Popular actor and singer Jay Chou (R) and actress Lin Chiling perform during a rehearsal of the Spring Festival Gala Evening.
BEIJING – China returned to work this week after another Chinese New Year highlighted by the traditional talking points: the scarcity of train tickets, the constant cacophony of fireworks and gossip over one of the country’s most watched shows, the CCTV Spring Festival Gala.
The Gala, an annual television event since the eighties, is a show heavy on singing, acrobatic performances, magic and cross-talk – the popular form of pun-heavy comedic dialogue akin to Albert & Costello.
Molded in the image of variety shows once popular in America, the Gala has become a modern institution here in China not unlike “Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve” or the annual showing of movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” during the holiday season.
Though it is still one of the biggest annual draws, bringing in over 700 million viewers every year, the Gala’s numbers have steadily declined in recent years due to a perceived over-commercialization of the show and a staleness of content that has started to wear on an increasingly sophisticated Chinese television audience.
It is a familiar problem that has manifested itself in other state produced content. The People’s Daily, China’s most read daily newspaper with a circulation of three to four million readers has over the years years garnered a reputation of being drab and chock full of lackluster propaganda. That dullness was captured last year when popular China blog, Danwei.org, demonstrated how the state-run paper had notoriously used the exact same layout for its National People’s Congress coverage from 2004-2009.
Courtesy of Danwei.org
The front page coverage of the annual National People's Congress from state-run newspaper, The People's Daily, looks eerily familiar from year to year.
Top: 2004, 2005, 2006; Bottom: 2007, 2008, 2009
Similarly, despite attempts in recent years to freshen up the look and feel of the show, CCTV’s “7PM Network News Hour,” has also slowly bled viewers over the years due to complaints about the unchanging format of the show and its content.
Despite numbers that would make any news network in the world blush – an estimated 135 million viewers a night – the show is often caustically described as consisting of three segments: 1) See how hard our leaders work for us; 2) See how prosperous our country is; and 3) See how terrible the rest of the world has it.
Given the way these two institutions of Chinese propaganda have been treated, it’s no small surprise the size and pointed earnestness of the Gala has made it a popular target for lampooners and cynics who have grown tired of the forced cheer and watered-down entertainment that is demanded by state censors and the need to appeal to such a mass audience.
Laughing Brother at the 2004 CCTV Spring Festival Gala
As with any other production of similar scale and cost, the Gala has become a lightning rod for accusations of plagiarism and a favorite for rooting out production mistakes inevitable with live television. Perhaps most famous of these in recent times have been the flubbed lines from the “Black Three Minutes,” when during the 2007 gala, five hosts flubbed their lines, leading to some embarrassed "dead air" on live television, uproarious audience laughter and an alleged furious backstage fight between the famous hosts.
This year’s favorite though, has been ten years in the making. There has long been debate about just who makes up the audience at these highly orchestrated affairs. Prominent businessmen, government workers and celebrities are expected of course, but many have speculated that the studio audience is also heavily stacked with what the Chinese call, longtao, or “Utility Men.”
Laughing Brother at the 2001 CCTV Spring Festival Gala
Their role? As paid audience members -- to laugh, applaud and cheer at all the right moments.
The presence of longtao at the Gala has long been suspected and some have even been picked out by eagle-eyed Gala watchers. However, one netizen has picked out the king of them all: the man Chinese are fondly calling online, “Laughing Brother.”
In an amazing show of netizen sleuthing, someone at the popular Chinese web-portal, Sina, found video-proof of a longtao who has been at every gala over the last decade. In each shot, he can be seen smiling broadly or applauding enthusiastically, doing his part to ensure success and glory for the show.
The posting has been enthusiastically received online in China, spurred on in no small part by the obvious jovial nature of “Laughing Brother” and the very apparent need for his special services in the first place.
While this incident can be interpreted as another egg on CCTV’s collective face, it also is simply another manifestation of the savvy and sophistication Chinese netizens have shown in bringing a sense of humor and a degree of accountability to Chinese popular society.
Or it could just be another compelling reason for China’s propaganda machine to lighten up.