Satire and propaganda don’t mix. That’s the message from this year’s Spring Festival Gala which saw viewing figures drop to an all-time low.
Some 690 million people (admittedly, still a huge figure) tuned in to the five-hour extravaganza – which had been elevated to the level of a “national project” in an effort to increase its appeal (other projects have included the 2008 Olympics in Beijing). Unfortunately the extra level of oversight seems to have stifled an already dull format, with many viewers complaining it was too political.
The show normally includes singing, dancing, acrobatics and comic dialogues. This year, however, it also included sketches commending Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive and a video montage about the Chinese president, accompanied by a specially-composed ballad.
In the latter case video footage showed Xi trudging through the snow and planting trees. A singer warbled: “We depend on one another in life and death through the wind and the rain. I give my heart to you and gently hold up the future.”
Netizens, who don’t have particularly high expectations of the show, were rather nonplussed. “This is meant to be family entertainment not a Party broadcast,” said one. “I thought I was watching an extended version of the seven o’clock news,” complained another.
Others went so far as to suggest that the video of Xi – which aired shortly before midnight – was reminiscent of the personality cult that once surrounded Mao Zedong. “We should be aware of a political figure who pushes individual worship,” warned one netizen.
The negative feedback will come as a blow to CCTV – the state broadcaster – which wants to win viewers back to the annual show. Allowing satirical political skits, which have been banned for most of the Gala’s 33-year existence, may have been an attempt to make it seem more edgy.
The creator of one of the three anti-corruption sketches, Miao Fu, told the Beijing News he had been given rich material by the graft- busters of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Sadly most felt that this didn’t come through in the 12 minute “xiangsheng” (a traditional performance in the form of a dialogue between two comedians).
A second sketch, Cater to what Leaders Like, was a little better but also fell quite flat.
“Satire can’t be written by those it makes fun of,” suggested one of the show’s more insightful viewers.
The Gala was also criticised for being sexist. That’s because one sketch depicted two men trying to get their (single) female chum to become more feminine. Their strategy was to parade a short-skirted model in front of her and tell the friend to emulate this lady. “That’s what elegance is”, the men said, after calling their friend “second hand goods”.
Yet some risks paid off. A decision to show the event on video-sharing platform iQiYi gathered younger viewers. iQiYi, which allows users to post public messages under programmes as they watch them, said it had attracted 14 million viewers mostly under 30 years- old.
Another reason many tuned in was to win money – Tencent’s WeChat and CCTV teamed up to award prizes worth Rmb500 million ($80 million) to people who shook their phones at key moments. The largest pay out was Rmb4,999, so engagement levels were high. In one of the more dumbfounding statistics, mobile phones were said to have been shaken more than 11 billion times across China that night (for more on this, see page 9) .
Of course, official media was keen to proclaim the show’s updated format a success, calling it a “a feast for the common man”.
“After more than 30 gorgeous years, the Gala has come from a simple mass celebration to a ritual that gives political, economic cultural and social meaning,” the Guangming Daily wrote obligingly.
How much of the evening-long show is actually watched is hard to know.
Most families put it on as the background noise while they make dumplings, eat or play cards. They don’t have much choice, either. One reason the viewing figures are still so high is that the show is shown on almost all channels.
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