by Echo Xie
In China, Sunday marked the Chinese Lunar New Year, the most important traditional holiday in the country. According to the Chinese zodiac, this is now the Year of the Dragon, which symbolizes power, courage and prosperity.
On New Year’s Eve there are three things every Chinese person does with their families: make/eat dumplings, light firecrackers (or fireworks) and watch CCTV’s New Year’s Gala. With all the sweet memories from those traditions, people in China are now beginning to question the last one.
In case you don’t know, CCTV’s New Year’s Gala is a yearly celebration featuring various stage acts from comedy, Chinese opera, to singing, dancing, magic tricks and so on. It was first aired in 1983 and soon became the most watched Chinese TV program. On New Year’s Eve, almost every local TV station would choose to stop its own programs and broadcast the CCTV gala, partly because the show is too popular for any other programs to compete, partly because this is a way to show respect to CCTV, the No. 1 state TV network in China.
Imagine a billion people turning on their televisions at the same time for a show that runs up to five hours. It’s like Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S., only on a much larger scale.
Well the funny part is, we all hate it.
One reappearing lesson in media practices is to target your audience; yet everyone who has sense will understand what an enormous task it must be to cater to one billion different tastes. The solution CCTV gives is a show that includes nearly every type of performing arts enjoyed by each age, gender and life style. This may seem interesting at first glance, but here is the thing: the format had never changed in the past 29 years (yes, including this year!).
So every year we watch the show stretching out in five hours in the exact same way. The hosts always open the show with similar lines followed by a group of young people (sometimes children) dancing and singing, then some familiar comedian will come up with the same old lame jokes, then more singing and dancing and then maybe a magic trick… some of the performers have been on stage every year for so many years we don’t even notice the new winkles around their eyes. Facing all the criticism, CCTV tried to make the gala more up-to-date by adding some in words, bringing in new and popular artists and referring to current events in the performances when they can. Despite the fact that those efforts often turn out to be odd and awkward, the show itself is so censored that everything left is not only insipid but also a thousand miles away from reality. People are more and more repellent by its pretentious and shallowness.
Needless to say, the problem is deeper than it appears. The gala, innocent as it sounds, is far beyond a party to entertain. It is known as the perfect propaganda event. Under that roof, even if they adopt a completely new format, the show will still look the same. The main theme of the show will always be about enhancing national ideology, recognizing and praising the Communist Party’s achievements, and encouraging traditional values. However, with the internet and all the new technologies, the golden age for government propaganda had long passed. Now, this brainwashing attempt is nothing but annoying to most of the Chinese audience, especially to younger generations.
A few years back, some local TV stations and some major websites launched their own new year’s gala to compete with CCTV. With a wider range of formats and topics, those local galas slowly started gaining popularity. This year, several local TV stations including those in Shanghai, Anhui, Guangdong decided not to broadcast CCTV’s gala on New Year’s Eve.
This holiday is a time for loved ones to be together. People didn’t have much choice for family entertainment in the ’80s in China. In our times, new choices are all over the place. Now watching CCTV on New Year’s Eve is more of an old habit that we are trying to get over.
Every year we make resolutions and expect to see real changes. As for Chinese media, real changes will need either of these three: a revolution, a miracle or a continuing effort to find innovation. But if local TV stations there have got enough guts to boycott CCTV, the government’s favorite microphone, things are getting better.
After all, it is now the Year of the Dragon.
(The photo is from CCTV’s New Year’s coverage, and as CCTV is state-run television, the image is in the public domain. To see a CCTV news report about its gala, please check below.)