Buffett joins cast of foreigners for gala shows
American investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett made an appearance in the online version of the China Central Television (CCTV) Spring Festival Gala on Sunday. That followed performances by American singer Michael Bolton, Israeli psychic Uri Geller and Canadian singer Avril Lavigne in New Year's Eve concerts.
It's part of a trend that is increasingly hard to ignore, with overseas singers, magicians and celebrities having performed in New Year's Eve concerts on 16 mainland cable television stations on December 31.
Provincial cable TV stations have been splashing out money in the past two years to invite foreign stars to appear on their own Lunar New Year and Spring Festival shows, competing not only for profits but also to raise their brand awareness - a route to longer-term financial gain.
The acts from Hong Kong and Macau who have performed in the past few years are increasingly being joined by stars from Japan, South Korea and the West.
Lavigne sang four songs - including Girlfriend, the theme song for popular match-making show You Are the One - on Jiangsu Cable Television on New Year's Eve. She was joined by French singer Jean Roch, who sang two songs - including Can You Feel It, another theme song for a match-making show - and Geller.
CCTV's New Year's Eve concert featured Bolton singing his cover version of Percy Sledge's '60s hit When a Man Loves a Woman, and American singer Bertie Higgins.
Japanese actor and singer Yamashita Tomohisa performed on Shanghai Oriental TV, as did American singer Richard Marx, who performed his 1999 hit Right Here Waiting for You - still a staple of the mainland karaoke scene. Shenzhen TV invited Japanese actress Ryoko Nakano to sing.
State Administration of Radio, Film and Television regulations meant that all their live performances were broadcast with a delay of at least 20 seconds.
Mainland audiences have been increasingly exposed to foreign cultural products since the entertainment industry was opened up, especially after China's accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001.
Liu Yuan, director of Hunan Cable TV's branding department, said cultural co-operation between the mainland and overseas cultural organisations was on the rise.
'More overseas performers have set their sights on the mainland market and it's natural to see foreign faces in the New Year concerts,' she said. Her station invited British electronic string quartet Escala to perform on its Spring Festival gala.
Competition among TV stations has pushed up the prices demanded by overseas stars, with the Beijing Youth Daily reporting that the 16 cable stations had spent a total of 500 million yuan (HK$615.11 million) on New Year concerts.
But Liu said that was a grossly inflated estimate. 'It's impossible that each television station could spend an average of 30 million yuan on one concert,' she said.
Professor Guo Zhenzhi, from Tsinghua University's school of journalism and communications, said China was awash with 'stupid money' that could be spent without much consideration of economic benefits. 'It's a sort of competition of expenses, with a mindset having formed that incredible investment will bring incredible results in a highly competitive environment,' she said.
But Professor Xie Luncan, deputy dean of the Communications University of China's Cultural Development Institute, said the price paid to attract foreign stars was probably less than people thought because they could be compensated in other ways for performing on top entertainment stations such as Hunan TV.
'Foreign stars come to China either for fame or profit,' he said. 'They need a platform to show their talent.'
Fan Yu, a director of Shandong TV's branding department, said that apart from profits from advertisements, linked to viewer ratings, stations also tried to raise their brand awareness. 'For cable TV stations, the New Year concerts are just like the 100-metre dash at the Olympic Games,' Fan said. 'The winner doesn't necessarily mean that country is the best at all sports, but it's definitely the most eye-catching event.'
Liu said stations chose important occasions, including New Year and the Spring Festival, to stage shows to increase their influence.
But Guo said she believed that it was not a phenomenon that would last very long - maybe one or two years - because there was a natural transition from fevered to rational investment. 'It will eventually cool down because the influence of stars will wear out,' she said. 'More rational audiences will influence these TV stations, especially when some small and medium-sized stations might make a loss.'