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Is This Real Life or Reality TV?

Despite China's censorship laws, many Chinese still gather around the telly and dream the dream of becoming famous


Is This Real Life or Reality TV?

Despite China's censorship laws, many Chinese still gather around the telly and dream the dream of becoming famous


“So, I have a question,” my professor asked me, pointing to my dictation book. “Your name, why is it spelled that way?”

I went on to explain that “Rachael” was simply a variation of the common “Rachel”.

“Oh! Because my English name is Rachel, too!” She smiled. “It’s from Friends, do you know Friends? I also have a sister named Monica.”

American television in China is not new, but China’s consumption of reality television (《中国真人秀》 zhōngguó zhēnrén xiù) is on the rise. TV has stolen the Spring FestivalSoaps inundate the channels, domestically and abroad in Africa. Some programming is more conservative: the classic Journey to the West (《西游记》 Xīyóujì) is an ode to traditional Chinese culture, while Family with Children (《家有儿女》 Jiā Yǒu Érnǚ) is China’s answer to America’s Growing Pains.

However, not even five years ago, reality TV in China pushed limits. Shandong’s Satellite TV partnered with a dairy company to bring Mengniu NBA Basketball Disciple in 2009. The winner won a free trip to the United States and the chance to try out for a team with the minor leagues of the NBA. An even more controversial program was Interviews Before Execution (临刑会见 Línxíng Huìjiàn), which ran from November 2006 until March 2012. Host Ms. Ding Yu interviewed more than 250 inmates on their way to death row. The show attracted over 40 million viewers and a BBC documentary on the subject.

Like many programs, the government cancelled Interviews Before Execution in 2012. In a moment of crisis, the government sought to crackdown on “vulgar tendencies” perpetuated by “light entertainment shows” (which included reality TV, game shows, dating and talk shows). The BBC described the new laws as an effort to promote “social cohesion in the face of rising materialism.”

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT)’s verdict mandated that the 34 satellite TV stations only show up to two 90-minute “entertainment” shows per week. Together, the stations were permitted 10 shows. Instead, the TV stations broadcast two more hours of evening news.

Luckily, CCTV’s dominance has not eliminated reality TV in its entirety. While the CCP would prefer that viewers watched cultural shows like the hit A Bite of China (舌尖上的中国 Shéjiān Shàng de Zhōngguó), many Chinese still get their daily dose of the “Chinese dream.” You can live vicariously, too, with these top 5 picks:

If You Are the One (《扰》 Fēi Chéng Wù Rǎo)

In 2011, we dubbed If You Are the One as one of the hottest dating shows around. Featuring dating prospects growing up in the angst-filled 1980s and 90s, one female contestant became famous with her reply to a suitor: “我宁愿坐在宝马车里哭, 也不愿意坐在自行车上笑” (Wǒ nìngyuàn zuò zài bǎomǎ chē lǐ kū, yě bú yuànyì zuò zài zìxíngchē shàng xiào,  I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle). Today the show is still popular, albeit with a third judge affiliated with the CCP and less witty (controversial, sensational) dialogue. Even Chinese students at the University of Illinois, Chicago, missing their favorite show and noticing all the single ladies and men, launched their own version of the dating show on-campus. See what all the hype is about with this latest episode:

The Voice of China (《中国好声音》 Zhōngguó Hǎo Shēngyīn)

The Voice premiered on 13 July 2012 on Zhejian TV. It ran for 14 episodes, with host Hau Shao and judges Liu Huan (刘欢, who sang the Beijing Olympics theme song), Na Ying (那英, a pop star), Harlem Yu (庾澄庆, from Taiwan) and Yang Kun (杨坤, from mainland China). It attracted more than 120 million TV viewers and 400 million internet users. Advertisement space cost 360,000 RMB for a  15-second spot, grossing over 16 million RMB per week. While contestants are not able to vote for winners directly because of a ban by the CCP, the judging by media outlets doesn’t change the fact that these Chinese stars can sing! Check it out:

China’s Got Talent (《中国达人秀》 Zhōngguó Dárén Xiù)  

Like its international counterparts, China’s Got Talent is as much about talent as it is personality. Though popular in 2010, the show is now a household name after 44 episodes. Past winners included armless pianist Liu Wei, “self-taught popper” Zhou Jun, female baritone Pan Qianqian and acrobat Wang Jungru. Hopefully you tuned-in to season four, which ended on 27 January 2013. If not, here is what you might have missed:

Going Up Youth (《向上吧!少年》 Xiàngshàng Ba! Shàonián)

Still stuck in the 90s? Feel like the world doesn’t understand your sorrows and pain? Look no further than Going Up Youth, hosted by the trusty Hunan TV network. The goal of the show is to build a global platform of Chinese-speakers of the 90s generation. During each episode, the youth perform in different contests. Broadcast in May 2012, the show attracted a record 5.37 million viewers. Watch this episode on Sino-U.S. relations:

Happy Camp (《大本营》 Kuàilè Dàběnyíng)

Although some may argue that Happy Camp is not a reality show, Hunan TV still considers the show a “variety entertainment” program. Featuring well-known artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, hosts Du Haitao and Wu Xin make celebrities relatable as they perform challenges onstage. Launched in 1997 with tens of millions of viewers, Happy Camp became an instant hit with its target audience of 15-25 year olds. The show even attracted a guest appearance by David Beckham in 2007. Regarding the changes in censorship, director and producer Long Mei said: “Rules are in every industry. I feel proud that my show, without sex or politics, still makes people laugh.” Get ready to laugh here:

You can check out more episodes of your Chinese favorites via these websites.

Image courtesy of the Chinese site 66ys