In 2012 Chinese talk show personality Da Peng became a sensation in the United States. Why? Because Conan O’Brien called him out for copying the opening sequence of his own nightly show. O’Brien took revenge by mimicking some of the sillier antics of the Chinese host, whose show is called Da Peng Debade.
But there’s rarely such a thing as bad publicity in the entertainment world. The ‘feud’ with Conan has made Da Peng a hit at home. His weekly talk show, which is only available online on Sohu, has picked up a huge following, and his programme, now in its seventh season, can boast almost 580 million views.
More generally, the internet has given Chinese talk shows a major boost. Traditionally, these shows have followed a similar format to those in the West, featuring a mix of interviews with celebrities and games involving the studio audience. The country’s most famous host Yang Lan, often known as China’s Oprah Winfrey, has largely stuck with the formula. Comedian Zhou Libo, who hosts the popular Mr Zhou Live Show, also seems to have taken his cue from late-night talk show personalities like David Letterman and Jay Leno.
“The talk show is not that simple. [To be successful,] it requires a host with an interesting personality, a TV station that is courageous enough to broadcast it and a community of TV viewers that is open-minded,” Zhang Yang, a former Shaanxi TV talk show host, told Beijing Youth Daily.
But when you are trying to do something a bit less formulaic, more receptive audiences are more likely to be found online, it seems. In fact, one talk show is so popular in that format that a regional satellite TV station has even purchased the rights to bring it to television.
Gao Xiaosong’s Xiao Shuo got its start on the internet two years ago. Against a simple studio backdrop, the show largely involves Gao talking to camera while he fans himself like an ancient poet. That may not sound the most exciting format, but the first two seasons of his weekly programme have been viewed over 400 million times on the online video site Youku, which also produces the series. China’s Variety named it the best original programming online last year. Zhejiang Satellite TV then purchased the TV rights and started airing it on primetime.
Initial expectations for Xiao Shuo weren’t stellar. For a start, Gao, 45, is not the most obvious choice as a host. With his goatee and long hair, he is better known as a musician (although he had appeared previously as a guest judge for reality singing competitions like Super Girl and China’s Got Talent). He has also dabbled in filmmaking and grabbed the headlines in 2011 for drunk-driving.
But as it turns out, Gao is rather well versed on a range of subjects from history to pop culture and sports. With his quick humour and swift analysis, he tackles a different issue every week. In a recent episode, he discussed the life of Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara, for instance. In another, he talked about the uncompromising work ethic of the Japanese.
The host, who has lived in the US, also likes to decode American behaviour for his Chinese audience. In an early episode, Gao explains why it was such a struggle for Washington to roll out healthcare reforms. “I once watched a debate between some important Congressmen on TV,” he recalls. “One of their arguments: ‘Why should we – people who work hard and pay our taxes – pay more taxes for those people who eat a lot and don’t exercise so that they can have health insurance?’”
But the issue went beyond healthcare, Gao explains: “In the US, there is no unified idea that ‘democracy and freedom are great, and everyone should be equal’. That’s not the case. When they talk about democracy, freedom, and equality, it is more like a kind of chess.”
In another episode, he talks about Chinese attitude towards African Americans: “Chinese immigrants in the US hate two types of people… One kind is people who discriminate against the Chinese… and the other is people who are black.”
He also pokes fun at his own culture. “China has plenty of technology but it doesn’t have science. These are two very different things… In times of flood you create an irrigation system via technology. But science is the ability to summarise and predict. No one in China has ever sought to make any conclusions about their technology. We just know how to fix things,” he muses.
Xiao Shuo appeals to an attractive demographic group – namely, the urban, young and highly educated, pulling in advertisers like Infiniti, Nissan’s premium car division, says Tencent Finance.
Meanwhile, Gao sounds modest about his success. “I have worked hard for more than a decade. I made four films, two of which never made it to the big screen. I spent millions of investors’ money and I’m nowhere half as successful as I am now. Three or four times a month I spend an afternoon [to film] and I have ended up with today’s fortune. I feel quite ashamed,” he told China Radio International.
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