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Real or rigged?
By Xu Wei

A man memorizes every spot on 101 Dalmatians after spending five days with the dogs. A mentally challenged man, known as China’s Rain Man, calculates the 14th root of a 16-digit number within one minute. A blindfolded retired female gymnast passes through a tunnel, avoiding 88 laser light beams.

They are among the stars of “The Brain” (Zui Qiang Da Nao 最强大脑) on Jiangsu Satellite TV that aims to identify “the strongest brains in China.”

Though singing competitions and dating shows are very popular, knowledge quizzes, brain power test, stunt shows and physical game contests also have a growing following.

Predictably, they also have critics who say they are not the real thing, that they’re staged and somehow rigged.

Detractors suggest that instead of being spontaneous displays of mental agility and physical coordination, the shows are basically fabricated and the fix is in.

They argue that some contestants are trained beforehand in memorization or given answers, that film is edited in misleading ways for dramatic effect, and that audiences are hand-picked and coached.

Of course, there’s nothing new about having whizzes on TV and some people do have extraordinary skills in mathematical calculation and memory. Edited film and coached audiences are also part of the entertainment industry.

It’s all good fun, so what’s the big fuss?

Still, nitpicking Chinese viewers are talking, which boosts ratings.

According to the microblog of Jiangsu Satellite TV, all the talent featured on the program is real and no one is prepped. The aim is to arouse public awareness of science, it says.

Some contestants have admitted on the show to taking demanding courses in memorization, but TV officials say that shouldn’t disqualify them.

Hu Xiaoling, the woman who did complicated crossword puzzles, won an award for remembering names and faces in the 2011 World Memory Championship.

She told the audience she was insecure as a child but gained confidence after learning memory skills in a college club and at a training center in Guangzhou, capital city of Guangdong Province.

On the show she memorized 40 Chinese phrases in six minutes. She then completed a crossword puzzle using the phrases, some of which were confusing homophones.

Last year there were other more intellectual shows, including one in which middle school students competed in writing down less-common Chinese characters as they were dictated and a reality show in which people were selected for their above-average public speaking and language skills.

‘The Brain’

The spotlight is on “The Brain,” which began airing in January and concludes in March. It features 50 contestants recruited over six months.

Next month finalists will form a China team and compete against brainy people from Italy, Spain and Germany in the final three episodes to be aired weekly from March 14.

Liu Yuzhe, the public relations manager at Jiangsu Satellite TV, tells Shanghai Daily it’s good that some viewers question the show. “That’s a sign of reasonable scientific skepticism,” he says.

“Before ‘The Brain,’ very few science-related TV programs were popular because they were too technical and dry,” Liu says. “We hope to make science more accessible and a new fad.”

The program has a consultant team of neuroscientists and other “brain experts” from Peking University, Beijing Normal University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University who establish judging criteria and rules.

Though some contestants have received memory training, not all of them can distinguish themselves in competition, Liu points out.

“Most contestants do have special talent,” he adds. “If a contestant has no previous training, our judges take that into account and give him a much higher score.”

The judges include scientists, sports figures and entertainers.

Many contestants seem quite ordinary, don’t consider themselves special and may even have felt insecure and inferior before the show, it has claimed.

‘Rain Man’

In “The Brain,” it’s the “Rain Man,” 23-year-old Zhou Wei from Shanxi Province, who stole the show and generated the most controversy.

Zhou, who suffered a brain injury in childhood, has impaired language and communication skills and only attended primary school for five years. (See “Chinese Rain Man” mystifies local experts, Shanghai Daily, January 29, 2014)

Zhou reminded viewers of the 1988 film “Rain Man” in which Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant.

Within a minute, Zhou wrote down the 13th power of 6 — 13,060,694,016.

Controversial “science cop” and blogger Fang Zhouzhi and some Internet users said Zhou must have memorized answers provided beforehand, or the calculations must have taken much more time, which was edited out of the final videotaped version.

In Shanghai, experts in math, psychology and cognitive science recently tested Zhou and concluded that he was indeed capable of swift calculations. He easily multiplied two, four-digit numbers and calculated the root of a 12-digit number, media reported.

Zhou is a phenomenon of neuroscience, the experts concluded.

TV viewer Helen Zhu, a postgraduate student, likes “The Brain” but says some talent is exaggerated.

There are lots of memory-training courses and college memory clubs, she says. “I don’t think these people represent the strongest brains. They are limited, specialized and not creative.”

She looks forward to original shows that crank up creativity, such as Japan’s “Super Change” or “All-Japan Kaosh Grand Prix” in which competing teams use props and costumes to depict a person, object or event.

Physical game shows

Viewers are also critical of physical game shows, such as last season’s British format “The Cube,” in which contestants complete timed challenges such as walking on narrow beams, stacking blocks with one hand and catching balls before they fall to the floor.

Contestants, including celebrities, sometimes have time to prepare and rehearse the stunts that are supposed to be performed spontaneously and immediately on receiving the challenge instructions, according to witnesses.

But who really cares?

Paid audience

It’s common in the entertainment industry to hire audience members earning around 100 yuan (US$16.50) for a three- to four-hour recording. Recruitment ads seek experienced people who can warm up the atmosphere. They are required to laugh, applaud and even cry on cue.

Still, some viewers find these professional audiences annoying.

Hunan Satellite TV’s popular “I Am a Singer,” now in its second season, has generated speculation over use of professional audiences because the reactions to music are so emotional.

The director denies coaching the studio audience, says all the reactions are genuine and spontaneous, demonstrating the power of music to touch the heart.

Internet user Ni Guang says he’s fed up with all the exaggerated expressions, emotions and tears. He spots the same weeping and cheering faces in the audience for every episode, he says.

‘It’s just for fun’

According to Tyce Li, a veteran entertainment TV producer (not connected with current shows), there are many standard “techniques,” including editing, that make shows appealing. He doesn’t call them “tricks” to mislead or deceive.

“Domestic directors feel much more pressure nowadays since they must hook a big audience within a few minutes,” Li says.

Unusual talents, special and perhaps exaggerated stories about contestants, and special presentation techniques are all required to make shows appealing and sustain suspense, he says.

“I suggest that people consider these shows magic performances. Don’t believe everything you see and don’t expect too much from fast-food TV. It’s just for fun,” Li concludes.

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