TV that's just too real for the comfort of Chinese censors
After seven years, it is farewell to the super girls. Last weekend it was confirmed that the mainland reality TV show Happy Girls, which was formerly known as Super Girl and is the local version of American Idol, will not be returning next year. The show has fallen victim not to slumping ratings, but to State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft) regulations. According to Sarft, the programme's maker, Hunan Satellite TV, has violated a rule which states that talent shows can only be 90 minutes in length.
There are many in the West who bemoan how reality TV shows have taken the place of the comedies, dramas and documentaries that once dominated programming, citing their unimaginative nature. On the mainland, only the officials at the state broadcaster CCTV should be crowing over the demise of Happy Girls, which probably signals the start of a crackdown on reality TV shows in general.
China Central Television and Sarft conspire to offer viewers some of the most sterile television in the world, and the lack of competition has ensured the runaway success of talent and reality TV programmes. The likes of Happy Girls have also had an enlightening impact on mainland society.
In China, reality TV offers a startling and often unsettling insight into life and it has been a real warts-and-all experience. It began with the furore over Li Yuchun winning the first Super Girl, and the way her androgynous looks were such a contrast to the doe-eyed, pale-skinned, long-haired stars of CCTV's soaps and dramas.
Then there was the appearance of a half-Chinese, half-African-American woman on a Shanghai talent show, which sparked an ugly barrage of racist comments from viewers that did more than any newspaper article to reveal the reality of mainland attitudes to black people. And, last year, a now infamous contestant on the dating show If You Are the One stated that she'd rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle, single-handedly launching a debate about the materialist mindset of Chinese youths.
In the West, the ability of television to create nationwide talking points has mostly diminished. But, on the mainland, the advent of the talent and reality shows has reaffirmed the power of TV to captivate a nation.
Shows like Super Girl were innovative too in the way they offered viewers the chance to vote for the contestants they liked. Voting for anything is a novel concept on the mainland and, as the topics the programmes touched on were picked up by the print media, it is no surprise that Sarft and propaganda officials are uncomfortable with the reality craze.
As far back as 2006, Sarft started to try and curb the shows. Super Girl was forced off air for two seasons, before reappearing as Happy Girls, while its male counterpart, Happy Boys Voice, was ordered to ban contestants with 'wild hair'. New regulations were introduced saying the talent shows could not be shown during prime time (between 7.30pm and 10.30pm).
Since then, it was a question of when there would be a full-scale crackdown. It began in earnest last year, when the fallout from the BMW comments on If You Are the One resulted in all dating shows being made to censor contestants and presenters. Other shows using reality TV formats were dropped, after their makers decided it wasn't worth arousing the ire of Sarft.
All the reality TV shows are produced by regional companies. For the officials at CCTV, it has been an embarrassing experience watching upstart channels vanquishing them in the ratings. At one stage, Super Girl was attracting 400 million viewers, more than the annual CCTV New Year's Gala, the flagship of state programming. There is little doubt that pressure from CCTV has partly motivated the campaign against the talent shows.
Yet, it is the way reality TV has managed, sometimes inadvertently, to tap into the mainland zeitgeist that has made it such a disturbing phenomenon for the authorities. Above all, because they feature real people, the shows often present a picture of the country that is distinctly at odds with the one the Communist Party likes to project, both domestically and overseas.
For that reason alone, Happy Girls will be missed.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist