Singing the praises of democracy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am

Do reality TV shows, such as Pop Idol, Survivor and The Apprentice serve to promote political rights and participation? Well, no one in America would dare make such a claim. But the supporters of a recent hit reality show in China - the oddly named Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl contest - did.

The competition, organised by Hunan Satellite Television and sponsored by the drinkable yogurt, is really a reality show in disguise, featuring women singers from a few selected cities. Its biggest appeal was that there was no entry requirement. Anyone with an ID card could join, regardless of age, looks or level of musical training.

Although the majority of candidates were ridiculed, then dismissed, by a panel of judges after performing for just a few seconds in front of the camera, the contest still attracted over 100,000 participants, mostly high-school students. Some skipped classes and exams, lining up for hours outside the selected venue. As the contest neared its finale, ratings rocketed.

As a result, a heated public debate has begun. Some say the show demeans women, and corrupts viewers. Others say it served to educate people, women in particular, about their rights ahead of any move towards democracy in China.

Parents, educators, and government officials are united in their criticism of the show. Parents complained it created an illusion of getting rich and famous overnight, diverting youngsters' attention from school.

Educators declared war on the entertainment industry, saying its shameless and ruthless expansion would eventually take a toll on China's school system.

The government's propaganda unit was also alarmed - for a different reason. It feared that other media outlets would follow suit, resulting in the crowding out of informative and educational programmes, supposedly leading to a corruption of society. In fact, CCTV, the most reputable station in China, recently produced a similar reality programme.

As a result of all this, an official campaign against vulgarity and trivialisation in the media was recently launched, with Super Girl singled out.

Unsurprisingly, supporters of the show also argued their case. What is surprising, however, is that their arguments supporting the show were built on the issue of democracy. Singing competitions, they said, had long been dominated by professionals. But Super Girl signalled the end of an era where entertainment was controlled by and intended for the elite. Hence, it ushered in a new era in television: it was made for the masses, and the masses took part. They argued that it raised awareness about people's rights, and encouraged their involvement in the industry.

Controversy over a reality show is nothing new. But this is probably the first time these arguments have been used. Of course, entertainment is not the same as political rights, and participation in reality shows should not be confused with political participation.

In fact, reality shows are more likely to desensitise the general public and spread a sense of cynicism. As viewers mock a contestant's anxiety and humiliation, so might they also laugh away social and political issues that deserve serious discussion.

But in China, the intended suppression by the government made the argument for reality programmes based on democracy more convincing than it should have been. As the debate became a political one, the public was diverted from a real discussion on the merits and faults of the show itself.

Given the choice between bad entertainment and a bad government, people tend to pick the former.

Kitty Poon is a Hong Kong-based commentator