A 28 billion phenomenon

New girl band reality show breaks iQiyi’s record for popularity

Lalisa Manoban-w

Lisa: the Blackpink rapper from Thailand is one of the show’s mentors

While the world is struggling to contain the coronavirus outbreak, China has slowly reopened schools in areas like Guizhou, which are deemed low risk. Flights to Hubei province – with the exception of Wuhan, the capital city of the province – have also started to resume. In another sign that the country is heading back to normality, the most talked-about topic on local social media is no longer the pandemic but the hit reality series Youth With You.

Since Youth With You’s debut three weeks ago on online streaming platform iQiyi, Sina Weibo posts about the show have accumulated over 28 billion views, rendering it the most discussed variety series in China in the first quarter of this year. According to iQiyi’s own heat index (which has replaced view counts as a gauge of popularity), the show has a score of 9,000, the highest ever recorded on the platform.

The show, which comes out twice a week, is based on the same format as its 2018 predecessor Idol Producer: that is, seeking to whittle down 109 competitors to form a nine-member girl band through audience voting. But this time round, the online streaming giant not only gave the show a new name, it also brought a new cast. Cai Xukun, the pop icon, is the lead mentor. The producers tapped Thai rapper-dancer Lalisa Manoban (also known as Lisa) from the South Korean girl band Blackpink to be their dance mentor (unusually for a Chinese reality show, she gives her coaching instructions mostly in English but also occasionally in Thai). The K-pop star has 30.1 million followers on Instagram and endorses a wide range of brands.

A lot of the attention has centred on Cai (who featured on our list of the Top 30 KOLs in China; see our website for the influencer ranking), with many viewers admitting that they were surprised by how “down-to-earth” and “friendly” he appears on the show. When one of the trainees described herself as “twice-cooked pork” (that is, it was not her first time competing in a reality TV series), Cai, 21, replied: “I [also] waited so long for that stage [i.e. Idol Producer where a nine-member boy band was formed; see WiC405]; I waited almost three years. So when I finally went on the stage I really cherished the moment.”

But so far the show hasn’t generated much controversy, which is the standard route to high ratings in China. Tencent Video’s Produce 101 in 2018, for instance, had Yang Chaoyue to thank for much of its success because the sweet-mannered but largely untalented contestant dominated weibo chatter every week with her poor singing and overly emotional tearful reactions (she ended up coming third in the competition; see WiC416).

Industry observers are also worried about the future of Chinese girl bands. According to Entertainment Capital, an industry blog, the number of girl bands that are still active has shrunk.

“Compared with the hundreds of girl bands back in 2015 and 2017, the number of active girl bands today have gone down significantly. This is enough to show that running a female idol group is not an easy business. First, it takes time to figure out the distinct style of the group. Second, management companies need to hire a strong production team to churn out quality content, and that requires a lot of time and capital,” it added.

Part of the reason is that investors have become more cautious with their cash. Between 2015 and 2016, there were more than 10 fundraising efforts for all-female groups. By 2018, the only girl band that received funding was Shenlong Girls, a fourth-tier group (as ranked by their number of social media followers and commercial endorsements) run by Shanghai Fengxiao Culture. Industry observers say the reason for the lack of enthusiasm is less about the dire conditions in the entertainment sector and more to do with the fact that girl bands just aren’t profitable.

“It takes three to five years to nurture a mature and all-rounded girl group. And after that you need to develop content and host theatre shows [see WiC439], it all requires a lot of time and money. And besides, the industry is ultra-competitive which makes a lot of investors nervous,” an insider told Entertainment Capital.

Managers of girl groups are also at the mercy of online streaming platforms like iQiyi and Tencent Video when it comes to exposure. To that end, the leading management firms like Wang Sicong’s Banana Culture and AKB48 have put forward their trainees to compete in reality series on the two platforms. Even girl band SNH48, who hadn’t participated in the idol reality show circuit over the past two years, sent 17 girls to Youth With You.

Tao Ying of Star48, the management company for SNH48, admits that going on reality shows is the only way to expand their fan base. “In the past, the SNH48 was a closed system [i.e. trainees didn’t compete in reality shows or join other bands], and our fans have been fiercely loyal. However, that also means that those who are not familiar with us don’t get to know us and that is why we need to expand our fan base by entering into reality TV shows.”

In the meantime, a lot of girl bands are looking to change their business models, foraying into the multichannel network (MCN) sector (see last week’s issue about Bytedance investing in an MCN). One of the girls from the band Sing went on JD Live to perform a traditional fan dance to promote Meifubao, a domestic skincare brand that uses Chinese herbs. SNH48 also appeared on Taobao Live during the Spring Festival to advertise various products in a livestream.

“For a lot of trainees, there are usually two career outcomes: those that make the cut become pop idols; those who don’t find a living being an online influencer,” another insider told Entertainment Capital.

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