Giving the right twist to a TV juggernaut

Updated: 2013-07-20 07:24

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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Giving the right twist to a TV juggernaut

The most-watched television gala in China and the world has become pompous and stale, but a filmmaker known for his quick wit and common sense may be able to reinvent it.

The world's biggest televised gala may undergo a facelift. Hopefully.

To show how big it is, people in China spend half a year second-guessing what will be featured on the show and the other half of the year sharing their feedback and watching repeat broadcasts. Well, this is an exaggeration, but not by much.

Chunwan is the Chinese acronym for the Spring Festival variety show, broadcast live annually on the eve of the Lunar New Year on the national network - China Central Television. It claims to have an audience of 1 billion plus, but the actual ratings numbers are much more earthbound, with the 2013 number - the lowest in its history - hovering around 11.3 percent. Still, that is enough to make stars out of total unknowns and turn funny lines into memes.

The dawn of television on the Chinese mainland arrived with reform and opening up, much later than in other countries, and chunwan debuted in 1983. In the early years there was little competition on the dial and chunwan quickly grew into a behemoth that commanded absolute attention from virtually everyone with access to a television set.

Giving the right twist to a TV juggernaut

In a way, chunwan is a victim of its own success. Because it is watched by a huge locked-in audience, it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator. If it features a segment of Peking Opera, it feels obliged to include snippets of other local operas. And there are obviously political considerations as well. If one ethnic group is highlighted, wouldn't it be unfair to the other 55 if their cultures are left out? The result is dozens or even hundreds of performers often share one number, each showcasing one aspect of regional, ethnic or political demographics. Suffice to say, that is not the best way to create a good show.

Over the years, chunwan has morphed into an institution that is not just uncool, but sneered at by the cool. Its comedic sensibilities seem eternally out of step with those of the public. Jokes that are five years old pop up in its skits. Messages that are too self-righteous or politically correct often turn a heart-warming atmosphere into one of over-sentimentality. But we cannot deny that, in terms of public preference, this could well be what the majority is conditioned to.

To turn around the gala, whoever is in charge has appointed a film director to inject new blood into this 30-year-old institution. Of all the revered masters, Feng Xiaogang is known for his uncanny ability to have his finger on the pulse of our time, especially what's on the mind of the ordinary people. His comedies have been embraced by a wide swathe of Chinese society and his historical dramas, though uneven, have shown a gravitas that complements his lighter fare. So, can we have higher expectations of the 2014 show now that the first outsider has been thrust into this bastion of old-time aesthetics?

That really depends on the regulators. Chunwan operates under the watchful eyes of virtually everyone, including the nation's top leaders. Anyone with veto power can essentially remove anything from the program, and maybe to a lesser degree, add things to it. That makes the director (equivalent to the position of the producer in many other countries) a figurehead not of creative control but rather of political navigation. In the end, he or she has to take into account all the constraints and come up with toothless jokes and saccharine lyrics.

If Feng Xiaogang is not given more leeway than his predecessors, there is no reason to believe he can raise it one peg above the others. It's not like the previous directors of the show did not know a hit from a miss, but they had to abandon biting humor for content they could not say no to. Feng constantly pushes boundaries in his movies, and as he did not ask for this thankless job he is expected to do the same with chunwan.

He is in a better position than most to do that. As he is not a CCTV insider, he may not need to fear offending left and right and wreaking havoc with office politics. And as he has been appointed, he may be able to push through more than someone who volunteered for the job. Sure, constraints will not vanish, but they may well be loosened slightly.

In a sense, Feng will be in a similar position to Zhang Yimou when the latter was given the task of directing the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He had access to all the resources in the world. But the most important thing was that the show had a much broader focus than simply touting the nation's achievements from the past few decades. It was traditional Chinese culture that was the selling point. It had to please a worldwide audience rather than just a few who had a say in decisions.

Likewise, if the retooled chunwan can aim to serve a nationwide audience, it will find solutions to many of the thorniest headaches. For example, humor is often regional. Some of Feng's earlier comedies were so grounded in Beijing-centric culture that they failed to gain traction as they traveled south. Instead of customizing different versions for different localities, he toned down regional flavors by mixing actors from all over China, including those from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and creating stories with broad resonance.

Feng Xiaogang has publicized his motto for the upcoming show in four words: "Sincerity, warmth, uplift and fun". It is reported that he will forfeit the style of the last two chunwan outings, which featured high-tech glitz and extravaganza. Feng wants to be homely. He wants to connect with ordinary people. He does not want a stage full of expensive gadgets and effects.

You can say Feng's approach is a stylistic reflection of the new leadership, with its emphasis on pragmatism and its crackdown on food waste. It is searching for ways to click with the broad masses. Of course, it is impossible to satisfy every taste even if Feng is given all the latitude and he ends up creating a perfect show. Chunwan has grown beyond a television show and become part of a national ritual. As such, it will definitely incorporate elements that under normal circumstances are considered overblown.

As I see it, chunwan at its most pernicious is now a lethally homogenizing force. Almost every variety show across the country, whether a high-profile one in a big city or a wedding reception in the hinterlands, is an attempted imitation of chunwan. Every host speaks with the same mannerisms. The rich diversity of Chinese culture is being pulverized under the weight of this juggernaut. We are in desperate need of something new, and even if Feng Xiaogang achieves a fraction of what he sets out to do, he may show the country that chunwan, the mother of all Chinese galas, can reinvent itself.

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(China Daily 07/20/2013 page11)