The first episode of Happy Camp aired on July 7, 1997. The variety show on Hunan Satellite TV featured Li Xiang and Li Bing (unrelated) as hosts. The latter, who had a background in news reporting, didn’t bring much spark to the show so he was gradually phased out.
After many auditions, the producers landed on He Jiong, a Hunan native from Changsha, as a replacement. With his comedic timing and warm personality, He made the format more fun to watch, the National Business Daily commented. At the end of 2004, Li Xiang also departed, passing on the hosting gig to Xie Na. Along with new additions Wu Xin, Li Weijia and Hai Tao, the five presenters called themselves the ‘Happy Family’.
Happy Camp’s format has also evolved over time, focusing less on celebrity interviews and performances. Instead hosts have more freedom to improvise, making the series less scripted and more unpredictable. It later updated the original concept further, adding games that involve the viewers so the experience became even more interactive.
“Happy Camp has had many revamps as it evolved with the times: from the early talkshow format to becoming ‘entertainment for the masses’, to putting grassroot audiences centre-stage and becoming a gameshow that features star performances and interviews. It has brought viewers to a new space every single time, ” NBD concluded.
Despite its lengthy run, Happy Camp also held on to the ratings crown as the most popular variety show in China. It became a shop window for the entertainment world, not only launching the careers of its main hosts (Xie and He are two of the most followed celebrities on Sina Weibo), but also showcasing some of China’s biggest acting stars.
International celebrities also made the obligatory stop in Changsha, where the Hunan network is based, if they had something to plug. For instance, on one occasion David Beckham arrived in China for a six-hour visit, spending most of them at the Happy Camp studio (to promote a smartphone brand in 2007). Similarly, former K-pop stars such as Rain and Song Joong-ki have made high-profile appearances on the show.
But as the Chinese proverb warns, there are ‘no never-ending banquets in this world’. And when the last episode of the latest season was broadcast on October 2 speculation soon grew that the show was about to be cancelled, despite denials from the Happy Camp’s producers.
However, an announcement then emerged from Hunan Satellite TV that it was introducing a new format called Hello Saturday in the same time slot – Saturday at 8 pm – from January 1. Viewers soon noticed that the new show featured He as host, although his former co-hosts were absent from early publicity trailers.
“A hello is a greeting to the future and a confident attitude for what’s ahead. Go forward bravely, feel the enormous power, and experience the beauty of challenges!” proclaimed a posting on the new programme’s weibo account.
Netizens expressed confusion, wondering whether this all meant that Happy Camp was never coming back: “Does it mean the show I grew up watching is really gone?” one asked wistfully. Another added: “Why is your goodbye so quiet and so abrupt? I haven’t even had time to say farewell properly!”
Critics reckon that the sudden manner of Happy Camp’s termination – after 25 years – could be linked to the crackdown on China’s celebrity fan culture. Policymakers disapprove of the way that management companies have encouraged large groups of obsessive fans to follow their favourite stars religiously, reacting to their every move and comment. Such behaviour is childish, the authorities have warned, and regulators have taken aim at entertainment platforms that promote it. According to a directive published last September, “all radio, television and online programmes must insist on taste, style and responsibility; resist vulgarity and kitsch; vigorously promote core socialist values and spread positive energy.”
To that end, streaming platforms and networks have scrambled to rejig their programming schedules. Gone are reality idol competition shows (especially after a controversial marketing gimmick by a sponsor urged fan clubs to purchase cartons of Mengniu’s milk in a bid to support their favourite contestants, leading many to wastefully dump the unwanted milk in the street).
No doubt the producers of Hello Saturday are keen to avoid similar mistakes, with a promise before the first episode that they would be creating “a high-quality programme that delivers a healthy and positive message”. The first instalment of Hello Saturday featured He and four new faces (Hong Kong actress Ada Choi, the Chinese rapper Bridge, and the actors Victor Qin properly and Dylan Wang). There was even a virtual host called Xiao Yang to appeal more to millennial audiences.
One of the first guest stars was the comedian Yue Yunpeng, who performed the song ‘An Ordinary Day’. Playing a series of characters from all walks of life, Yue drummed home the egalitarian message that everyone can make a difference in the world. In another segment, actress Song Qian made sure to thank the production crew for their hard work behind the scenes. The final part of the episode then played the patriotism card fiercely, championing an appearance by China’s air force cadets.
Much of the audience seemed unimpressed, however, describing the episode as “not funny” and “cringeworthy”.
“This is so hard to watch. The style is like an 1980s variety show,” one complained. “It’s hard to find a show that is worse than this… The whole thing is just a long pee break,” fumed another disgruntled viewer.
“They should just have stuck with Happy Camp,” a fan of the former series advised ruefully.
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