China's biggest TV show is losing its grip on the public imagination.
For a live television event with a stunning 700 million-plus viewers, the New Year’s gala on China’s Central Television (CCTV), the country’s largest station, has surprisingly few true fans. As has been the case since the first gala aired in 1983, Chinese celebrated their main holiday, the Lunar New Year — which fell on Jan. 31 — by sitting down to watch a show that fuses Super Bowl-style hype, the performances and breathless people-watching of the Grammys, and the comedy of a skit show.
Chinese authorities, who carefully vet the show’s content, likely see it as a once-in-a-year chance to reach the hearts and minds of a populace spending time with family, and thus presumably more receptive to sugarcoated messages about stability and cultural unity. But that hasn’t been working for several years, and Thursday’s show reminded viewers why.
The 2014 gala ringing in the Year of the Horse was a hash, with acts jangling uncomfortably against one another. Soon after the show featured a short section from the Mao-era ballet classic Red Detachment of Women, French film darling Sophie Marceau emerged to sing a cover of La Vie en Rose. In another odd couplet, men dressed in peasant costumes belted out a folk tune native to arid Shaanxi province, right before young starlet Wang Xiaomin sang while clad in a bright pink-sequined mini-dress.
Censorship, which has long plagued the gala, appeared particularly pernicious this year. Cui Jian, a Chinese rock legend whose song "Nothing to My Name" is often called the anthem for the suppressed 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, was reportedly slated for the show, only to withdraw just weeks beforehand because he refused to tone down his lyrics. And the show featured only five comedic skits — the lowest number in history — likely because those have historically tended to satirize social problems that CCTV this year appears especially unwilling to highlight.
The gala is a four-hour infomercial for a particular conception of China — a large, vibrant country living in harmony — that Beijing hopes to sell to the entire Chinese-speaking world. The show always features celebrities from the increasingly estranged Hong Kong special administrative region as well as Taiwan, the quasi-sovereign nation that Beijing calls a "rogue province," as if they were estranged cousins bringing potluck dishes to a family dinner to make up for past rancor. Viewers are continuously reminded — in ways both subtle and overt — that all of the above is possible only under the helmsmanship of the Communist Party.
But that message has become much harder to deliver in an age of social media. Although the gala now features glitzy computerized effects and world-class production values, it cannot help but look an awful lot like the vestige of a bygone era. Viewers in a rapidly fragmenting media environment have become somewhat inoculated to Communist image management, and they also have more competition for their attention: In spite of rampant censorship, Chinese citizens are similar to Westerners in that they are bombarded with virtual games, web videos, and social networks like Weibo and WeChat. By contrast, when CCTV first aired a live New Year’s gala in 1983, few Chinese even had televisions. The gala’s cultural impact reached its zenith in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, when it was a celebrity-making machine that started cultural trends. Even as late as 2011, some lines from its comedic skits became instant national catchphrases.
Those days appear over. Even reliably nationalistic state outlet Global Times ran an op-ed in February 2013 titled, "CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala: Glory Days Gone," which detailed a 6 percent decline in ratings from 2012 to 2013 and lamented that "the iconic program" faces brutal criticism "from the minute it starts to be produced." Meanwhile, Lu Yitao, one of the assistant directors of this year’s gala, confessed that before getting the job, he was just another "ordinary viewer" who kept the show on as background noise while the family feasted, chatted, and played mahjong. He and his family were "watching everything," he said in an interview with China News Weekly. But that also meant, he said, they were "not really watching anything."