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The Reality Behind China's Reality Television

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In addition to being a leader in world economic growth, China may set the new standards in reality television programming. An immensely popular Saturday night television show draws more viewers than American Idol and The X-Factor combined. Many Chinese families spend their weekend evenings together huddled around the TV watching Interviews Before Execution, a show that documents the interviews of inmates on death row for non-political crimes as they plead for mercy days or even minutes before their execution. Hosted by Ms. Ding Yu, the interviews usually initiate with more mundane questions, such as the criminals’ favorite music, before Yu delves into the tougher questions about their murders. Yu also promises to relay any last words to family members, and she doesn’t hold back on the inmates. She told a child killer, “Everyone should hate you.” The program also teaches children the importance of obedience to the government. A mother told her son, who was set to be executed immediately after his interview, “Go peacefully. It’s following government orders.”

The show draws a consistent 40 million viewers each Saturday night. Comparatively, according to Nielsen ratings, American Idol’s 11th season as of the week of February 20 has averaged 20.5 million or 18.7 million viewers (depending on if its the Wednesday or Thursday show). The X-Factor’s highest single episode viewership stood at 12.59 million, according to Nielsen ratings, during its first season finale in December of 2011.

Despite Interviews Before Executions exemplifying the huge market potential for the US media industry in China, it will probably be unable to capitalize on China’s huge audience for quite some time. Western media companies will need to be content with only the possibility of syndicating popular Chinese programs to profit from China’s media industry. In typical Communist fashion, the Chinese government has become increasingly paranoid about losing power as it embarks on consequential elections this year. 70% of China’s top 200 leaders will be replaced. Furthermore, seven of the nine top members of the Standing Committee, the leading committee of the Chinese Communist Party, will also be stepping down. Chinese President Hu Jintao wants to make sure the transition occurs as smoothly as possible, and this includes shutting out the “hostile international forces” that aim to “Westernize and divide China” subtly through media. After understanding the political forces at work in China, it makes sense that a program showing the punishment for capital crimes is a smash hit.

The Iron Curtain formed to prevent the viewing of Western influenced media and entertainment has killed the television industry in China. President Hu recently ordered the removal of 88 shows, or two-thirds of all prime-time entertainment that contained “Western” themes. Programs such as Supergirl, the equivalent of American Idol, were banned for “excessive entertainment” and “a trend toward low taste” officials from Beijing claimed. Other shows faced censorship and more stringent parameters regarding acceptable material. The dating show If You Are the One can no longer include Western-styled discussions about sex.

The movie industry China will also remain a poor investment idea for outsiders because the caprice of the government also makes the industry unstable. China puts tight restrictions on the content it allows from Hollywood. The largest grossing films in China last year were the sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda, which ranked fifth and fifteenth respectively. Last year’s largest grossing movie in the US, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, struggled in China because the government delayed its release so it would not conflict with Beginning of the Great Revival: The Founding of a Party, which celebrates the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

With 55 laws warranting capital punishment on the books in China, it appears Interviews Before Execution will retain a comfortable lead in China over its American counterparts.
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.

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