CCTV's Spring Festival Gala show challenged by provincial broadcasters
The annual Spring Festival Gala is traditionally the top-rated New Year show but regional broadcasters are starting to draw local viewers
When China Central Television (CCTV) announced late last month that Canadian singer Celine Dion would perform for the 2013 Spring Festival Gala, the news wasn't met with the kind of buzz that organisers expected.
Analysts and viewers say that's because the annual gala - the most-watched show in the mainland each year - has lost some of its lustre as it faces increasing competition from provincial-level broadcasters that host their own shows to ring in the Lunar New Year.
All broadcasters are required by authorities to air CCTV's gala on Saturday, but the local stations are also preparing unique programmes that are expected to draws large audiences.
Anhui Satellite TV announced that its gala, to air on Friday, will feature a performance by British singer and actress Sarah Brightman, and Shanghai-based Dragon TV has hired South Korean pop star Park Jae-sang, aka Psy, to perform his famous Gangnam Style song and dance for the broadcaster's gala on Sunday.
While CCTV's celebration will air virtually unchallenged in its time slot, the competition to hire the best performers has benefited local broadcasters by enabling them to offer shows that appeal to a more specific demographic, unlike the national gala, which tries to appeal to everyone.
Li Jingwen, a 32-year-old professional living in Beijing, prefers provincial stations "because they're more dedicated to young people and much more entertaining". But her family also always watches CCTV's gala, possibly while doing other things such as chatting or playing mahjong. "It's not that we are really watching it," Li said. "It is just part of the Spring Festival culture."
Until local broadcasters started getting in on the gala action about a decade ago, CCTV was the only broadcaster offering a Lunar New Year show. And while it still draws millions of viewers, CCTV's show has been criticised in recent years, largely because of the money it spends on performers, on extravagant costumes and sets, and because of the growing volume of advertising involved.
This year marks the first time an international star has been invited to CCTV's gala. The broadcaster said Dion would sing My Heart Will Go On, from the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster Titanic. She will also do a duet with Chinese singer Song Zuying , singing the hugely popular Chinese folk song Jasmine Flower.
Before Psy committed to perform on Dragon TV, the West China City Daily reported in November that he would receive 3 million yuan (HK$3.69 million) to perform for CCTV. The news, however, sparked controversy online, with many accusing the state broadcaster of spending too much on a foreign singer while thousands of rural children were starving. Soon afterwards, CCTV and Psy's representatives denied that a deal had been reached.
Meanwhile, the national broadcaster has tried to breathe new life into the show by inviting popular grass-roots performers, even though they might not appeal to all age groups. This year CCTV invited Guo Denang, a controversial but popular "crosstalk" actor known for his humorous exchanges with other actors.
Three years ago, CCTV criticised Guo, who is from Tianjin , as "being vulgar, dirty and kitschy", after he made sarcastic comments about officialdom.
Also this year, a mainstay on CCTV's gala for two decades, comedian Zhao Benshan, turned down CCTV in favour of his hometown broadcaster, Liaoning Television. Popular actress Fan Bingbing also agreed to sing in the gala produced by Hubei Television.
So while CCTV's dominance will remain unmatched, other broadcasters are gradually taking a bigger piece of the pie.
"For most Chinese people, it is an ingrained tradition to watch the CCTV gala on the eve of the Lunar New Year, even though the performances may not be that appealing," said Professor Zhang Yifu, deputy director of Peking University's cultural research centre.