As television shows go, the Chinese New Year Gala is a big deal, with an average of 700 million people tuning in each year to watch. Broadcast annually to celebrate the turn of the Lunar New Year, (the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar) it’s a live variety show, lasting around four hours, that organisers estimate 90% of Chinese families tune in to see.
To give some idea of the scale, it’s been known to attract up to eight times more viewers than the Super Bowl (America’s most watched show), and even if you combined the viewers of the Oscars, Emmys, MTV Awards and American Idol finales, viewers for the Chinese New Year Gala still trump them all.
So what makes the show such a rating’s juggernaut?
It’s a tradition that has lasted for decades. Ever since the gala first started broadcasting on state television in 1983, it’s been a time-honoured ritual that Chinese families gather around the TV after dinner to watch a four-hour extravaganza of songs, acrobatics, skits and cross-talk.
As with any show of this magnitude, preparations are key – in fact, there is an annual 100 day countdown to the show. Typically the gala features some of China’s biggest celebrities and new faces, but also offers something for viewers of all ages. The gala’s programme selection process is also highly competitive, as performers must go through many rounds to be included in the final programme.
As with the big viewer numbers, so too come big advertising rates. In 2011, a 30-second commercial slot to be aired during the gala went for roughly 24 million US dollars. To put that in perspective, a 30-second slot for the Super Bowl costs roughly 3.8 million dollars.
Since 2015, state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) has licensed the broadcast rights of the gala to foreign television stations for free. Also, controversially, CCTV has arrangements with social media channels like YouTube, Google and Twitter to reach out to a global audience with the gala, leading to widespread criticism from Chinese netizens as these social media channels remain blocked in China.
It’s believed the reasons for the global push is that China is increasingly interested in becoming a cultural exporter and is eager to inform the West about its cultural and economic progress. CCTV has even rented a video billboard in the heart of New York’s Times Square to plug the show.
The gala has not been short of criticism over the years, with many feeling that the programme has become too much of a propaganda tool of the Chinese Communist Party. Some went as far as dubbing it a four-hour long Xinwen Lianbo, the daily half-hour CCTV news broadcast known for its Communist Party agenda and political slant.
In addition, while organisers insist that 90% of Chinese families tune in to watch, in recent years ratings are said to have declined. Many feel that the format of the programme is outdated and that only older generations watch it. Others have suggested that most families just leave the TV programme on in the background, and few people are actually watching it.
This year the Chinese New Year Gala will see in the year of the Fire Rooster. As always, it’s expected to be a star-studded affair. This year’s show will feature a performance by Hong Kong martial artist and actor Jackie Chan. Other stars expected to make an appearance include young Chinese heartthrob Lu Han and Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui.
As the programme is watched by hundreds of millions, a performance in the New Year’s Gala could turn a relatively unknown name into a national celebrity overnight. Seldom does the gala feature performances from international or foreign artists, but memorably, in 2013, Canadian singer Céline Dion performed alongside Chinese soprano Song Zuying. Dion learnt to sing in Mandarin especially for the show and together with Zuying they performed a duet of traditional Chinese folk song ‘Jasmine Flower’ (Mo Li Hua in Chinese) which impressed audiences. Roughly a sixth of the world celebrates Chinese New Year and 2017 looks set to be no exception.
The Spring Festival Gala 2017 will be telecast live on CCTV from 8pm (Beijing time) on Chinese New Year’s Eve, January 27 2017.