With the Spring Festival drawing near, media reports on the Spring Festival show on China Central Television, or CCTV, have poured in. As usual, guesses about who will be chosen to host this year's show and what celebrities will appear dominate coverage. But the heated discussion in the media is almost like a solitary game, which the public seems to have little interest in participating in it.
The annual Spring Festival Gala, a four-hour-plus variety show by the national TV broadcaster, falls on the eve of the Lunar New Year. When it started in 1983, the show attracted almost everyone who had access to a television set. In the following years, while the show aired, Chinese families would get together to watch it, eating dumplings or other well-prepared food or just chatting. The show has even been regarded as a cultural feast for the eyes for Chinese around the world. It is said that the program is one of the most-watched shows in the world.
But with growing competition from local TV stations, the boom in entertainment TV programs in China, changing public tastes and more entertainment choices for people, the show has been steadily losing viewers, even though it is believed to still have an audience of a few hundred million people. Often, the show is playing on the TV in Chinese households even if no one is watching.
A survey conducted by a local newspaper in Beijing found that 69 percent of the audience aged 20-35 said they don't watch the program. Nearly 20 percent of the respondents to a recent online poll sponsored by sina.com, a leading Web portal in China, think the show is less and less interesting to them and suggest CCTV cancel it.
To put it succinctly, the TV show is no longer a "must-see," but merely one of the various entertainment choices available to the Chinese people.
Eager to attract younger viewers, the producers of the grand gala have invited popular singers, movie stars or celebrities in sports or other fields to appear on the show or perform in recent years. But celebrities have not been the show's savior.
Although most Chinese people still consider the Spring Festival the most important holiday to them and particularly the eve of the Lunar New Year, many young people seem to be more and more indifferent to it. In the eyes of these young Chinese, the Spring Festival holiday is no different than the Labor Day or National Day holidays. They would rather watch a good movie, have fun with their friends at a party or spend the holiday traveling.
Bearing a heavy burden
Furthermore, the gala is actually not purely an entertainment program since it shoulders too many functions and comes with certain expectations. It must entertain the entire national audience, embody the most important or fashionable things in the year and express the theme the government called for in that year. It is basically impossible for a TV show to meet all of these requirements.
Thus, an Internet post has asserted that just as watching the Spring Festival TV show has become a part of celebrating the most important traditional holiday of China, it will naturally be replaced by new entertainment forms.
In responding to the calls to cancel the Spring Festival Gala, Lang Kun, a well-known CCTV director who supervised the production of the 2005 and 2006 programs, takes a cool approach. In his view, the gala has developed into one of the major conventions of celebrating the Spring Festival Eve along with eating dumplings and setting off firecrackers. Although its dominant status has gone, the show should still be persevered, he said, since there is no better or more suitable one to replace it currently.
The director explained that just as the Vienna New Year Concert is important to Austrians, CCTV's Spring Festival Gala also has significance to the Chinese people. In this sense, according to him, it would not be appropriate to cancel it suddenly. Maybe, he said, the gala will be replaced by a movie, TV series, a documentary or other entertainment events some day, but not now.
Ye Huixian, a well-known TV host in Shanghai, agrees with Lang. He thinks that considering China's current situation, CCTV's Spring Festival Gala is necessary and it should continue in its current form. People are accustomed to watching the program with all family members. Especially in the countryside, which has the bulk of the population, people have no better form of entertainment than the grand show, he added.
"CCTV has the best platform in the country," Ye said. "The Spring Festival shows of local TV stations or other forms of galas on TV have a hard time competing with CCTV's Spring Festival show. They just provide other choices for the audience at most."
But in the long term, Ye predicted that this type of variety show would gradually disappear from the TV screen.
This reasoning seems to be the best explanation for the show's current existence. It must be noted that although the gala is losing more and more of its audience, its social impact is not declining at the same pace. Maybe the form, the content or even the hosts or hostesses are not attractive any more, but the gala is still the supreme venue for most performance stars and attracts many of the best from the past years. Appearing on the show can also be an important ticket to fame for less well known performers. For most young people in entertainment who are silently waiting for a chance to become known, the gala represents their dreams of success.
The TV show not only has a special meaning to the performers, but also to those Chinese who live abroad and have no way to celebrate the most important traditional holiday with family members. Unlike the domestic audience, overseas Chinese long for the program every year. The show is something that connects them with their families, making them feel they are enjoying and sharing a common event with family members.
This is the current awkward position of the gala. Maybe the audience will not choose to watch it, but it has to be there. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether the audience needs the show or the show needs the audience. But for the moment the show must go on.