What you need to know
The singing competitions taking over Chinese TV shift the Mandopop balance of power to China, but fail to prop up the future careers of their contestants.
By Jocelle Koh and Matt Taylor
China’s televised singing competitions borrow heavily from the tried-and-true formats of similar shows from other countries. Judging by their sheer commercial success, it is worth looking into how they have incorporated these formats – and, more importantly, exploring what they have done differently to create their own style. We found one major positive attribute of Chinese singing shows – but we also found a dangerous downside.
The success of the Chinese format has effectively exposed wider audiences to raw Mandarin talent and created a new business model for up and coming artists to achieve wider visibility. However, questions remain about the true cultural value of these singing reality shows. Do they really provide anything more than a fleeting 15 minutes of fame?
Issue 2: China's Embrace of the Classic Reality Show Format
PRO: Breathes life into the reality singing show archetype, promoting large-scale engagement with Mandarin music acts
Taiwan is the indisputable cultural center for Mandarin popular music – and it shuttles its exports right across the strait to the world’s biggest consumer of Mandopop. China is the world’s 21st largest music market (Taiwan is 27th). CDs released by Taiwanese artists total about 70 percent of all music sales in China. Taiwanese artists generate over US$210 million (NT$6.43 billion) annually in China from ticket sales alone. Unsurprisingly, 66 percent of Taiwanese artists expressed that breaking into the Chinese market and unlocking its vast, lucrative audience was a priority.
China has filled this domestic gap for content not with domestic artists, but with homemade reality shows. "Voice of China" (now known as "Sing! China"), "Sing My Song" (中國好歌曲), "The Rap of China" (中國有嘻哈), and "Duets" (最美和聲) have become the backbone of a burgeoning Chinese Mandopop industry, enjoying stratospheric success: "Sing! China" (中國新歌聲) receives online viewing figures in the billions, while "I Am A Singer" (我是歌手) regularly sets and breaks online search records for the artists it features.
These shows, and dozens more – "Come Sing With Me" (我想和你唱), "Idol Producer" (偶像練習生), "Hidden Singer" (蒙面唱将猜猜猜), and the list goes on – provide around 30 percent of China’s televised content, keeping the country constantly entertained. Along with pulling in massive viewerships, the shows engage their giant audiences and breathe life into the format of the reality singing show.
The popularity of these shows reaches far beyond China’s borders, penetrating Mandarin-speaking markets around the world. In Taiwan, some Chinese shows are so popular that television channels will clear their entire nightly schedule so they can broadcast the newest episodes as rapidly as possible.
Borrowing from the singing contest format popularized by "American Idol" and Taiwan’s "One Million Star," Chinese singing reality shows put a different spin on things by flexing their budgetary muscle and luring eyeballs. "One Million Star" (超級星光大道) singlehandedly revolutionized Sinosphere reality TV. It was the first to place importance on the amateur-professional development relationship, utilizing moments of drama and personal intimacy to keep its fans engaged. While most of today’s popular Chinese shows have roots in South Korea, the backbone of China’s reality show success is primarily based on the "One Million Star" model.
Rather than focusing purely on discovering talented amateur acts, these shows also focus on interactions between contestants and a who’s-who of famous mentors and judges. Audiences, captivated by familiar faces, stay engaged long enough to become familiar with newer contestants. Buoyed by the endorsements of famous mentors, contestants then build their own fanbases from the billions of eager viewers across the region.
Many Chinese singers within Mandopop have found their success this way, such as Zhang Bichen and Su Yunying. These contests guarantee Chinese singers visibility across screens throughout the region – and a golden opportunity to parlay that popularity into a lucrative musical career.
Then again, for all their undeniable cultural impact, do these singing shows truly act as meaningful cultural texts? If you have seen the "Black Mirror" episode about the dystopic talent contest that takes titillation a little too far – well, let’s just say reality TV does not always provide stable careers for its contestants. Unfortunately, this also holds true in China.
CON: For contestants on Chinese singing shows, their flirtation with fame can be fleeting
The shows we have mentioned all enjoy massive, long-lasting popularity. The same cannot be said for their contestants, who may be fooling themselves by seeing these shows as surefire tickets to fame.
There are countless tales of singers getting millions of new Weibo followers after a single televised performance. However, the popular attention quickly fizzles. There are far fewer tales of reality singing stars forging long, successful careers.
We often see a vicious, somewhat sad cycle of singers jumping from one televised singing show to the next in an attempt to retain a shred of relevance, along with a decent income.
Singing competition shows claim that they institute strong support systems for artists following their stint on television. In reality, few contestants benefit from this foundation – assuming, of course, that it even exists.
It often takes years for TV-famous artists to release an EP or album, by which time they have lost their momentum. Zhang Bichen, winner of Season 3 of "The Voice of China," took well over two years to release her first album, as did Season 1 winner Liang Bo. Li Shangshang, the 2011 winner of "X-Factor China X" (音素), took two years to release his own debut EP. Tellingly, all three winners ended up appearing on other televised singing competitions, grasping to regain their former relevance.
Simply put: From these dozens of shows, not one single artist has risen to rival the biggest artists of the 2000s. This may not seem like a big deal – after all, audiences are certainly no less entertained – but when shows promote themselves as finding the most talented acts in China, viewers may expect them to create successful artists. This has definitely not happened.
Over-saturation could also be a problem. The sheer number of televised singing competitions, and the number of “stars” that arise as a result, make it difficult for one particular artist to emerge from the pack once the curtains are closed on a season.
It would be unfair, however, to say these shows are exploitative – that they only want to create short-term success stories, only to discard their contestants after the season wraps up. These shows are here to build a narrative to create must-watch television at all costs.
In Season 2 of "The Voice of China," emotions came to a breaking point when Simon Chung, an elderly contestant, was rejected in favor of Harbin’s Bi Xia. Together, they broke out into a rendition of "Hey Jude," reducing the audience and judges to tears. But neither of the two went on to any success – nor did the winner of the season, Li Qi.
Interestingly enough, contestants from the earliest contemporary Mandarin singing competition, "Super Girl" (超級女聲), did not always suffer the same fate. Chengdu’s Jane Zhang, who came third in the debut season of "Super Girl," went on to singing stardom, even cracking the top 10 of U.S. iTunes in 2016 with her English debut "Dust My Shoulders Off."
Established artists, who use these shows to boost their existing profiles, are also exempt from this curse of post-competition irrelevance. "Singer", for example, has successfully allowed artists such as Hong Kong’s G.E.M (鄧紫棋) and Taiwan’s Lala Hsu (徐佳瑩) to become overwhelmingly successful throughout the region.
But this does nothing other than reinforcing the promotional power of these shows. It certainly does not establish them as any sort of guaranteed pathway to future stardom for contestants who win or place highly. There is a clear lack of any strong foundation of support for artists to capitalize on their brief success and convert it into a long-term career.
As a result, we often see a vicious, somewhat sad cycle of singers jumping from one televised singing show to the next in an attempt to retain a shred of relevance, along with a decent income. Despite their clear talent, these artists are reduced to existing in the same sphere as every other reality TV star in the pursuit of fame.
A common complaint directed towards reality television is that, while some contestants get 15 minutes of fame, it is limited to just that. Entrants disappear from the public consciousness almost as rapidly as they entered it. This is far from unique to China, however. How many reality shows worldwide have produced world class talent?
"The X Factor," after running for 17years in the UK, has not produced any breakout stars beyond One Direction and Leona Lewis. Outside of Kelly Clarkson & Carrie Underwood, "American Idol" participants disappear as quickly as they are brought to fame.
These shows are not designed to produce long-term success, and maybe we don’t have to view them as such. Musical competition shows are not here to be springboards of musical and artistic success. They are here to be bodies of quick and cheap entertainment. Chinese singing shows are no different.
Chinese musical reality shows undoubtedly have a positive influence on China’s entertainment industry, and on the country’s cultural branding at large. However, they send mixed messages to their fans, and to potential contestants. One particularly important misconception entering the public conscience is that these televised competitions act as an accurate representation of Mandopop.
Read on for the last installment in our series, where we explore the impact that Chinese televised singing competitions have had on the Mandopop industry at large…
Editor: Nick Aspinwall