BEIJING - In the lead up to Chinese New Year, many in China were going bananas that their most famous monkey could not usher in the Year of the Monkey.
For many, it was unthinkable that CCTV's Spring Festival gala show on Sunday night (Feb 7) would not include Liu Xiao Ling Tong, the beloved actor who brought to life the "Monkey God" character Sun Wukong in the classic 1980s TV series, Journey To The West.
The state broadcaster never explained why it did not invite the 56-year-old actor, who had appeared in the last two Year of the Monkey shows in 1992 and 2004.
But one thing was clear to many viewers after the curtains fell on this year's show. The programme peddled more propaganda than in previous years - and monkeys were secondary.
From a segment commending the hard work put in by soldiers during the World War II military parade last September, a skit championing the anti-corruption campaign, to a song-and-dance item called "Walking on the road to moderate prosperity", nationalistic zeal was fanned with a heavy hand throughout the show.
"Even while celebrating Spring Festival, the people are forced to undergo ideological education," one person wrote on social media Weibo.
Some netizens dubbed it a four-hour long "Xinwen Lianbo", the daily half-hour CCTV news broadcast known for its Communist Party agenda and political slant.
To its detractors, this year's Spring Festival gala only served to confirm the declining appeal of the "Chunwan" programme, which counts down annually to the Chinese New Year.
For decades, catching the show had been a ritual for Chinese families, as they gathered round the TV after reunion dinner to watch a four-hour extravaganza of songs, acrobatics, skits and cross-talk.
But when the show first started in 1983, there were few other entertainment outlets for the Chinese.
These days, with Chinese New Year gradually losing the cultural importance it once held on the Chinese calendar - and local audience spoilt for choice for entertainment - the once-grand programme was losing its lustre.
Although the show still draws impressive numbers, TV viewership had been falling every year, from 770 million in 2012 to 690 million last year.
This year the viewership held steady at 690 million, to the bewilderment of many unhappy viewers, many of whom were expecting even lower numbers given the uninspired programming and threats of boycott by Journey To The West fans.
Some disgruntled netizens questioned the figures, while others surmised that viewership remained high only because every channel was showing it.
In an online commentary titled "Why are Chunwan's viewership numbers still so high although it is becoming more and more awful?", columnist Liao Baoping suggested that most families just leave the TV tuned to the programme in the background, when few people are actually watching it.
"Yet Chunwan can't be replaced in the short-term… it has become a part of Spring Festival, a ritualistic practice," said Mr Liao.
Many feel that Chunwan has become a programme that only older viewers watch. To turn its fortunes around, viewers are suggesting changing the format, while others said the propaganda mechanism needs to be turned down.
"At least Xinwen Lianbo doesn't pretend to be entertainment," a Chinese friend told me.
Perhaps then the gala can return to the heights it once scaled. For while the Chinese are quick to follow new trends, they also have a soft spot for the old.
Just ask Liu Xiao Ling Tong.