Up until 2008 Zhang Xinyu and Liang Hong could be described as fairly conventional types. The high school sweethearts ran a successful trading business together, but had not made – by Chinese standards – any radical life choices. That changed after they witnessed the tragic earthquake in Sichuan that year. They decided to leave the rat race and travel the world instead, visiting places as far afield as Somalia, Chernobyl and Vanuatu. After the trip, they uploaded footage of their journey online in the hope they’d inspire others.
“We wanted to change our lives but did not know how to. So we decided to start the journey of a lifetime. And for now, we found that this trip is exactly what we want,” Zhang, who is 36, told the Global Times.
Zhang and Liang are now household names in China. That’s because their trip has morphed into a hit reality series on Youku Tudou, the country’s largest online video site. Youku contacted the couple to obtain the exclusive licence to their footage after discovering it on their own site, says Li Li, vice president of Youku.
Named On the Road, the reality travel show, which airs every Thursday, features the couple’s videos as well as interviews conducted with the travellers they’ve met during their globetrotting. The appeal is partly down to the exotic locations, but also thanks to the charisma of the couple, and watching how they encourage each other in the face of adversity (there’s a romantic angle too – at the end of the first season Zhang got down on one knee to propose to Liang in the freezing Russian Valley of Oymyako).
“They are the perfect couple! One is spontaneous and playful, the other is responsible and supportive. They are so fun to watch,” one netizen wrote on weibo.
“It’s so touching to be able to travel to somewhere faraway with the person you love. This summer I will ride my motorcycle to go to Tibet from Chengdu and I hope to inspire those around me,” another viewer wrote.
Small wonder then, the first season of On The Road – which contains 15 episodes – has been viewed over 100 million times since it premiered online last June. The second season, which is now on its sixth episode and follows the couple as they sail across the globe through the Pacific Ocean and down to Antarctica has already been viewed 26 million times, says Yangtze Evening News.
Plans for a wedding near the South Pole suggest that the couple have a keenish eye on the commercial appeal of their latest adventures, more so than when they started out on their travels. Still, they insist that they determine their itinerary themselves, even if Youku now comes along for much more of the ride.
Youku is betting that shows like On The Road will give it a leg up against its competitors. As WiC has written before, China’s online video sites are now competing directly with television by making their own programmes. Last year the industry spent a combined Rmb1 billion ($165 million) to produce original programming.
But On The Road also faces intense competition from other online series like PPTV’s The Goddess Office, a reality TV show about four young women living together in a house, trying to create their own e-commerce company. There’s also iQiyi’s Hanzi Hero, which is a competition show about the mastery of Chinese language.
Analysts say the reason shows like On The Road are successful is largely down to their being broadcast on the internet, reports Southern Weekend. Audiences online are usually younger than those who watch traditional TV. Moreover, critics say online video sites enjoy a larger degree of freedom than traditional television producers – online video sites do not have to get censors’ approval for shows and are expected to police content themselves.
“In principle it’s the same, but in reality it’s very difficult to say what the standards are for the online-video content players,” Vincent Tao of PPTV, told the Economist. This often means online shows can be brasher, edgier and more original.
Meanwhile, thanks to the popularity of On The Road, many young people are exploring new and different destinations. Take the Antarctic. The southern continent saw Chinese tourist arrivals more than double in 2012. China has even overtaken Canada as the Antarctic’s fifth-largest source of visitors, behind the US, Germany, Australia and the UK.
“This was my dream,” says Zhang about his journey to the Antarctic, where the couple will tie the knot in a future episode. “I want to prove that as a Chinese, I can get there too.”
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