A run for their money

Sporting themes set to dominate China’s reality TV schedule next year

Li Na and wax model

Tennis star Li Na (with her waxwork) is heading for reality TV

China is rarely a country of small numbers and where TV choices are concerned that’s true too. At the end of 2014, there were at least 300 television broadcasters. Most of these channels are regional but they all have to compete with the nationwide state behemoth which goes by the name of CCTV. Some of the provincial broadcasters also have nationwide reach, thanks to their satellite coverage.

All of this leads to intense competition for ratings but not necessarily to corresponding levels of inspiration in the quality of the televised content. Partly this is due to the media watchdog, SAPPRFT (the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television), which issues regular diktats about what it dislikes, and thus curbs creativity. The more popular formats are cursed by China’s copycat culture too, with rival broadcasters scrambling to produce their own versions of smash hits. When too popular SAPPRFT then typically declares it doesn’t like the genre and pushes for a ban. This happened to dating shows in 2010 and time travel dramas three years ago (see WiC150).

This year it has been the turn of the reality show. According to Xinhua, Chinese broadcasters have scheduled more than 200 reality series this year, or five times the number in 2014. The regulator has again made its displeasure known, with a July directive seeking to stamp out “vulgarity, vanity and money worship”. If producers insist on making reality shows, SAPPRFT has announced, they should incorporate “Socialist core values” and not become “a place to show off wealth and rely on celebrities”.

Pointedly, it has also instructed that those employing the reality genre should break away from “heavy dependence on the introduction of foreign formats”, adding that producers should show more confidence in China’s home culture.

Despite such creative constraints, broadcasters seem unwilling to abandon the reality show craze just yet. But in a nod to the regulator, the next wave of programming is positioning itself with a more wholesome mission – finding China’s sport stars of the future.

“Many broadcasters are planning sports reality shows. This will become the standard programme in prime time for major satellite channels,” suggests.

Why? For one thing, sport is back in vogue with policymakers. The Olympic Games will be held in Brazil next summer and hundreds of millions of Chinese are likely to be monitoring the country’s gold medal count. Plus there is the political angle too. As WiC has reported out previously, the economic planners are keen to promote sport as a strategic industry (and thus as one of the new growth engines for the Chinese economy).

So what are the new shows on offer? According to, one format will see famous sportspeople competing in games and physical challenges. That sounds like it could breach the ban on fawning over celebrities. But Hunan Satellite TV has reportedly paid Rmb3 million ($470,000) to entice retired tennis icon Li Na to be a contestant on Run for Money, a game show adapted from Japan (there’s another finger in the eye for SAPPRFT too).

Hunan Daily says the show will be broadcast next month as a rival to Zhejiang Satellite TV’s hugely popular Running Man, which is adapted from a Korean original, and more programmes are predicted to be on air next year, prompting fierce competition for star faces.

“Let’s be honest: not many sports champions are good looking enough for TV as well… So we might be stuck with a few familiar faces such as Yao Ming [basketball] and Lin Dan [badminton],” added sagely.

Today’s Headlines, another internet newspaper, reports that the flyweight boxer Zou Shiming may even postpone his plans for a shot at a world title to make time for a reality show (probably wisely, WiC thinks, having seen Zou fight in Macau last year).

Other athletes have been signing up with promotional agencies to make their own pitch for TV roles, which has led to concerns that they will get distracted from their day jobs. “It is only okay for retired sportspeople to take part in reality shows,” was the advice of Today’s Headlines.

Another reality format that could be set to boom is to pay yet more celebrities to take part – alongside athletes – in sports in which they have no background.

Here the pioneer was Zhejiang Satellite’s Celebrity Splash China, which featured entertainment stars training to become Olympic-style divers (see WiC190).

But it might be harder to find recruits for new shows. “A-listers [celebrities] generally won’t show up because they don’t want to play second fiddle to the professional athletes… Starlets who don’t want to go live without make-up, and male stars without six-packs, are both likely to shun sport reality shows too,” suggests.

But there is a third approach to mixing sport and entertainment, epitomised since 2001 by CCTV’s World of Sports, which tries to teach ordinary people to excel in a sport. Naturally, this is much more in keeping with SAPPRFT’s mission to uplift the masses. But equally predictably, it doesn’t do very well in the ratings. Why follow the story of an aspiring gymnast when you can switch channels and watch a famed Cantopop singer conquering her fear on the high-diving board?

That said, CCTV – sensing the competition ahead – has already spiced things up a bit for World of Sports. Today’s Headlines says viewers seemed to take more notice of the programme earlier this year, when it featured 12 women training for a performance of synchronised swimming. Several episodes followed the ladies through an intensive week of practice, in which swimsuits were worn throughout.

As regular WiC readers will recall, SAPPRFT has strong views about dressing properly on television as well, ordering an edit of a Tang Dynasty historical drama recently because the outfits were deemed too revealing. Thus some angry netizens accused it of double standards in giving CCTV a pass where skimpy swimwear was concerned…

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