Why China needs to ban idol reality competition shows?
Cooling off an industry
Published: Sep 08, 2021 09:44 PM

Trainees for the talent show Produce 101 take a rest on August 13, 2018 in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province. Photo: IC

Trainees for the talent show Produce 101 take a rest on August 13, 2018 in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province. Photo: IC

China's National Radio and Television Administration issued a notice on September 2 that put a lid on idol training shows - competitive reality shows that pit potential stars against each other, with the winners going on to become China's newest idols - by prohibiting TV and streaming platforms from airing them.  

Dampening the fever  

The ban against idol training shows, such as the hugely popular Idol Producer and the Produce 101, is part of the authority's recent move to calm down fervent fandoms and regulate an industry that preys on people's love for glamour and fame. 

The move is also part of an effort to bring some transparency and honesty to the fan industry, which suffers from the manipulation of social media searches, fan polls and the hiring of professional online trolls to publish purposefully inflammatory posts aimed at inciting discord between fans of various idols. Recent high-profile incidents such as rampant disputes between fan clubs and fans spending exorbitant money pampering their favorite idols with extravagant gifts are also major motivators behind the crackdown. 

Some insiders say that the chaos within the fan industry was inevitable in the social media age as some young idols today have only been able to stay in the limelight by relying on fan support, such as encouraging fans to vote for them in various polls, instead of depending on actual talent.

"It is not just us who carry out promotions, every fan club does. We have different jobs within the fan club. Some people are in charge of raising money to buy gifts on our idol's special occasions. Some others, including me, do publicity work, posting content about him on Sina Weibo, Douban and so on," Jasmine Ma, a fan of an Idol Producer competitor, told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

However, while the activities fans carry out in order to show their love may seem like harmless fun, behind this idol craze is "a dark chain in the entertainment industry made up of agencies, so-called 'fan clubs' and platforms," said Zhang Yiwu, a professor of cultural studies at Peking University, adding that these forces can pressure young people to take things too far. 

Yi Yun, a netizen, told the Global Times on Wednesday that many fans she knows online are only around 13 or 14 years old and have a lot of pocket money to help launch their idols to the top of influential "star" lists on social media platforms. 

Da Qi (pseudonym), a netizen, told the Global Times on Wednesday that she once got deeply involved in fan activities during the airing of Chinese variety show Youth With You Season 3, which was ultimately canceled mid-season after a marketing scheme urged fan clubs to purchase boxes of milk with special QR codes to support their favorite contestants. In their desperate rush to get these codes, fans bought hundreds of boxes of milk, more than they could possibly drink, and the internet was soon filled with images of people tearing open carton after carton of milk and pouring the contents down street gutters.

"I once purchased a box of milk to support my favorite trainee, but I didn't know they would pour the milk into the sewers as we normal fans were just in charge of raising funds and the leader of the fan club is responsible for handling voting," said Da Qi. 

The September notice is not the only measure that has been introduced to try and curb out-of-control fans. 

In August, the Cyberspace Administration of China also announced that online platforms should crack down on bots, which are often used to fabricate likes and comments online, and artificially inflate online traffic numbers. 

A long time coming 

This is not the first time the Chinese government has stepped in to rein in competitive reality shows. Back in 2006, China's pioneering singing idol show Super Girls was canceled after its fan voting system was determined to have negative impacts such as "overly hyping fan culture" and manipulating people to spend money supporting their idols. 

The show was seen as very innovative compared to other reality shows at the time because it made fans almost a part of the competition itself. 

Over the past 15 years, while such shows have gone from pushing a single new star to entire boy or girl bands, and from a focus on talent and good performances to an emphasis on looks, the core foundation - getting fans excited - has not changed. 

To this end, entertainment agencies have focused on "packaging" a perfect image for their stars, spending huge amounts to market their idols on social media platforms. Meanwhile, some fan clubs and promotional accounts began deliberately posting controversial topics to further push online debate to a climax in order to increase a star's exposure and turn a profit. 

The "idol" trend from South Korea and Japan is also considered an "input of cultural trends" that has been overly capitalized during localization in China. 

"The idol industry is basically based on the foundation of the idol culture. During localization, investors have entered to seek fortune from this game, but the localization of this particular culture can never just rely on investors," Shi Wenxue, a Chinese culturist and film critic, told the Global Times.

Banning idol competition programs is just a way to readjust a distorted system, Zhang Yiwu noted.