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China TV Makes Reality Feel Good

'American Idol' has moved east, and the result is an upbeat show where neither talent nor looks matter. Simon would not be welcome.

June 24, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Forget the suspense of wondering who will win "American Idol," the withering criticism endured by the losers or the show's embrace of budding youth. China's version of the American television hit, called "Feichang 6+1," is taking this market by storm with a very different recipe -- a mixture of gentle, face-saving communalism and feel-good schmaltz.

"If a U.S.-style 'American Idol' appeared here, it would be quite unpopular," said Xia Xueluan, a sociologist at Beijing University. "American culture is seen as more cutthroat and China's more intent on cooperation."

There's nothing sink-or-swim about this slice of Chinese "reality" TV. The show keeps everyone afloat by giving contestants six days of intense training from some of the best dancers, singers and performers in the business before appearing in the spotlight on the seventh day. Hence the program's name, which roughly translates as "Special 6+1."

The audience takes a good-natured vote on whom it likes, but there's little emphasis on winning and little expectation that this will launch a career for some budding star. Everyone's a winner, and everyone looks good. Contestants as old as 70 and as young as 4 appear, chosen more for working-class roots and geographic distribution than talent or looks. Recent guests on the show include a hospital worker, a border guard's wife and a forest ranger whose child has kidney problems.

Since nobody is booted off or humiliated, there's little room for the sort of antihero that Hong Kong-born William Hung became in the United States this season after being eliminated from "American Idol." Preserving face and highlighting the positive is a cornerstone of the Chinese show.

Inner Mongolian contestant Qin Wenlian, who hails from a town of fewer than 100 people, started singing as a child to her flock of sheep. The show's producers found her in a Beijing restaurant where she cooks lamb and thick noodles, and put her on the program in early April.

"It was the most exciting day of my life," Qin said.

By her own admission, she was one of the weaker performers that day. But she was invited back for a retrospective featuring best-loved contestants, given her spunk and tale of overcoming life's woes.

Neither Qin nor other contestants seem to regret returning to their everyday jobs after their 15 minutes of fame. "I'm not that talented, it was just a nice dream," Qin said with a smile. "It may even help the restaurant. Some customers now ask for me by name to do their cooking."

Since it first aired in October, "Feichang 6+1" has become one of China's most popular shows, spawning local competitors and resonating in the vernacular, with the term "Feichang 6+1" now used by advertisers offering seven items for the price of six.

Critics see several reasons why the show has taken off. The core message -- that everyone in China can be a star, no matter how poor, humble or relatively untalented -- is a powerful antidote to the anxiety of many rural Chinese who feel excluded from the advantages of their slick urban cousins.

"It offers a fantasy for people where competition is reduced and the usual money and power hierarchies disappear, especially for lower-class people," said Miao Di, a media professor with the Beijing Broadcasting Institute. "Here, every Cinderella can turn into a princess."

Contestants' personal stories of challenges and difficulties have also proved popular, and the wide age range conveys the image of a unified society that echoes old Confucian principles.

"Chinese have strong feelings that the old are wise," said Wang Hu, a restaurant manager and avid fan of the show. "Old people and young people working together is a very good thing."

At a time when the dilution of communism has left China struggling to fill the ideological vacuum, some analysts even see this slick, feel-good approach as a new forum for national unity.

Sociologists say the great lengths taken by "Feichang 6+ 1" to ensure that no one is embarrassed reflects the differing Chinese and American views of spontaneity and saving face. "Winging it" is not a concept in a land where pointing out someone's shortcomings, particularly onstage before millions, is not only far from entertaining, it's just plain rude.

"In China, no one wants to watch someone embarrassed onstage," said Hu Gang, a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher. "Going back centuries in literature and drama, Chinese always like happy endings. Seeing someone humiliated is not a happy ending."

Relative to Simon Cowell's withering criticism of guests on five-time Emmy-nominated "American Idol" -- including such comments as "That was totally pathetic" and "You are the most boring person I've ever met" -- there's no pretense here of brutal honesty or objective standards, in a country where meritocracy is a far smaller part of the culture than connections.

"Feichang 6+1" has no professional judges. The cameramen and sound crew select shots that hide faults. And the show's host is extremely self-deprecating, even giving rather average performances of his own to make contestants feel better.

"When I got really nervous before the show, my trainer told me to think of the stage as a grassland and the audience as my childhood herd of sheep," said contestant Qin. "They were so nice. It was just like my hometown."

Bu Yang in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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