The show they love to hate

Feng Xiaogang unfazed as his Spring Festival TV programme is bashed

Gala w

“Je t’aime your work”: CCTV host greets Sophie Marceau during the show

This year’s Super Bowl, the most watched TV event in the United States, pitted the NFL’s highest-scoring offence – the Denver Broncos – against the defence that gave up the fewest points: the Seattle Seahawks. Despite being the clear favourite to win, Denver lost 43-8. One deflated fan told the New York Times: “It was an epic fail.”

Last Thursday China’s CCTV Spring Festival Gala left many viewers similarly disappointed (even if its own audience of 704 million vastly exceeded the 111.5 million who watched the Superbowl). Why so? Well, so much had been promised this year. The variety show format was supposed to be getting a reinvigorating makeover, courtesy of top film director Feng Xiaogang. But while Feng’s hiring generated plenty of pre-event buzz there was less in the way of substantive change on the night itself.

The Gala – which always airs on the eve of the Lunar New Year – quickly prompted criticism on weibo. Many viewers thought Feng, a master of comedy, was going to include more stand-up routines and skits on the programme, poking fun at social issues like food safety and air pollution. However, there were only five comedy sketches all night, a record low in the show’s history. Instead, there were plenty of song-and-dance routines as well as Peking opera, much to the disapproval of some of the audience.

“I was looking forward to the comedy skits but the whole show is filled with nothing but bathroom breaks. Feng has turned the biggest annual celebration event into a concert,” one disgruntled netizen wrote on weibo.

Xiao Ying, a professor of communications at Tsinghua University, was sufficiently annoyed to pen an open letter about Feng’s work, slamming the director as being responsible for “the worst cultural disaster in history”. (To be fair, WiC suspects the Cultural Revolution might just shade it.)

“It’s very easy to ruin a director: just send him to direct the Spring Festival Gala,” another netizen observed.

Others shared pictures of their families dozing off in front of the television, mocking it as a snoozefest (it lasts nearly five hours).

Feng says he doesn’t mind the criticism. The director, who got very defensive about negative coverage of his latest film Personal Tailor (see WiC221) told Xinhua that he had expected complaints when he signed up to do the show. “Trashing the CCTV Spring Festival Gala has become something of an annual tradition. The collective trash-talking about the show is a cultural phenomenon that’s unique to China,” he said.

Still, there is little sign that the Gala tradition will be discontinued. In fact Lu Yitao, an executive director at state broadcaster CCTV, told Beijing Youth Daily that the government had elevated its status to the level of “national project” – i.e. akin to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 (a genuinely jaw-dropping spectacle, directed by Feng’s rival Zhang Yimou).

“Government officials feel that if the Gala isn’t done well they are not accountable to the people. The goal is to make the show better. We have to be better and livelier,” CCTV’s Lu told the newspaper.

First held on Lunar New Year’s Eve in 1983, watching the annual gala has become a family tradition for millions of Chinese. However, the show has lost much of its appeal over the years, particularly with younger viewers, who think it is out of touch. A survey conducted by China Youth Daily showed that more than 55% of the 102,791 people polled thought the content was outdated, while others have inferred much deeper meaning in the Gala’s failure to impress. “China is the world’s second largest economy and based on the lavish production costs it’s clear that CCTV is not lacking in money. Unfortunately, the reality is that China is still a country that’s plagued by wealth disparity, corruption and lack of social morality. As long as these problems and social injustices continue to exist, no matter how much money CCTV puts into the show to create the illusion of extravagance, everything feels fake,” was the venomous verdict of the Oriental Daily News.

So what were the major talking points of the show this year? French actress Sophie Marceau was on hand to duet ‘La Vie En Rose’ with Chinese singer Liu Huan (an unexpected choice, but one likely to have pleased jeweller Chaumet, for whom Marceau is the brand ambassador). South Korean popstar Lee Min-ho made an appearance too, performing a duet with Taiwanese singer Yu Chengqing (they crooned ‘I’m afraid of falling in love with you’, which roused much online discussion as neither man is gay). But WiC’s favourite moment was when kung-fu star Jackie Chan, a regular performer at the Gala, mistakenly introduced a dance titled the “best night” as the “last night”. Chan soon recovered but WiC wonders if the slip might have revealed some hidden reservations about the Gala’s future?

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