the profit growth of a TV station largely relies on these grassroots celebrities.”

The Voice of China, a money making machine, serves as the template for what a carefully conceived reality format can achieve. Many of the contestants shot to stardom, helping the network generate ratings for other shows and even conducting a national tour.

The increase in spending on reality TV concepts is good news for Bertelsmann, the German media giant. It owns the licencing rights to some of the biggest commercial hits like China’s Got Talent, China’s Strongest Voice and Let’s Date. Bertelsmann says income from China has jumped as a result, although it told the Economic Observer that it is beefing up its presence in the country in the hope of doing even better.

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