There are whispers of a government crackdown, signs of scepticism from advertisers and fatigue from audiences who have seen one too many American Idol spin-offs, but none of this is enough to sway Chinese television companies from putting out even more reality TV programmes in 2007.
Stations are hoping to cash in on the current advertising boom in Chinese television at the moment. Last year's annual auction for prime-time advertising slots on CCTV - a barometer for the whole industry - raised an all-time high of RMB6.8 billion (?669 million), up 16 percent from 2005. Consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble will alone spend RMB420 million. Within just three years, China is expected to replace Japan as the world's No. 2 advertising market, and television advertising is as fast-growing a part of the market as there is.
Spending is not only growing rapidly but also becoming increasingly targeted. While investigative news programmes like the recently axed Today's Topic on Beijing TV see declining revenues, there is what seems to be an insatiable appetite among viewers and advertisers alike for shows about pop stars, models and, increasingly, wannabes.
The most popular of shows catering for these have been christened "Player Killer" (or PK - a term originating from kill-or-be-killed multiplayer online games) TV, so named because the audience can vote contestants off, usually by sending text messages. In 2005, Mengniu Milk Group paid Hunan TV RMB14 million to sponsor a show unknown outside the province which was to be broadcast nationally for the first time. Super Girls was a singing talent competition loosely based on American Idol - itself a spin-off of the UK hit Pop Idol - but with only girls in contention. The price paid may have seemed high for an untested show from Hunan, but when it attracted more than 400 million viewers - nearly a third of the Chinese population - the deal proved to be one of the greatest advertising buys of all time.
Television companies in China offer far more than their Western counterparts. "Pretty much everything is for sale except the news," as one Shanghai-based PR executive said. Mengniu bought the show, and the competition was presented to 400 million viewers as "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girls". More than 8 million viewers offered "messages of support" by text message, generating RMB32 million in revenue. It was the largest single voting exercise ever in mainland China. And it sold a lot of yoghurt.
Attack of the clones
Since then, TV stations desperate to join the party have come up with more than 500 such programmes. For the really keen, a Friday night in 2006 was an orgy of PK, with Super Girls at 7:30, My Show on Dragon TV at 8:30, then Dream China on CCTV2 from 9:30. Some of these shows, like Shanghai Media Group's (SMG) My Hero, are drawing as much media hype locally as Super Girls did in 2005, even if nationwide viewing ratings are not in the same league.
According to a recent State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) report, Dragon TV's four biggest PK programmes have a combined value of RMB3.8 billion. According to the report, they also create a further RMB7.7 billion for other businesses such as telecom operators, SMS providers, design companies and advertising agents whose clients believe that if any show will generate loyalty, it is one in which the viewer participates.
Despite this, a growing chorus of media professionals is saying that reality TV is already too hackneyed and overcrowded a genre for advertisers to gamble on in China. "The lack of originality really kills it," said one Chinese advertising executive who asked not to be named. "The market is swamped. Young people have so many [shows] to choose from. Their concentration is short. Suddenly we have 11 or 12 big shows in the market, all with the same model."
Mengniu Milk was successful in its advertising deal because it took a gamble. At that time, Super Girls was a new, unknown formula in China and Mengniu spent its most of its marketing budget promoting the show rather than its yoghurt. Mengniu got in early, but in the fragmented market of the post-Super Girls era, ad-buyers looking for the next big thing admit they are left fumbling slightly in the dark.
The inevitable consequence of having 500 different reality TV shows is that they will fragment slightly. Rather than all simply copying American Idol, the model is changing a little from show to show to target certain specific audiences - different age groups, sexes and cities are tuning into the shows sculpted for them.
According to AGB Nielson, Win in China - CCTV's version of the Donald Trump show The Apprentice - had one of lowest nationwide audience ratings in 2006, but had a strong following in Beijing. Two shows with the highest peak audiences - CCTV's talent contest Dream China (5.3 million) and SMG's celebrity dance-a-thon Dancing Star (4.8 million) - displayed very localised appeal in either Beijing or Shanghai. The final of Dancing Star had a rating of 9.6 percent in Shanghai, but less than half that nationwide, while Dream China only achieved a rating of 0.3 percent in Shanghai.
Guangdong viewers were the least interested in reality TV, while Beijing audiences were more likely to watch an entire series rather than only the final show. And Yahoo's attempt to outdo Mengniu by teaming with Zhejiang Satellite's Search Star, registered very low ratings of 0.2 percent across 11 Chinese cities, suggesting that the opportunity for a provincial satellite television station to compete nationally with CCTV or SMG in this format has passed.
Divide and cater
As well as registering different regional interest, audiences are splitting demographically. SMG broadcast two male talent contests on Dragon TV. My Hero, features vulnerable prettyboys hand-picked to be objects for motherly or sisterly affection, for example this year's runner-up, Song Xiaobo, who is deaf and mute. Its other show, called I Love Real Men, caters for the hunk-loving younger female audience.
CCTV is hoping to generate US$10 million by recruiting the Coxswain for China's Olympic rowing teams on a show called Oar Idol that will target the sporty market. Even monks are in on the game: the Shaolin Temple in Henan province teamed up with Shenzhen Television to run a televised Shaolin Kung Fu contest last year. Perhaps the most controversial formula has been MTV China's I Want A Famous Face, in which contestants put the results (and the gory videos) of their plastic surgery to the public vote. In this year's Super Girls contest - said to be the final season ever before it turns into Super Boys - there was the so-called "exposure scandal" in which contestant Sun Yixin deliberately pulled up her skirt to reveal her white panties to the camera.
According to one analyst, the "shock factor" trend emerging in these shows is partly a function of China's unique advertising market. Consumers in places like Shanghai are exposed to an enormous amount of advertising, yet they haven't developed the same scepticism towards advertisers that the West has. "We are in the unusual position where there is a huge amount of 'noise' to cut through and yet more intelligent advertising is not as effective," he said. "One of the ways to tackle this is through alternative, and more shocking, mediums."
For all the shocks, says Sarah Yi of ZenithOptimedia China, PKTV itself is now "hardly a surprise to the market". And, although it will continue to be popular in 2007, ratings will remain similar to existing variety shows. "The challenge is, who will be the next market-maker of a new programme genre that captures the hearts and minds of China, just as Hunan Satellite achieved with Super Girls?"
Coming up in 2007: New reality shows
Oar idol CCTV
Contestants go through a series of physical and psychological tests to become coxswains for China's Olympic rowing team. At the end of each show two candidates will be voted off by text message until only two remain.
Super Boys Hunan Satellite TV
Hunan adjusts the chromosomes of its Super Girls formula this year.
My Hero Dragon TV
Another round of pretty-looking men out-singing, out-dancing and out-courting each another. Last year's "heroes" included an orphan who lost his mother at the age of six and another who was deaf and dumb.
Winner Dragon TV
The Apprentice, Big Brother-style with entrepreneurs followed by cameras on their every move, 24/7.
My Show Dragon TV
Past winners Jason Zhang Jie and Liu Wei went on to release top-selling music albums. The 18-episode contest begins with auditions in 22 cities whittled down to a final six by special guest judges.
Dancing Star Dragon TV
Ambitious dancers get selected as partners for celebrity TV hosts.
Warrior Inner Mongolia Satellite
Gruelling physical and mental contests in the spirit of Genghis Khan, shot in Inner Mongolia, Xi'an, Shanghai, Chengdu and a final in Beijing.
YoYo Hip Hop Star Shanghai Music Channel
New this Spring, competitors will flash their skills in skateboarding, graffiti, rap and breakdancing for a chance to be signed with a big agency.