The city of Trier isn’t known as a big draw for tourists. Unless you have a soft spot for Karl Marx, who was born there. Fortunately for one of Germany’s oldest cities, many Chinese still do think fondly of him, making Trier an “unusually popular” destination for Chinese bus tours on European itineraries, writes Evan Osnos in his new book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.
While Osnos was the New Yorker’s Beijing correspondent he joined one of the tour parties. Trier was his first stop, which surprised him until he consulted his Chinese-language guidebook which described it as “the Mecca of the Chinese People”. But the tour guide was less impressed, urging the group to hurry up as they posed for photos outside the Marx museum. “The sooner we finish here, the sooner we get to Paris,” he chivied.
Hunting for handbags trumps historical materialism any day of the week, it seems. “Our group had lingered in the Mecca of the Chinese People for just eleven minutes,” Osnos recalls.
Another group of Chinese tourists has a little more time to spare on its travels. Hunan Satellite TV’s Divas Hit the Road follows a group of Chinese celebrities as they backpack through Spain and Italy on a tight budget for two weeks. The team includes male teen idols Hua Chenyu and Zhang Han, as well as the older actresses Zheng Peipei, Zhang Kaili, Xu Qing, Liu Tao and Li Fei’er.
Like many reality shows, part of the fun is watching the protagonists suffer. The divas are travelling on a budget and struggle to make ends meet. The shock on their faces when they realise they will have to travel by bus is painfully honest. The frugality creates tensions too, with Zhang Han wallowing in self pity when the others forget to share their fruit (a relative luxury for the budget travellers).
But 45 year-old Xu Qing is the most needy tourist: she starts sobbing when she gets separated from the rest of the group in Barcelona.
Similarly, viewers see Zhang Han, who takes on the role of group leader, experience numerous emotional break downs. However, towards the end of the series they see him ‘grow up’ (he is 30) and gain respect from his fellow travellers.
Fans of the show will only find Divas Hit the Road by tuning in to Hunan Satellite TV or to the channel’s own website hunantv.com. The network surprised the industry by announcing that it won’t be selling the series or any future programmes to online video sites. Analysts say the move indicates the station’s determination to build its own online platform.
It’s a bold move as broadcasters have counted on sales of online rights to video sites like Youku Tudou and Sohu as a steady source of revenue. While such arrangements are lucrative (see issues 232 and 227), Hunan TV says it is facing a big drop in its traditional viewership, which is turning to online content. That’s a problem facing all mainstream TV channels: a government survey in Beijing reveals that only 30% of households were watching traditional TV in 2012, down from 70% three years earlier.
The prospects for advertising revenue are another factor. Statistics from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television show that advertising revenues earned by broadcasting stations reached a record-breaking Rmb130.2 billion ($20.81 billion) in 2013. But that was only up 2.5% from the year before. Advertising spend on online video sites was smaller at Rmb12.8 billion but increased 43% last year, says iResearch.
That makes Hunan TV’s move look like a defensive ploy designed to slow down the progress of online streaming. There will be some short term pain as a result – with analysts forecasting as much as Rmb400 million in foregone sales to video websites.
CCTV is rumoured to be considering a similar strategy by withholding online broadcasting rights for the World Cup, which begins in Brazil this month.
“At the moment, online video sites generate the most traffic from the biggest hit TV shows… so securing the broadcasting rights to the most popular TV shows is very critical for the websites,” media analyst Zhang Ruobo told the Beijing Times. Hunan’s new strategy is to capture a larger online audience itself. “Hunan Satellite TV is one of the largest generators of content so even though the total number of views may be smaller on its website than at other online video sites, it is still a big improvement from before,” Zhang suggests.
The first three episodes of Divas Hit the Road accumulated 59 million views for hunantv.com, with viewer numbers per episode far outpacing the averages of other shows on the site. Hunan TV says the series has also boosted website traffic by a factor of 10, helping it to maintain an average of three million active users every day.
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