There used to be a glut of silly, trashy singing, dating and reality TV shows in China, but early this year the government cracked down and limited the number of entertainment shows, calling for more uplifting programming.
That edict caused a major clean-up and rethink.
There are survivors and popular shows, including "China's Got Talent" based on "Britain's Got Talent." The copyright was purchased and producers follow the format while adapting it to local tastes. It has been criticized for silly, even grotesque grassroots acts, lack of real talent and sob stories. But it's not vulgar.
A newcomer and the highest-rated talent show is "The Voice of China," a new kind of singing talent and reality show, based on another foreign format "The Voice of Holland." Again, the copyright was purchased, in a three-year contract, and the style and format strictly followed, based on a thick manual that describes the four judges' chairs and prescribes black suits for the judges, all famous singers with lots of personality. Foreign representatives monitor the show.
It premiered on July 13 and the live final with four contestants is Sunday night on Zhejiang Satellite Television. Elimination rounds will be held tonight and tomorrow. The winner gets a recording contract and a highly publicized concert. One concert has already been held for finalists.
There's a lot of Internet buzz about the show.
It is the top-rated music reality TV show in China, primarily because of its "blind auditions" that appear to ensure fairness in a music scene where judges are often swayed by factors beside talent. For many shows, viewers believe the fix is in.
In "The Voice of China," four judges sit facing the audience with their backs to the singers on an elevated stage. There were six blind auditions.
Judges deliver friendly, witty critiques of the singers, but there's no slashing criticism, no vulgarity, no self-aggrandizement. There's plenty of banter and entertainment but nothing outrageous or flirtatious.
At first each judge selected 14 singers for their own teams, which they coached and mentored. They vied with each other for talented singers, even arguing in spirited exchanges that reveal their own personalities. When two or more judges wanted a contestant for his or her team, then the contestant decided. Of course, it's a thrill to have famous singers compete for one's heart.
Then they went on to mentor their teams. These sessions were recorded and focused on the interaction between coach and student. Then there were elimination rounds.
"Blind listening demonstrates 'The Voice's pursuit of music par excellence," says Song Ke, the managing director of Heng Da Music Co and an observer of the entertainment industry. He used to be a judge on super popular "Super Girls," which began in 2004 on Hunan Satellite TV and was a monster nationwide hit. In 2011, authorities canceled it, saying it was "too long."
The show has other things going for it: Popular judges-coaches with charisma who share their own stories, contestants' touching stories (sometimes exaggerated), closely followed mentoring interaction, and a slick, professional format and strong production team.
The judges are big-name singers Na Ying and Liu Huan; a star popular with young people Harlem Yu; and a star who came from the grassroots, Yang Kun. "Their participation guarantees success, even before it starts," says Lu Wei, the public relations director of "Voice of China."
The show aims to identify and promote real talent, so there were no open auditions. Scouts around the country identified good voices from the Internet, from recommendations and by visiting bars, nightclubs, music academies and military art troupes to record the voices they liked. Then the program's music directors narrowed the field. Around half the contestants have some professional experience and the other half do not; they could be truck drivers or work in nail salons.
After the judges picked their teams, the singers were coached and then battled it out in a rather complicated system.
"Normally, this second phase is when the audience rating declines in overseas editions. However, due to the focus on the gratitude between singers and the coaches on 'Voice of China,' the audience rating keeps going up," says spokesman Lu.
The mentoring-coaching aspect is played up and recorded. "Chinese people are riveted to teacher-student relationships and interaction," Lu says, adding that this personal coaching aspect of shows is often overlooked by Westerners. "Sometimes it can be regarded as the gratitude between children and parents."
These sessions provide more opportunity to capture the ideas and feelings of student singers and their coaches. "We give more time for coaches to mentor, guide and enlighten their team members, showing a real human touch," Lu says.
The judges themselves, who are public personalities, reveal more about themselves, which audiences find fascinating. Their views and choices have credibility with the audience.
On Sunday night, each judge has one contestant seeking to become the Voice of China. Of course, judges are also expected to sing, as are guest singers closely identified with songs performed by contestants.
The award presenters will include celebrities such as Stephen Fung, Fan Bingbing and Angela Baby.
The show is not immune to criticism and problems of contestants telling false or exaggerated stories about themselves - a good story is essential, so bending the truth is not uncommon - but that goes with the territory. One woman told a sad and traumatic story of her father's death, but Internet vigilantes discovered that he was quite elderly and died of natural causes.
Some critics say the blind listening or blind audition is only a "trick."
"It underestimates veteran judges' professionalism and fools the audience who regards it as a pioneering undertaking in music reality shows," according to the Beijing Evening News paper. "Some contenders have been professional singers for more than 10 years and their voices are familiar to the judges."
Internet researchers have found out that a number of the contestants have some professional experience, which they say runs counter to the stated aim of discovering new singers.
"Any reality music shows are essentially television programs and their major aim is to gain revenue rather than revitalize the music industry," says Heng Da Music's managing director Song. "The ultimate purpose is to produce a successful programme that is profitable."
One of the most controversial contenders is soul and R&B singer and songwriter Tia Ray, or Yuan Yawei by her Chinese name, from central China's Hunan Province who has been criticized by some Chinese for focusing on soul and blues, very Western music, not Chinese.
Ray says music knows no boundaries and she has introduced a lot of people to soul music through the competition. "I hope soul will be popularized as an alternative school of pop music in China," she tells Shanghai Daily. She says she wasn't interested in competing - she already is known, but she was approached by program representatives who said they wanted quality, diverse and alternative music. So she agreed.
"Contestants' growth is closely related with tutors in the program, which emphasizes the Chinese concept of cultivation," says Song. "This is unique compared with simply critiquing performances and having those critiques adopted by other singer contestants. Here the well-known singer-judges also share their own experience and describe how they have overcome hardship. We feel much closer to them due to their emotional rapport with contestants."
Reality music shows contribute to the recording industry by facilitating and simplifying the process of identifying talent, Song adds.
As for continuation of the brand, "The Voice of China," "that depends largely on whether the selected singers can establish a stable foothold in the market," he says.
Behind the scenes
"The Voice of China" is heavily invested and strictly follows the Dutch format manual, including props, the spectacular orange and black stage setting, lighting, 27 cameras, special microphones at specified angles, and a sound system costing an estimated US$3 million.
As key props, the four original judges' chairs, each costing around 800,000 yuan (US$126,800), were shipped by air from the UK. On the base, each bears the words in English, "I Want You." When a judge presses a red button on his chair, "I Want You" is lighted and the chair rotates to face the contestant directly on the stage in back. The chairs are designed not to block sound from the stage, so the judges do not have to wear headphones.