Not so real, after all

In the battle for ratings, some reality TV shows are using unwelcome tactics

Zhang Huimei w

A-Mei: new judge on the top show The Voice of China

When Kim Kardashian filed for divorce from her husband of 72 days, court papers revealed the fuller truth of the reality show that has turned the Kardashians into household names (well, in some homes, at least).

During a deposition, a producer of the show admitted that some scenes had been added or reshot for dramatic purposes. For instance, in one episode Kim was captured having a heart-to-heart with her mother about her marriage falling apart. But apparently it was shot two months after she had filed for divorce and was only added to make Kim appear more “sympathetic”.

Recently Chinese viewers have got a jolt of reality themselves, in finding out that shows they love aren’t based on quite so much real life after all.

It all started with the singing competition The Voice of China, which began its second season on July 12. In addition to a more extravagant set the show also boasts two new coaches, Taiwanese pop star A-Mei and mainland rock singer Wang Feng. Producers have also made much of the fact that they they hired more than 200 casting directors to scout talented singers not just in China but from around the world.

Once again the show has dominated the ratings and the season premiere was the most watched show on July 12, setting a new record says CSM Media Research.

However, it was soon revealed that several contestants on the show are already professional singers. In fact, some had even signed contracts with talent agencies. For example, 31 year-old performer Yao Beina sang the theme song for one of China’s most popular TV dramas The Legend of Zhen Huan. Another contestant, Jin Runji, was found to be the lead singer of pop performers Alilang Group.

“This season’s The Voice of China has significantly raised the bar. It’s not only about having a good voice but also a very distinctive sound. So in a sense, for grassroots competitors who want to become a singer, the chance of being selected is very low,” a Beijing music producer told China Business Journal.

Reports then started circulating that the coaches were introducing some performers that they knew personally. One contestant, Ye Binghuan from Taiwan, was quickly spotted by netizens as having met coach Harlem Yu at a different talent show a few years before. Despite this both of them pretended that the “blind audition” was the first time they’d met. Wang Feng, another of the coaches, is also rumoured to have brought a few singers he knew to the audition.

“In short, students can act and coaches can fake it. This lays a very good foundation for the second season of The Voice of China: can act and can fake,” one netizen wrote mockingly on weibo.

Meanwhile, another singing show Super Boys is also being targeted on weibo for manipulating TV audiences. A few months ago its producers revealed that they had signed Hong Kong pop star Nicholas Tse to be one of the guest judges, alongside actor Chen Kun and singer Tao Ching-ying. The series was then said to have got off to an explosive start when Tse and Chen had a contretemps during taping. The confrontation arose when Chen tried to catch Tse’s attention during a contestant’s performance. After being ignored several times, Chen threw his headphones at Tse. The Hong Kong singer fought back with a round of name-calling.

Sure enough, the spat soon became more talked-about on weibo than any of the vocal performances. But industry insiders now say the feud was staged to boost ratings (which airs in the same time slot as The Voice of China). Any attempt to maintain the charade wasn’t help by a picture that Chen posted immediately afterwards showing him and Tse as best buddies.

It’s not the first time that reality show producers have been accused of scripting conflict to keep the viewers interested. Back in June Zhang Ziyi and Lo Ta-yu, judges on Hunan Satellite TV’s The X Factor: China’s Strongest Voice, are supposed to have got into a fight because Lo was overly critical of a contestant. The incident led Zhang to walk off stage in tears, with immediate speculation that the feud was also faux drama.

Critics say the networks are desperate to boost ratings in a very crowded field of television talent contests. For the victors, the potential spoils are still huge. According to industry estimates, The Voice of China is charging up to Rmb1.2 million ($195,520) for a 15-second commercial and China Economic Net reckons that the season could generate as much as Rmb1 billion in advertising revenue for Zhejiang Satellite TV. The commercial revenue from Super Boys could also surpass what some of the smaller provincial networks make in an entire year.

With so much at stake, perhaps it should come as little surprise that Hunan Satellite TV declared that Super Boys had ranked first in last week’s national ratings. In doing so it was challenging Zhejiang Satellite TV’s earlier claim that The Voice of China was the number one hit. The problem is that the statistics are not totally comparable. The main difference between the two sets of data is that Hunan Satellite TV, which samples about 8,000 households, includes more rural viewers in its figures so it is sometimes deemed more representative. On the other hand, Zhejiang Satellite TV uses rating data from CSM, which has a much larger sample size but mostly in urban areas (demographics that advertisers are usually more interested in).

With such uncertainty over who is number one, a spokesperson for Zhejiang Satellite TV subsequently played down the rivalry, telling newspapers: “We don’t want to compete with others, we just want to do our best.”

Who knows: perhaps even this ratings row has been manufactured to earn a few more moments in the media spotlight too…

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