David vs. Goliath: Battle for TV viewers on Lunar New Year Eve
www.chinaview.cn 2009-01-24 15:06:06   Print

Special Report: Spring Festival Special 2009     

    by Yang Jianxiang     

    BEIJING, Jan. 24 (Xinhua) -- Every year, millions of Chinese welcome the New Lunar Year in front of their television sets, seeing the same old stars and hearing the same old tunes in the China Central Television New Year variety show. But this year, it might just be a little different.

    Common people gifted for the arts might be able to share their talent with the audience of a grassroots Shanzhai version of CCTV's show, which could help Chinese start the lunar year 2009 with a bit of fresh air by bringing new faces to the screen.

    One of those faces will be Han Zhurong, 29, a migrant worker in Beijing and amateur singer that had always dreamed of making it to the entertainment world.

    A rural dropout from junior high school, he can't even read a stave. Over the past decades, however, he's composed some 20 songs. When he submitted a few tunes to the China Central Television (CCTV) preparation committee for the annual Lunar New Year's Eve variety show and followed up with a letter last month asking for as lot on the program, he got no reply.

    But then Han came across a newspaper article about a man who planned to stage a grassroot version of the CCTV show, and he decided to give it a try.

    At the audition, he met a man that patted his shoulder and said, laughingly: "Not bad, young man". He turned out to be Lao Meng, the brains behind the grassroots show. A couple of days later, Han had a deal.


    Over the past decade, audiences have heavily criticized the CCTV Lunar New Year's show, which has become less attractive but more conservative since its debut in 1983. Its strong commercial flavor and rigid format have provoked much eye-rolling among the Chinese public.

    Competitors like Hunan Satellite TV based in Central China have tried to stage their own New Year shows but have failed because of the monopoly the state-backed CCTV has on that particular slot.

    The prospect of something that represented a challenge to CCTV, however small it might be, was welcome news to many viewers, especially netizens. Numerous postings backed the idea and expressed the wish for a show that would be "true to life."

    "Even if the production values are a bit amateurish, it would still be a refreshing change from the familiar stuff on CCTV. It's worth a try," a web surfer named Za Jun wrote.

    Shi Mengqi, Lao Meng (old Meng) for his friends, was also a migrant worker. He came to Beijing seven years ago from Sichuan Province in western China. He tried his hand at many jobs before settling on his current business: wedding photography and event planning.

    He had been thinking of organizing a New Year's Eve show for years, but it's only this year that he has decided to make it a reality. "It's just time," he explained. "The year 2008, though eventful, wasn't a big one for entertainment celebrities. And people need an opportunity to freely express their sentiments".

    "I like to try new things. With this program, I'm hoping to help some presenters and performers become household names", added Shi.

    One day in late November, Lao Meng had his minivan painted with a red slogan that read: "In defiance of the CCTV New Year's Eve Show, and a Happy New Year to people across the country."

    As he drove the vehicle through the streets and alleys of the capital, it caught the media's attention. Meng also announced his plan on his blog, and he soon had a website for the program.

    The URL, www.ccstv.net, bore more than a little resemblance to CCTV's homepage address, but Meng was quick to point out that the letters "CS" stood for "countryside."

    The response was very positive. His organizing team grew to more than 30 people, many of them were prepared for no payment. More than 700 audition items were submitted from all around the country over just a few weeks.

    "So much good work," Lao Meng said. It was tough to choose only 35. A resort in the Beijing suburbs agreed to house out-of-town performers and provided a venue of 500 square meters, large enough for an audience of 100 people.


    Lao Meng first labeled his show "Shanzhai," which means copycat, one of the past year's catchwords that was first used to refer to IT clones and then became popular when describing DVD parodies of celebrities. Its meaning has now expanded to cover all types of unauthorized products and methods used by amateurs.

    Realizing that this term didn't have such a favorable connotation, Lao Meng downplayed the phrase, emphasizing the grassroot's involvement in his show.

    "It will be a popular Lunar New Year celebration based on grassroots wisdom and culture" said Han, who added that the performances will offer an opportunity for migrant workers and college students who do not go home to have a good time in the Spring Festival. "It will have nothing to do with piracy, because all the programs will be original," stressed Meng.


    Lao Meng refrained from openly challenging CCTV. He softened the tone of his promotions, saying he wanted to "play together with CCTV", and he repeatedly expressed the wish to learn from the established broadcaster.

    At a Dec. 18 press conference, he announced an agreement with South China's Guizhou Satellite TV station to air his show. A week later, Guizhou TV reportedly backed away. According to a report by the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend, the station had been told not to get involved in Shanzhai programs.

    A CCTV program director was quoted by the Beijing-based Morning News as saying: that "we're too busy to pay attention to the Shanzhai show". Also, sources from the preparatory committee for the show said that they were not aware of reports involving CCTV".

    A senior media observer in Beijing, who declined to be identified, said that if the report was true, it indicated that the authorities "are not yet ready to lift the CCTV monopoly in this particular paramount show of the year".

    But the remote controls were in the hands of the audiences. "It would be unwise to clamp down on such a popular celebration," he added.

    Even if the broadcasting authorities weren't directly intervening, fear of them might keep performers, companies from openly joining or supporting the show financially.

    Lao Meng denied rumors that he had sponsorships worth more than 20 million yuan (about 2.9 million U.S. dollars). He explained that he was funding the show with his own money with the help of some donors and added that the performers would not be paid for their work.

    Some of the media spotlight has shifted from the usual speculation over the CCTV show to the grassroots challenger, especially in the online world.

    According to Lao Meng, at least two internet companies had agreed to a live online broadcast of the Shanzhai New Year's Eve show.

    However, online broadcasting isn't an ideal alternative, because overloaded servers can crash, and many migrant workers don't have computers or internet access in their rural homes.

    "We're continuing the effort to get it on TV," Lao Meng said. A latest report by Jinghua Times said the Macau-based MASTV was to air live the Shanzhai show.


    A delayed airing of a recorded program would be easier to arrange, but the impact wouldn't be the same. The grassroots show would then be just another of the many New Year variety shows prepared by local TV stations or government departments. And it would be out of its league.

    According to the media observer, the grassroots show has gained so much support because it represents another challenge against the CCTV monopoly, a kind of "David and Goliath" situation.

    Lao Meng said he was conscious of the strengths and weaknesses of the show. "We could be better in some cases, because our innovative ideas come from a multitude of netizens. We are a grassroots operation. But we're not necessarily low in quality."

    He added that he had imposed strict guidelines over the show's contents: "no politics, no ridicule, no copyright infringement." Meng also wanted to make sure that the show would not include advertisements and that money wouldn't decide who appeared.

    Although Lao Meng remains confident, he will not weigh the odds of success.

    "Anything can happen," he said.

    "The media coverage and warm response may be enough of a success for him already," the media observer said. "Putting together a decent show this year would give him a much better chance next year.

    "A smooth presentation would be a success of some sort after years of struggle, and a success of no minor significance," the observer added.

    The four-hour Shanzhai variety show is scheduled to start at 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, but the list of performances has not yet been released to keep the audience intrigued.

    If Lao Meng succeeds, people like amateur singer Han Zhurong, who now loads vegetables at a wholesale wet market in Beijing's Daxing district, might become famous enough to give their families a chance at a better life and the Goliath-like CCTV might have to start facing its own David.

Editor: An
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