BEIJING, China — Reality shows are booming in China. The mainland’s satellite television channels carry more than 100 different reality television programmes. According to Ent Group, an entertainment industry consulting firm, nine of the 10 most popular programmes in China last year were reality shows.
One such show is “Where Are We Going, Dad?” a weekly series in which celebrity fathers take their children on trips around China. The show attracts about 75 million viewers per episode. Another is “I Am a Singer,” a singing competition with over 100 million viewers per episode.
The power of celebrity “fandom” culture among Chinese Millennials has contributed to the boom. “Unlike Western TV, all reality shows in China feature real celebrities, not ‘real’ non-famous people,” said Yukun Bi, a planner at Hylink Group, the largest independent digital agency in China.
Another factor is the rapid growth of the live-streaming video market, which has attracted a rush of investment from Chinese tech giants like Tencent, Baidu and Weibo, and was worth 20.8 billion RMB ($3 billion) in 2016, up 180 percent on the previous year. “Five years ago, users couldn’t watch TV online or through live streams. Now, everyone in China has a smartphone and high-speed internet is everywhere,” said Jonathan Smith, managing director at Hot Pot Digital, a Chinese digital marketing agency.
“The Rap of China,” which launched in August, features four celebrity judges, tasked with training and guiding a cast of young rappers. Kris Wu has appeared as a judge on the show, which is said to be one of the most expensive reality shows in history with a budget of $30 million. The first episode, which aired on China’s largest online video hosting website, iQiyi, drew over 100 million viewers within the first four hours, according to reports in local Chinese media. But by the time the season finale came around, viewership had surpassed 300 million. The show has also helped to turn streetwear labels like Off-White, Vetements and Supreme into household names in China, a fact not lost on brand advertisers.
Indeed, brands of all stripes are inking product placement deals with reality shows, such as “U Can U Bibi” (Chinese slang for “keep talking”). In one episode, the show’s host finds a funny pretext to plug Head & Shoulders shampoo as a way of finding true love, as the brand’s logo pops onscreen with a “boing!” sound. But the presence of overt brand integration (a single episode can include dozens of logos) hasn’t dissuaded the show’s 50 million viewers. Chinese shoppers are more open to these kinds of product plugs than their western counterparts, said experts.
Ahead of its recent fashion show extravaganza in Shanghai, Victoria’s Secret jumped on the reality television trend with a branded program called “Road to the Runway,” a contest-style show which promised the winner the chance to walk the runway. The first episode, which aired in August and was available to watch on Chinese streaming sites Tencent Video and Baidu-owned iQiyi, attracted 37.6 million views by noon the next day. The winner, 20-year-old model One Wang, took the stage at this year’s event, alongside seven other Chinese models: Liu Wen, Sui He, Xiao Wen Ju, Ming Xi, Estelle Chen and Xin Xie.
But the market has its challenges. “The younger fan base that watches these shows are not particularly loyal to celebrities, as they are always looking for what’s new or what’s next,” warned Elijah Whaley, the chief marketing officer of Park Lu. “Their long-term popularity is by no means guaranteed.”
Then there’s the issue of government censorship. In late 2016, China enforced a ban on entertainment news that promotes Western lifestyles and celebrities, or pokes fun at Chinese values. This includes reality shows, which some authorities have said are not “meaningful.” The Rap of China has faced the wrath of censors, although not every live-streaming platform or show has been affected by these measures.
“Entertainment will always walk on thin ice in China, especially foreign producers of content. When it comes to reality shows, there is only so much ‘real’ you can show,” said Park Lu’s Whaley. “Brands need to be aware of the risks when aligning themselves with any entertainment content, as it could be taken down or worse villainised.”
Still, many are optimistic about the growing opportunity in reality television. “Reality TV as a form of content is here to stay in China,” said Bi. “It will continue to be a gateway for brands to reach consumers.”
Looking ahead, Whaley predicted: “I think live streaming is going to standardise to look more like TV. We’ll see shifts to live-streamed shows with real budgets. Even in China, entertainment budgets have not yet completely shifted from TV sets to smartphones, and online shows have not totally taken over broadcast TV. But it’s coming.”
“The best advice I have for Western brands that want to reach Chinese audiences is to be nimble and look for what’s coming next,” he said, “because by the time it’s popular in China, it’s already too late.”