China’s reality tv pulls viewers, draws A-list celebrities like Francis Ng, Wu Chun

Taiwanese pop king Jay Chou is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Taiwanese pop king Jay Chou is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Chinese singer Yang Kun is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Chinese singer Yang Kun is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Taiwanese balladeer Chyi Chin is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Taiwanese balladeer Chyi Chin is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Chinese rocker Wang Feng is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Chinese rocker Wang Feng is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Chinese singer Na Ying is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Chinese singer Na Ying is a judge on The Voice Of China. -- PHOTO: MEDIACORP
Nicholas Tse (with singer Foong Joey Yung) travels and cooks with guests on Chef Nic. -- PHOTO: EMPEROR ENTERTAINMENT GROUP
Nicholas Tse (with singer Foong Joey Yung) travels and cooks with guests on Chef Nic. -- PHOTO: EMPEROR ENTERTAINMENT GROUP
Hong Kong actor Kenneth Tsang has an emotional moment by the sea in Nice, France, on Grandpas Over Flowers, sharing his thoughts on mortality with Liu Ye's French wife, Anais. -- PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Hong Kong actor Kenneth Tsang has an emotional moment by the sea in Nice, France, on Grandpas Over Flowers, sharing his thoughts on mortality with Liu Ye's French wife, Anais. -- PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Brunei-born pop prince Wu Chun and his daughter are on reality TV show The Return Of Daddy. -- PHOTO: ZHEJIANG SATELLITE TV
Brunei-born pop prince Wu Chun and his daughter are on reality TV show The Return Of Daddy. -- PHOTO: ZHEJIANG SATELLITE TV
Malaysian singer Gary Chaw and his children appear on Hunan TV’s Where Are We Going? Dad. -- PHOTO: STARHUB
Malaysian singer Gary Chaw and his children appear on Hunan TV’s Where Are We Going? Dad. -- PHOTO: STARHUB
Former Taiwanese pop idol Jimmy Lin and his son appear on Hunan TV’s Where Are We Going? Dad. -- PHOTO: NOWMANGO
Former Taiwanese pop idol Jimmy Lin and his son appear on Hunan TV’s Where Are We Going? Dad. -- PHOTO: NOWMANGO
Golden Horse-winning actor Francis Ng appears on Hunan TV’s Where Are We Going? Dad with his son Feynman (both above) and his Singapore wife, former Star Search finalist Ong Lay Pheng. -- PHOTO: STARHUB
Golden Horse-winning actor Francis Ng appears on Hunan TV’s Where Are We Going? Dad with his son Feynman (both above) and his Singapore wife, former Star Search finalist Ong Lay Pheng. -- PHOTO: STARHUB

Big money, big shows and big stars - Chinese reality TV is not only popular with viewers but draws A-list celebrities too

What has the tremendous gravity of a black hole and is pulling more and more stars into it?

Chinese reality television, that's what.

Consider Wu Chun, the Brunei-born pop prince turned actor who has not shown up on the big screen since the Hong Kong movie Saving General Yang last year.

However, from April to July, he appeared as himself - armed with baby wipes and wrangling with his daughter, Neinei, over the use of his smartphone - on The Return Of Daddy, a Chinese reality show about stars trying their hands at stay-at-home fatherhood.

The programme was Zhejiang Satellite TV's answer to Hunan TV's Where Are We Going? Dad, the outward-bound parenting hit show last year that has not just shot to stardom celebrity offspring such as Kimi Lin, the son of one-time Taiwanese pop pin-up Jimmy Lin, but also spawned a successful spin-off movie.

Now, Dad is back on the air with a new group of stars, including Hong Kong actor Francis Ng and Malaysian singer Gary Chaw.

And every Friday - which is surely the fiercest night of Chinese TV - the show is in a head-to- head ratings battle against Zhejiang Satellite TV's The Voice Of China, the top singing contest that is, of course, fronted by celebrities such as Taiwanese singer Chyi Chin, who has replaced Taiwanese pop queen A-mei as a judge this year.

Chinese reality programmes did not use to be so glittery. One of the earliest hits, Hunan TV's singing show Super Girl, which ran from 2004 to 2006, is remembered for its contestants - in particular, the androgynous Li Yuchun, who won a countrywide vote in 2005 - and not its judges.

Then again, Chinese TV did not use to be so flush with money.

The industry reported 111.93 billion yuan (S$23.1 billion) in advertising revenue last year, a 6.97 per cent rise from 104.63 billion yuan for the previous year, according to data by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television. By comparison, although China has the second biggest movie market in the world, box-office revenue rose at 27.51 per cent to reach just 21.77 billion yuan last year.

And in effect, broadcasters seem happy to spend money in the hope of making more money.

Dad and Voice are among the biggest reality franchises in China. Both are high-end, star- studded adaptations of foreign formats (South Korean and Dutch respectively) from powerful provincial broadcasters.

For instance, the first season of Voice in 2012 was reported to have cost Zhejiang Satellite TV a prohibitive 80 million yuan, but it turned out to be money well spent.

As the show's ratings soared, advertising sales skyrocketed. The rate for a 15-second slot leapt from 150,000 yuan to 360,000 yuan, and an episode with 22 minutes of commercial time made more than 30 million yuan, said NetEase website.

At the end of the first season, Chinese herbal tea company Jiaduobao paid 200 million yuan to retain the naming rights to the show for the second season. For the most recent third season, it spent 250 million yuan, said NetEase.

Inspired by the earning power of the franchises, perhaps, broadcasters have gone on shopping sprees.

In the past two years, there have been Chinese versions of European and American shows The X Factor, So You Think You Can Dance and The Brain, with superstars - Zhang Ziyi, Aaron Kwok and Jay Chou - as mentors.

In the TV season ahead, Hong Kong actors Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan will star in a Chinese adaptation of the United States' The Amazing Race and Hong Kong actress Angelababy, a mainland version of South Korea's Running Man.

At the rate Chinese reality TV is going, it should be safe to say the industry will run out of A-list celebrities before it runs out of money.

woeiwan@sph.com.sg


CELEBRITY PARENTS

With its Midas touch, Hunan TV has turned parenthood into a gold mine for yummy celebrity daddies and mummies.

Look at Jimmy Lin, the perpetually boyishlooking entertainer, whose star is rising again after he appeared with his son, Kimi, on the first season of the station’s hit show Where Are We Going? Dad last year.

The show was so phenomenal that the floppy-haired Kimi, four, became the most famous boy in China.

And music video director Wang Yuelun’s full-cheeked daughter, Angela, four, is starring with Chow Yun Fat in a movie, From Vegas To Macau 2. (The second season of the show is airing on Now Mango on Saturdays, 9pm.)

The show’s success has led to opportunities for other celebrity parents, including former 5566 singer Zax Wang, actress Christy Chung and former Fahrenheit singer Wu Chun.

In January this year, days after the first season of Dad went off the air, Zhejiang Satellite TV unveiled The First Time In My Life, a talk show about parenting that the station had converted into a reality show about celebrity families.

Life, like Dad, sent stars such as Wang and Chung to the countryside with their children.

In April, the station had another go at the genre. Adapting a Korean show The Return Of Superman into The Return Of Daddy, it sent camera crews to the homes of celebrity fathers, including Wu, to see them play Mr Mum to their children.

CELEBRITY TRAVELLERS

Where Are We Going? Dad is a parenting show, but also a travel show about children going on trips with their famous fathers.

And an obvious idea, in the wake of the show’s success, is to do a star-studded, heartwarming travel show.

It was the route Shanghai’s Dragon TV took this year with Grandpas Over Flowers, which had veteran actors Chin Han and Kenneth Tsang as backpackers. Hunan TV had Divas Hit The Road, with veteran actress Cheng Pei-pei as a budget traveller.

Then there is Chef Nic, Hong Kong actor Nicholas Tse’s curious, genre-bending travel show now on Zhejiang Satellite TV.

On one level, it is a travel show where he hangs out with his famous friends overseas (gossipy highlights include a visit to actress Vicki Zhao’s vineyard in southern France).

On another level, it is a talent show meant to display Tse’s culinary prowess, as he cooks with and for his friends.

And sometimes it is a parenting show, when his father, actor Patrick Tse, travels with him to Spain and they talk about how little they see each other.

CELEBRITY MENTORS

The Voice Of China, the top talent show in the mainland, has changed the game.

Making its debut on Zhejiang Satellite TV in 2012, the programme was one of the first singing contests in the Chinese-speaking world judged and coached by current pop names, Harlem Yu and Na Ying. (To spell it out, they are singers who have never gone away and cannot be said to be making comebacks.)

In the second season last year, A-mei, an even bigger name, joined the show with Chinese rocker Wang Feng, whose songs were all the rage with contestants in the first season.

Wang and Na are still on the panel – in the show’s signature gigantic swivel chairs, to be exact – in the third and latest season (now airing on Channel 8 on Saturdays, 7pm), with Taiwanese balladeer Chyi Chin and Chinese singer Yang Kun.

Not to be outdone, Hunan TV got huge names, Zhang Ziyi, Eason Chan and Lo Ta-yu, to judge The X Factor last year. But the station seemed to forget that Zhang is no singer, and Na publicly cast doubt on the actress’ role in a singing show.

This year, celebrity mentoring reached an apex on The Brain, Jiangsu TV’s science-themed show that had a multi-tiered system for its stars – Taiwanese television host Matilda Tao was a regular member of a celebrity panel, pop king Jay Chou and Zhang dropped by occasionally, and Kim Soo Hyun – the K-drama idol whose connection to science is playing an alien professor on the mega-hit My Love From The Star – was flown in for a special appearance.

To understand how far-fetched this situation is, imagine an American reality show about animal training that gets as celebrity mentors Cate Blanchett and Jay-Z, reigning film and pop royalty, as well as Taylor Lautner, a major hottie who has played a werewolf.

That show has not been produced, but Chinese reality TV is a world where The Brain (now airing on Channel U on Tuesdays, 8pm) exists.

And even though it is hard to top this, producers are trying.

Heavenly King Aaron Kwok has been brought in to judge Zhejiang Satellite TV’s So You Think You Can Dance for a pay cheque that has drawn speculation. Hong Kong’s Apple Daily says he has been paid 30 million yuan (S$6.1 million), but China’s Tencent website puts the sum at 18 million yuan.

Chinese actors Jiang Wen and Zhao Benshan, who are big shots in the mainland, have announced an original talent show, Dream Maker, for Beijing TV. Tencent, citing industry insiders, says Jiang and Zhao are being paid 45 million yuan each – a record, if it is true.

CELEBRITY CONTESTANTS

Hunan TV’s I Am A Singer has turned the talent show on its head. Stars have been moved from the safety of the judging panel to the stage, where they are at the mercy of the voting audience.

Adapted from a Korean programme, the show was a cross-strait sensation in its first season last year (usually, mainland viewers watch Taiwanese variety shows and not the other way around), as it lined up acclaimed singers such as Terry Lin, Aska Yang and Winnie Hsin.

In its second season this year, it became a platform for G.E.M., a Hong Kong star who seized her chance to win Chinese fans.

Since Singer, more shows have featured stars as contestants.

Jiangsu TV had Celebrity Battle last year, a rival singing contest with stars such as David Tao, Kenji Wu, Angela Chang and Tiger Huang.

It also had Stars In Danger, a diving show featuring Vanness Wu and Han Geng and debuting at the same weekend as Zhejiang Satellite TV’s Celebrity Splash, a rival contest with stars such as Charlene Choi.

Later this year, there will be more actionpacked, fun-filled celebrity contests.

Zhejiang Satellite TV’s Running Man will feature comedians Wong Cho Lam, Wang Baoqiang and actors Deng Chao and Angelababy. Shenzhen TV’s The Amazing Race will have Young And Dangerous duo Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan as one team and Chan’s wife, actress Cherrie Ying, and her friend, actress Liu Yun, as another team.