WHEN it comes to reading, some people like a trashy romance novel or a celebrity magazine to escape from reality, switch off their brains and just relax.
When it comes to visual entertainment, online TV is filling the bill with what many think is mindless programming.
One of the most popular online TV shows in China nowadays is “Tucao Dahui,” a take-off on America’s Comedy Central Roast specials. In just two weeks, the Chinese version attracted 150 million clicks.
Other reality shows such as “The Battle of the Singles” and “Hello Goddess” are also current favorites online.
Despite the big viewer numbers, these shows have come under attack from critics as “vulgar” and “dumb.”
The online TV industry in China is growing fast, amid a fierce battle to attract and keep viewers from among China’s 632 million Internet users. Some operators are discovering that “bad taste” in shows equates to good numbers in viewership.
Shang Fangjian, 21, says she spends an average five hours a day watching online variety shows.
“Sometimes I just leave it on while doing other things, like reading a book or doing my homework,” Shang says. “I watch during meal times and before I go to bed. Most of the time, I find the shows quite meaningless, but I always go back for more.”
“This just exactly shows how boring we are,” one netizen lamented on Weibo.
“Tucao Dahui,” whose name in Chinese refers to something “taunting,” uses a format where celebrities make self-deprecating jokes about sensitive topics.
In the first show, aired in June 2016, a 41-year-old actress best known for playing mother roles in movies, was less wholesome with a slew of lewd remarks and photos. The show was pulled by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, so later episodes were toned down. Some viewers found them “less interesting” afterward.
“The Battle of the Singles” is a reality show featuring 100 single men and women who are supposed to find “true love” through competitive games.
Participants show off their talents in suggestive behavior on a giant stage, and winners can leave with another participant and 100,000 yuan (US$14,500) in their pockets. Some contestants form alliances to prolong their stay on the stage, even though it’s obvious they don’t like one another. Those who follow their hearts leave the show at early, happy stages.
“Hello Goddess,” a live streaming show, revolves around Wang Sicong, the son of billionaire Dalian Wanda Group founder Wang Jianlin, and a bevy of beautiful women.
Wang Sicong is the “headmaster” and the audience members are the “scriptwriters” training the female contestants to become goddesses. Participants live under camera for 24 hours. The audience can trigger “weapons” like cream-armed guns or clipping beds to fool the participants. They can also pay for daily necessities and cosmetics for the candidates they like or pay to protect them from sudden attacks.
While online variety shows generally get low marks for quality, their content is drawing viewers from mainstream TV programming.
“Mobile devices and the 4G network combined have made TV useless,” says Tang Shuqian, 23. “Technology has really changed my life, making everything more convenient. I normally watch online shows when I am on the Metro. I can’t think of a better way to kill time.”
Big Internet TV companies like Youku, Sohu and Tencent have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to produce their own shows, targeting mobile-savvy users aged from 16 to 28 who are always hungry for new content.
While not turning a profit yet, these operators continue to spend heavily, on the expectation that a base of loyal viewers may someday be converted into paid subscribers.
According to iResearch, variety shows accounted for 16.3 percent of China’s online video content in 2016, while TV dramas held a 51.1 percent share.
The older generation raised on mainstream commercial television is not impressed.
“I tried to watch an online show that my daughter loves, but I thought the presenters were too loud-mouthed and the whole thing was pretty stupid,” says Luo Yiping, 48. “I don’t understand why this is so popular among the younger generation. I definitely prefer regular TV shows.”
Of course, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Every form of entertainment has its fans and its detractors. But the current trends in online entertainment have many people wondering why so many educated and seemingly intelligent young people get hooked on schlocky shows.
Some suggest that it’s part of the herd mentality of the young. If everyone else is watching a show, there’s peer pressure to watch it, too. Nobody wants to be seen as out of the loop.
In addition, Internet entertainment operators spend big money to keep tabs on youth trends. The iQiyi Inc has spent 1 billion yuan on marketing surveys to determine what content young people like to watch, and producers tailor their shows accordingly.
“Dumb variety shows shed some light on deconstructivism in post-modern society,” says Liu Tao, a professor of communications at East China Normal University. “Although they appear to be vulgar and trashy, the producers aren’t clueless when making them. On the contrary, their aim is to satisfy viewers’ craving for crass content.
“Variety shows can be seen as reflections of our deep desires, and there’s no reason to believe this format won’t endure,” he adds.