The dating game

Reality television shows are having trouble retaining sponsors’ interest

Wang Ziwen-w

Wang Ziwen was one of the panelists on Tencent Video's Love Actually

Ever since the controversial debut of If You’re The One in 2010, there have been no shortage of reality dating shows in China. The format of these dating shows, however, has evolved over time. There are dating formats for celebrities who want to look for connections outside their circle in show business; another is specifically dedicated to divorcees looking for a second chance; there’s even one for pensioners who want to feel the spark again.

Nevertheless, a lot of the complaints surrounding these dating shows centre on their perceived superficiality: they touch on the couples falling in love but not how to sustain a relationship. Most of the dating shows also tend to cast physically attractive contestants who are mostly in their twenties, prompting many viewers to suspect that they were not earnestly searching for the love of their lives. Choosing celebrities to take part in such dating shows, many complain, is also out of touch with reality since – let’s be honest – celebrities are more alluring than ordinary people.

But a new dating show is hoping to change all that. This time round, Tencent Video’s Love Actually has positioned itself as a social experiment, putting 12 strangers (with an equal number of men and women) – all over the age of 30 – in the same house for 30 days with the goal of finding love at the end of their journey. The producers say they want to address the question of why so many Chinese who are in their middle- to late-30s have not yet tied the knot: do they believe in true love? Or are they commitment phobic?

To give the show some star power, it taps a panel of celebrities like Wang Ziwen, who also famously found her most recent boyfriend from a reality dating show, to offer commentary and analyse the cast’s every move as they watch the footage back in the studio.

Since the release of Love Actually in late December, it has been garnering a lot of buzz on social media. Much of the attention surrounds contestant Luo La, a single mother. Luo, who is in her mid-30s, is a pseudo-celebrity, having previously appeared as a guest on the cooking show Go Fridge, also produced by Tencent Video. Even though most of the men did not initially find her attractive, Luo quickly wins a lot of them over with her sense of humour and bubbly personality.

In the first episode, just after the contestants first move into the house, Luo fails to receive an invitation to go out for a date. She instead decides to take the initiative and invite a male contestant, though he subsequently turns her down because he interested in someone else. “I knew he had a date. But I think if I show him my interest, that may not be a bad thing either,” Luo mused.

She doesn’t have to wait long before she is the one to turn people down. In fact, Luo becomes so highly sought after that she becomes stuck in a love triangle between two male contestants. She explains that she has to take relationships seriously, since she also has to consider her eight year-old son at home.

Luo shares her thoughts with the camera: “I have to consider what we should do after the show ends and we return to the real life.” In the past, Luo adds, she was immature in handling relationships and now has trust issues.

In the end – spoiler alert – Luo chooses one of the contestants Wang Nengneng, who also happens to be a single father. When they announced their relationship on social media, the news was read over 600 million times on Sina Weibo, with many netizens sending their warm wishes to the couple.

“These two are so sweet. I didn’t expect to be so smitten, but I am rooting for them! Their true love really warms my heart,” one wrote. “I’m so happy for these two I want to open a bottle of champagne,” another adds.

While the popularity of Love Actually is another win for Tencent Video, some speculate that the show may not have been a commercial success. In fact, Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment blog, reckons that after a period of rocketing growth in variety shows, which have traditionally guaranteed high ratings and are also cheap to make, producers are finding it challenging to find sponsors.

According to Yiyu Guancha, most variety shows released in the first two months of this year, including Love Actually, managed to find no more than three sponsors (two years ago the first season of Mango TV’s reality competition show Sisters Riding Waves had as many as 15 brand sponsorships).

Even tried-and-true concepts are struggling to attract advertisers. Take Jiangsu Satellite TV’s flagship variety show The Brain, which is now going into its ninth season. The latest season has managed to court only two sponsors. The second season of the iQiyi reality road-trip style game series Hahahahaha, starring A-list actor Deng Chao and heartthrob Lu Han, was released without even a title sponsor. Title sponsors are brands that pay to have their name featured in the programme’s name. Domestic skincare brand Thanmelin reportedly paid Rmb1.5 billion to be the exclusive title sponsor for the first season of Sisters Riding Waves in 2020.

“For advertisers, the more popular the programme and the more topical it is, means it will reach more consumers, boosting the brand recognition. That is the reason why so many variety shows that have had many seasons under their belt are so appealing to brands: after all, they have a strong audience base and the streaming platforms will likely dedicate a sizeable amount to marketing the show,” Yiyu Guancha explained.

“However, the number of hit programmes that can generate buzz are decreasing, making such marketing opportunities harder to come by. It is also increasingly difficult for product placement. Inserting slogans or logos in the middle of a show is a big turn off for a lot of viewers, and fails to convert them into shoppers. Worse, interactive ads like those that require fans to spend real money to support their idols in reality competition shows are now a thing of the past. So how can advertisers trust that their investments will generate adequate returns?” the blog asks.

Short video platforms sense an opportunity. Recently Kuaishou produced its own comedy show Nice Roast, which features popular stand-up comedians like Li Dan. The show has successfully courted five sponsors, including online job classified app Zhaopin and delivery giant Meituan. Douyin, too, has had a lot of success with Nice to Meet You, a documentary-style show hosted by actress Zhou Xun. So far, the second season has already been viewed 250 million times. That’s great news for its title sponsor: Chinese shampoo brand Kono.

Although the total amount of brand sponsorship for short videos is still small, the foray of Kuaishou and Douyin into producing their own reality series suggests that competition for marketing budget is only about to become more cutthroat.

“Producers for reality TV series have to realise that they can no longer afford to stay in the comfort zone anymore. They need to show that they genuinely want innovation and can convince brands to spend money. Although the sharp decline in commercial performance for reality TV will certainly affect content production, it also gives the entire industry an opportunity to ‘clean up’ and get their act together,” Yiyu Guancha urges.

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