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How the TV Stole Spring Festival: Part 1

CCTV's Spring Festival Gala didn't just change TV - it changed the way China celebrates the New Year


How the TV Stole Spring Festival: Part 1

CCTV's Spring Festival Gala didn't just change TV - it changed the way China celebrates the New Year


Huang Yihe, director in charge of singing and dancing programming at CCTV, stared out of the window of his temporary courtyard office in Beijing and contemplated his predicament.

It was a snowy day in the November of 1982, and Huang’s boss had just instructed him to organize a TV gala for the upcoming Spring Festival, a task that would make or break his career. It was just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the growing popularity of televisions, along with a sharp public hunger for entertainment—which had been left languishing through the last decade—meant that Huang was on the brink of either a monumental breakthrough or a humiliating failure.

Thankfully, Huang wouldn’t have to completely invent the wheel. Back in 1956, China’s Central News Documentary Film Studio had forged a rough blueprint with their film “Grand Get-together at Spring Festival,” which celebrated the year’s end with a motley group of entertainers, literary figures, military officials, businessmen and scientists, including Qian Xuesen, known as “The Father of Chinese Rocketry” for his role in kick-starting China’s missile program.

This provided a template for later shows to follow, but it was not until China emerged from the televisual doldrums of the Cultural Revolution that a similar format saw the light of day. The 1978 broadcast of CCTV’s “Gala to Welcome the New Year” marked the beginning of the show’s modern evolution. While it pioneered the integration of old and new forms of entertainment—storytelling, crosstalk, Peking Opera, singing and dancing—the show only reached a limited audience due to the paucity of television sets in Chinese homes at the time.

A dancer in the gala ‘sits on air’ using a special insert inside her shoe

It wasn’t until the following year, when Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up led to an explosion in the number of television sets, that the gala grabbed hold of national consciousness. Most recall the 1979 broadcast as their first experience watching the gala, which would from then on become a yearly tradition.

Videotaped in advance, the event made bold leaps that would become entrenched in subsequent years; there was, for instance, the monumental decision to open the show with a dance routine rather than a series of turgid political slogans. It also defined what would become the nature of the gala by bringing the audience closer to the stage, creating an intimacy as if they were taking part in a tea party.

But despite these improvements, the first few shows, which were all prerecorded and broadcast nationwide on New Year’s Eve, largely failed to impress. Too staid, the audience said; too much politicking, they complained.

This was the history that was hanging over Huang’s head as he organized a flurry of meetings with TV executives in an attempt to bring the 1983 show to life. During one such meeting, a coworker proposed inviting the TV audience to participate by phoning in requests for their favorite songs. By degrees, this innovative notion of interaction was expanded, leading to the landmark decision to broadcast the whole show live.

This meant a whole new level of excitement—and danger. Anything could happen on a live broadcast, and if it wasn’t to the liking of the audience (or, more importantly, the authority), there would be no do-overs.

“There were political risks one took to host a gala,” Huang later said in an interview with Tencent News. “Each time I made decisions it was like crossing a river by feeling the stones.” One of the controversial decisions he made was to appoint crosstalk actors as the gala hosts. Though it may seem an innocuous move now, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, entertainment was still expected to be instructive rather than—well, entertaining. The worry was the crosstalk actors would be too vulgar for China’s still fragile sense of decency. But Huang knew a live show would require hosts who could think on their feet and enliven the atmosphere with improvised jokes and asides, a skill that crosstalk actors have in spades.

A family watches the 2009 gala while making dumplings

Yet even the best laid plans have a tendency to go awry. As soon as the show opened, the hotlines were inundated with requests for the song “Love for My Hometown” (《乡恋》Xiāng liàn), which had previously been banned for containing “personal sentiments” that were thought to be too decadent for the society of the time. The studio executives chewed their thumbs and ignored the requests. But the audience kept calling, eventually forcing the then-Minister of Broadcasts, Radio and Television, who was in charge of the evening, to throw out the rulebook and broadcast the banned song.

The chaos in the studio stood in marked contrast to the eerie quiet that had settled on the winter streets outside. “Before the show started, firecrackers could be heard exploding everywhere in the city, but they gradually subsided and did not start up again until the end of the show,” Huang recalled in an interview with Beijing Times. “It felt as if every family was riveted to the TV, watching the gala.”

Fast forward to the present and the gala has installed itself as a holiday fixture in Chinese homes, alongside other traditions like reunion dinners and playing with fireworks. “As big a country as China is, it suddenly feels remarkably small when Spring Festival arrives, as if every family is watching the same channel at the same time,” says Afra, a Beijing-based reporter with Singapore’s The United Morning Post.

‘The Waterloo Episode’

Over the last nearly 30 years, CCTV claims the gala has consistently drawn the most viewers of any show broadcast at home or abroad on the Chinese New Year’s Eve. It is a remarkable feat, and Huang attained near-hero status in China for his initial success. But in 1985 the ambitious director overreached to catastrophic effect. In attempting to host the gala in an outdoor stadium, Huang overlooked the limited resources he had at his disposal. It was a disaster. Audience members could barely make out the faces of the performers and the subtitles were out of sync. Even before the show had finished, furious audience members were dialing CCTV to criticize the station. The discontent grew to such an extent that the then Vice Minister of Broadcasts, Radio and TV was greeted the next morning by everyone he met with the rhetorical question “What the hell kind of gala did you just hold?”

In the following week, sacks of complaint letters landed on CCTV’s doorstep, and the  incident was branded “The Waterloo Episode” (滑铁卢 Huátiělú) in a caustic comparison with Napoleon’s epic defeat by the English navy. The brouhaha culminated in CCTV taking the unprecedented step of issuing an official apology on its daily news broadcast, and the authority launching an investigation into the causes of the failure.