Chinese authorities pull the plug on Hunan TV talent shows

Duan Linxi, 2011 Super Girl winner

The party's over: Duan Linxi may be the last Hunan Super Girl

JISHOU, HUNAN — One of the most popular TV shows on Hunan Satellite TV (HSTV) have been a succession of American Idol-style talent shows collectively called “Super Girl” and “Super Boy” competitions. But no longer: the national media regulatory agency has told HSTV to cease production of the shows, claiming the network exceeded the time limit imposed for such shows.

“We received notification from the administration that we cannot make selective TV trials with mass involvement of individuals in the year 2012”, Li Hao, deputy editor-in-chief and spokesman of the channel, diplomatically told the China Daily.

In other words, viewers can no longer call in and vote for their favorite performers. That might be too democratic.

“Hunan Satellite Television will obey the State regulator’s decision and will not hold similar talent shows next year. Instead, the channel will air programs that promote moral ethics and public safety and provide practical information for housework,” Li said.

In other words, we were told to produce the same old, mind-numbingly boring crap that China Central TV (CCTV) broadcasts already, in between patriotic movies about the Revolution and the Japanese Occupation.

Hunan TV has a reputation in China of being more “edgy” and contemporary than CCTV. It has successfully adapted game shows from Japan and programs from America (like Ugly Betty and American Idol) for Chinese audiences. The Super Girl/Super Boy competitions have been aired on HSTV in one form or another 2004. As with Idol winners and runners-up, their Chinese counterparts have gone on to clinch record deals, movie and TV gigs, and an active fan base.

HSTV milks the Super-person shows for every last bit of pathos and suspense. This year’s Super Girl contest started with 500 performers (all singers of some sort), who competed in provincial and regional contests for four months before a whittled-down core group landed on the first national broadcast in July.

The first program was supposed to run for a mandated 92-minute limit. Instead, it ran 90 minutes over the cap imposed by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). Later episodes also ran over, but not to such a great extent. Despite their length (and the tedium of listening to scores of not-very-talented performers), it attracted millions of viewers away from more “wholesome” programming, which is probably why the SARFT clamped down.

From the China Daily article:

In 2007, SARFT took several moves to regulate talent shows, including banning TV talent shows in prime time (7:30 pm to 10:30 pm) and limiting the duration of each episode to no more than 90 minutes.

[An] anonymous staff member also said that the ratings for the contest this year “kept being higher than other TV programs of its kind”.

“For me, exceeding the time limit is just an excuse to shut down the TV program, and there would have been other excuses even if the TV station did not make the shows that long,” said Jin Yong, a researcher at the Communication University of China.

“I believe the reason that forced the administration to ‘regulate’ this program is that some television hosts in the program made inappropriate comments and some did not dress properly,” Jin said.

“The style might have offended some older viewers, so that the authority warned the TV station with the suspension order to make their program classier.”

Short version: Simon Cowell would have been deported within a day if he had been one of the judges.

Super Boy performers were also advised to sing only “healthy and ethically inspiring” songs (as in, boooorrrring) and producers were to avoid showing screaming fans and teary-eyed losers.

Li Yu Chun

Li Yu Chun, a "Super Girl" winner from 2005

Former Super Girls/Boys have ruffled a few feathers among the staid members of society here. One notable example was 2005’s Lǐ Yǔchūn 李宇春, a native of Sichuan province, whose boyish clothes, short, spiky hair, and aggressive singing style captivated audiences — especially girls and young women — while aggravating more conservative Chinese.

[True confession: I like Lǐ’s style a lot. Her English name is Chris Lee. Naturally she has both Facebook and MySpace pages. Check ’em out.]

This year’s surprise winner, Duàn Línxī 段林希, from Yunnan, also does not fit the mold of the “ideal Chinese female singer.” If Lǐ was too punky, Duan is too reserved and un-star-like. With enormous black-framed glasses, an acoustic guitar and low-key songs, she was more like a cross between Scooby-doo’s Vera and Judy Collins than a Sheryl Crow rocker, but her fanbase helped her net first prize.

The Chinese government closely regulates the media here, and Hunan TV has had run-ins with SARFT before. Clearly, the message from the “feds” is to present a more uniform, “harmonious” form of entertainment, with little spontaneity and counter-cultural role models — the very reasons that viewers (like me) tune into to such otherwise mindless entertainment.

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