September 12, 2012

The Voice of China Reclaims Reality Show Magic

Brands, Communications, Culture, Entertainment Post by

Packed with super star judges, talented contestants, Dutch-imported concepts, that busting state-of-art sound system, cameras that capture every studio movement, two-minute emotional life stories, cheerful parents and friends back stage, a headless arm handing over a microphone, then bang!

The next thing we hear are the Chinese versions of Adele (Zheng Hong), Nina Simone (Liu Yue), Sarah Brightman (Ni Yagfeng) and other old love songs that have been interpreted in completely new ways.

With it’s high quality programming, highly involved judges and active online discussions of the show we see why “The Voice of China” (“中国好声音”) is the most popular show in China at the moment.

The Voice of China’s popularity can be seen in its viewership and advertising numbers. The first show drew a 1.5% viewership, and by the fifth show, it was averaging almost 4%! Average viewing rates of entertainment in China stand around 1-2%, due to the large and fragmented viewing population. It continually takes the top spot on Friday’s prime-time spot.

Advertising rates for the show rose from RMB130,000/15 seconds, to RMB 500,000/15 seconds by the fifth show! Last but not least, sponsorship for the entire show is valued at RMB 60 million, often the top-prize for entertainment programs.

Their Weibo account has almost 600,000 fans, reaching this number in less than a month, further highlighting the show’s popularity.

Talent-based reality shows in China have seen varying levels of success. Starting with 2005’s “Super Voice Girls (SVG)” hundreds of talent shows have brought raw talent to the main stage. Amongst them there is no shortage of imported, large-scale products such as “X-Factor” and China’s Got Talent”.

However, with similar formats such as ‘sing offs’, singing then receiving judges commentary, or text-in voting, audience interest has started to wane. After a while, some talent-based reality shows started to tweak the format by playing up the grass-roots card or emphasizing the emotional stories of contestants. Within these however, scandals of over-exaggeration or falsifying real events emerged further dampening the spirit of the shows.

More importantly, no talent show has produced any real or breakthrough superstars like “Super Voice Girls” did in 2005 with Chris Lee Yuchun (李宇春), Bibi Zhou Bichang (周笔畅) and Jane Zhang Liangying (张靓颖). In 2010, “Super Voice Girls” announced it will not continue after its final sing-off. With its demise, media critics were pronouncing the era of talent-based reality shows “dead in China”

So why has “The Voice of China” reclaimed reality-show magic amongst viewers?

Quality Comes First
The show’s focus on ‘real talent’ is perhaps the largest reason for its success.

All the contestants in the show are pre-selected, meaning all of them really can sing. It’s also a highly selective programme – in each 80 minute episode, the show highlights only the best moments from two days of filming. This keeps the overall standard very high and maintains a consistent “wow” factor with every participant.

The show also focuses on nothing but the “voice”. Some contestants actually have television talent show experience prior to the show, but due to their appearance or lack of a compelling personal story, they were never selected. But in “The Voice” the judges were not allowed to see the contestants while they sang, forcing the judges to focus on quality and emotional delivery from the singer’s voice.

Emphasizing Authenticity and “Realness”
All the judges on the show are reputable, heavy weight singers in China, not appearing to bolster their fame, but appearing in an honest and credible way – to help identify real talents in China. during the show, all of them strongly express their (for the most part) true emotions, which humanizes them, rather than being on a pedestal as a judge or mega-star singer.

Furthering its credibility, the judging style is not a top-down, “I tell you what is good” method. Instead, judges are responsible for mentoring their chosen contestants giving them added reason to buy in to the success of the singers. Judges also have to compete with one another to win over singers who have the choice to choose which judge they want to work with.

This gives audiences a sense that talent is well respected. Eventually it’s down to the contestants to decide what route they would like to take in their career – the life of a pop star? An entertainment show regular? Keeping it low key, but producing memorable songs that people will remember?

It gives choices back to the contestants, which makes the show more ‘real’. It shows the contestants are real people who have talent, have a soul, and who can think and decide what to do in their lives rather than just be an “object” of the record companies.

Engaging Through Transparency
Like many other talent shows, “The Voice of China” has endured several scandals – from tip-offs, general gossip, false accusations and nearly all of the contestants have experienced some kind of defamation on Weibo.

One contestant claimed to be a “Hani Prince” – the heir of a small kingdom in Yunnan, but he was smeared after it was discovered he is only the son of a village mayor of a minority tripe. Another contestant claimed to be a farmer from Liaoning province, born with a beautiful voice, but never properly trained. Later it was found that he works as a piano teacher and has professional musical training.

The format of “The Voice of China” allows it handle scandals better than other reality shows. First of all, it allows contestants to manage their own social networking communication, placing all PR responsibility in their own hands. The contestants can decide how they want to connect with their followers from the start. Secondly, it has a sister program after the show to let the contestants answer public questions, empowering singers to deal personally with media, giving them the chance to explain their stories.

This level of transparency creates less speculation and rumours about the singers on the show.

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What we see on ‘The Voice Of China’ also reflects what Chinese audiences are looking for on TV nowadays:

The fact that this is not an “I tell you what is good”, top-down type of entertainment program and actually shows the real-ness of the judges and contestants. Their emotions, preferences, passions and decision making skills are on display, reflecting individuality de-standardization that is rare in the Chinese music business.

The way that it opens itself to social networks enables it to connect with both hard-core fans and general audiences. Audiences actively seek out, share, discuss and tell their friends what they like and don’t like about the show, making it a social, conversation, ‘must-see’ event that people are willing to sacrifice Friday night plans to sit in front of a TV with their iPhone or iPad watching the show religiously at 9:15pm every week.

On the other hand due to the openness of the internet, contestants can no-longer keep their “past-life” in the closet, forcing them to actively engage with their audience and keep everything honest. By doing so, they are actually earning and cultivating their own following, giving them the opportunity to survive after the show finishes.

Key Takeaways:

Quality Comes First
Audiences are more perceptive to defining quality and understanding that ‘real quality’ is deeper than a pretty face and nice clothes.

Emphasizing Authenticity and “Realness”
Both contestants and judges are encouraged to show their authentic, multi-faceted personalities. As we saw in the recent Olympics, athletes, heroes celebrities or super-stars can no longer be one-sided and successful. They must develop a deeper emotional and humanized connection with the average citizen.

Engaging Through Transparency
The reality of China’s social media landscape means transparency is demanded and even expected these days. Thus as the old Chinese saying states, “paper can never cover fire”, secrets can no longer be swept under the rug. Giving people access and allowing them to engage on a deep level with the contestants makes “The Voice of China” feel extremely transparent and open.

By looking at the “The Voice of China” as a brand, these three principles can be applied. Brands must now start focusing on quality products, multi-dimensional brand stories and transparency across all internal and external levels.

Article by Heng Lu, Hidi Huang and Joey Dembs

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One Response to “The Voice of China Reclaims Reality Show Magic”

  1. […] public interest of the singing competition franchise (which we’ve documented in a recent post here). The Voice of China is China’s current #1 […]

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