For hundreds of millions of mainlanders, watching CCTV's Chun Wan gala has long been a Lunar New Year ritual, along with eating dumplings and setting off fireworks.
Broadcast live on New Year's Eve, which fell last Wednesday, the 4 1/2-hour event features a variety of acts such as dance, music, comedy and magic. It has claimed several world records, such as the most-watched annual variety show in the world, with the participation of the biggest number of performing artists and the longest running time. While concrete figures are lacking, the show reportedly draws between 400 and 700 million viewers each year.
If a comparison has to be made, its distant rival could be the annual Super Bowl American football game, played this morning Hong Kong time. Often billed as the most-watched US television broadcast, the Super Bowl draws an average audience of over 100 million viewers.
But the CCTV gala is not merely entertainment. Because of its huge audience, it carries significant political overtones for mainland officials who use the platform to laud the leadership of the Communist Party and demonstrate national unity.
To their dismay, however, the popularity of the costly show has been in decline in recent years. Going through state media reports and blogging comments on last week's show marking the Year of the Rabbit, one could easily see that the number of comments slamming the event is far greater than the few glowing reports.
According to CCTV's own market research of 2,098 families, some 93.88 per cent of families nationwide watched the latest Chun Wan, and 81.92 per cent of them gave the show high marks. But according to the Beijing Evening News, one online survey of 10,000 respondents showed as much as 59 per cent said they were disappointed with the show and only 6 per cent expressed satisfaction.
More ominously for CCTV, several provincial TV stations including those in Hunan , Shanghai, Liaoning , Anhui , Guangdong and Beijing declined to broadcast its show this year. Instead, they launched their own variety shows to compete with CCTV for audience and advertising money. Recent years have brought increased calls for the cancellation of Chun Wan.
This is a far cry from the show's heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, it was almost the only show on TV nationwide that drew three generations of families to sit in front of the television.
Since CCTV launched the inaugural show in 1983, it was the place where most of the mainland's leading performing artists made their debuts and gained instant national recognition. Until last year's show, for instance, Peng Liyuan, the mainland's first-lady-in-waiting and wife of Vice-President Xi Jinping , was a regular fixture, singing high-sounding lyric songs eulogising the Communist Party.
But CCTV's recipe for its early success has now become its Achilles' heel. From its inaugural show, it apparently aimed at targeting all demographic groups and all ethnicities on the mainland - which usually means each song or dance routine represents one particular group - and the format has remained more or less the same. Needless to say, after all this time, such a format has failed to satisfy any one demographic group.
The show also tends to feature a small group of the same celebrities every year, which puts off many viewers. Even star attraction Zhao Benshan , a comedian who has portrayed a witty farmer every year since 1990, is losing his lustre.
In the past few years, organisers tried to woo the younger generation by featuring more pop artists and even little-known entertainers known as 'grass-roots performers'. Last week's gala featured a Hebei girl who used to busk under a pedestrian tunnel near a downtown Beijing shopping mall, and a duo of migrant labourers. But there has been too little of such diversification to make a big difference.
Many viewers have been put off by blatant product placements and endorsements throughout the show.
The show's heavy emphasis on political overtones and being politically correct has also become a drag. Before making it to the show, every programme and its performing artists are examined rigorously, with the top priority being political correctness rather than fun. That means the country's funniest comedians, like Guo Degang in Beijing and Zhou Libo in Shanghai, were not invited to perform, presumably because of their witty and sharp takes on current events.
But the show was given political permission to feature Hong Kong and Taiwanese performers, to stress national unity. That is how most mainlanders got to know about Canto-pop and other forms of Chinese popular music, which were still condemned as decadent by some officials in the early 1980s.