Popular Chinese idol survival show finds success through fan participation

By He Keyao Source:Global Times Published: 2018/4/18 19:53:40

A scene from Idol Producer Photo: VCG

What does it mean to be a fan of an idol today in China? That's the question being asked by numerous media scholars and experts after a recent reality competition set new records for the Chinese entertainment industry.

Marketed as "the first idol training reality show" in China, the weekly program Idol Producer first debuted on iQiyi, one of China's biggest streaming platforms, on January 19. During the three-month-long program, a total of 100 young Chinese and overseas trainees from different domestic entertainment companies competed against each other to win over the hearts of Chinese audiences whose votes would determine the nine-finalists that would make up China's newest boy band - Nine Percent.

Throughout the show's run the concept of "citizen producers" was promoted as a major feature of the show, as the winners of each elimination round was determined solely by audience voting - a first for any Chinese reality show.

The program's popularity was striking. The first episode has received more than 330 million views, while more than 172 million votes were submitted during the final ranking section, during which the top trainee received more than 74 million votes. Some hardcore fans even went so far as to shell out their own money to ensure that their favorite idol won, as audiences could purchase "voting cards" that enabled them to vote multiple times a day.

Meanwhile, 11 out of 15 trending topics on Sina Weibo were about the show when the final episode streamed live on April 6.

Redefining idol culture

One of the keys to the program's success is how it tried to connect with young Chinese. According to the chief director of the program, Chen Gang, what attracted the fans the most were the fact that the competitors were real people with inspiring personalities, instead of celebrities whose lives of luxury are far removed from the experiences of the average audience member.

"At the end of the day, it was the charm of a competitor's personality and nature that won fans' hearts, more than his talent or his appearance," Chen told the Global Times.

The goal of building audience empathy is clear in the show's slogan, "the harder you try, the luckier you become" and the way the show presented the day-to-day lives of the trainees, which were filled with endless practice sessions and huge amounts of stress. Apart from the weekly episodes, the show also uploaded numerous videos of each candidate's training so fans could get to know them as they were when they weren't performing onstage.

"The distance between these idols and the audience shrinks and the fans resonate with their chosen idol," noted Chen.

Chen's view seems to be supported by the experiences of the show's fans.

"It felt like one of my own dreams was fulfilled when I saw them [the trainees] realize their dreams," said Liu Jinlu, an undergraduate student in her early 20s and a huge fan of the show.

Liu didn't expect to be a fan when she started watching, but one of the trainees quickly caught her attention and the more she got to know him the more she liked him.

"I was touched to see him work so hard and put in so much effort to pursue his dreams," Liu said about Wang Ziyi, who went on to become one of the final winners. The program offered her the chance to see how someone around her age could start from nothing and work to improve himself. Inspired by his example, Liu explained that she recently began taking jazz dance classes.

Liu quoted a popular online saying that she feels reflects her experience with the show: "Favor starts with appearance, continues to be attracted by talent, but falls in love with personality."

Audience participation 

Active audience participation marks another of the show's strengths.

The audience's role in the show is stressed throughout its run. For example, trainees often bow to the camera to express their gratitude after a performance. Even VR videos in which individual idols would "interact" with the viewer were produced.

"The reason why we fans became so attached to the show is that we were the ones who decided who stayed and who left," explained Zhang Li, a university student in Xiamen, Fujian Province, who is also a loyal fan of the show.

According to her, working with other fans to ensure your favorite idol won was part of the fun. Various ways to show support, such as writing posts online and forwarding posts to boost an idols exposure on Sina Weibo, buying voting cards and gifts and watching videos to increase hits, went a long way to increase fan participation and loyalty. 

Piao Jingwei, a lecturer with Xiamen University of Technology's TV and Broadcasting Department, explained that this participation helped to swiftly transform audiences from passive information receivers to active content creators, which really catered to young Chinese's Internet media consumption habits.

"Audiences are immersed in the creation of the show and their preferences direct how the story will unfold," said Piao.


While the idol industry in China is not as developed as it is in South Korea and Japan, it still has huge potential. Worth noting, this huge potential, according to Chen, is mainly fueled by young Chinese women, or China's "She-conomy." 

"The majority of idol fans [in China] are girls between 13 and 18, while young women over 25 start to pay less attention to idols," Chen said. 

To succeed with this demographic, Chen said an idol needs to have "positive energy." 

In addition, they must also have talent and an attractive appearance. Chen noted that his show succeeded largely due to the fact that it had this type of "high quality idol." 

"Who would be a fan of a foreign idol when there is a domestic one?" said Chen Mengxi, another fan of the show. A digital media major in her third year at college, she edited a video for her idol that was screened on the side of one of Shanghai's landmark buildings.

She noted that the diverse range of the 100 trainees was able to satisfy different idol fans' need for various types of characters. 

"The program shows that China is gradually developing its own idol industry, which is still in the process of maturing," said Piao.

Newspaper headline: Empowering the audience


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