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Musings on talent TV, new Chinese 'Idol' and karaoke
By Doug Young

I must admit that I have a love-hate relationship with TV talent shows, which perhaps explains my mixed reaction to the news that the granddaddy of the genre, "American Idol," is finally coming to China more than a decade after its huge success in the United States.

On the one hand, I think these shows that have become a Chinese TV staple seem like a waste of talent that could be better spent on things like saving the environment or building faster computers.

On the other hand, I doubt that any of the karaoke kings or other performers are capable of such grand achievements, so perhaps it's not bad that at least they can entertain everyone else. I also have to admit my own secret fondness for some of the better produced shows, including "American Idol" itself.

All that said, it does seem appropriate that Shanghai was at the epicenter of the TV breakthrough that will finally bring "Idol" to China, since the city was historically the nation's entertainment capital and is fast regaining that crown. This newest deal is the latest in a string for Shanghai's main TV broadcaster, Shanghai Media Group (SMG), which has already brought local versions of US franchises "America's Got Talent" and "The Amazing Race" to China.

The Chinese version of "Idol" is to premier in May. SMG will work with FremantleMedia on the project, following their collaboration on the highly popular Chinese version of "America's Got Talent."

The US talent show craze was part of a broader explosion in reality TV that began in the late 1990s with the successful "Survivor" series, which pitted ordinary people against each other to see who could stay in the game the longest. But Chinese audiences have shown less interest in many reality show formats, even as they wholeheartedly embraced the talent show. In China the trend dates back to 2004 and 2005, when the talent show "Supergirl" took the airwaves by storm and thrust the androgynous Li Yuchun onto the national stage.

As China's talent show fascination grew, TV stations filled prime time with programs that starred everyone from urban yuppies to aging grannies and pre-adolescent kids. China's paternalistic industry regulator decided the trend had gone too far in 2011, when it sharply curbed content and broadcast time for talent and reality shows.

You can still find plenty of TV talent shows throughout the country, though numbers have shrunken considerably since the regulatory crackdown. My personal view is that the popularity of these shows is related to the Chinese and Asian love of karaoke, and the idea that everyone has a hidden star inside. I also admit I'm fond of some shows, especially when I'm exercising at the gym, because they often require little thought and some participants are quite talented.

Vibrant culture

Shanghai is a particularly appropriate place for "Idol" to debut in China, as the city seeks to regain its title as the Chinese and Asian capital for more contemporary-style culture. The city is already home to a vibrant culture for Western-style theater and will soon host the mainland's first Disneyland. Entertainment is also thriving behind the scenes, with global giant DreamWorks Animation announcing last year it would join hands with SMG to set up its first Chinese animation studio in Shanghai. An expanded partnership includes plans to build a 20 billion yuan (US$3.2 billion) entertainment center in Xuhui District.

So, what's the outlook for the new Chinese "Idol"? Based on the huge success of SMG's rendition of "America's Got Talent," I would say the new Chinese "Idol" show could be equally or even more successful. I don't usually watch Chinese TV talent shows, but I'll probably tune in to the first few episodes of "Chinese Idol" to see how it looks. If it's good, which seems likely, look for the show to quickly become a major hit in China, bringing Shanghai yet another step closer to retaking its title as Asia's entertainment capital.

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