Media in China: the evolution of Chinese mainstream TV series
TV screens in China last year were bombarded with “mainstream” or tribute-style political and patriotic TV series. Unlike most previously released mainstream TV, which lost ground to popular overseas and commercially-produced local series, last year’s shows have attracted a substantial number of viewers due to their diverse and interesting content, modern production techniques and more natural acting approach.
“My Chief and My Regiment,” a mainstream series from Jiangsu Broadcasting Center (JSBC) that premiered in March/2009, tells the story of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army in 1942 at the border of China and Myanmar. According to Liu Yuzhe, who is in charge of JSBC’s TV series projects, “My Chief and My Regiment” topped the prime-time spot, with an audience rating of 2.128, a number rarely reached by previous mainstream TV.
Another mainstream series, “Qianfu” (“Lurk”), about spy Yu Zecheng from the Bureau of Investigation and Statistics of the Military Council of the Kuomintang, not only topped the ratings, but earned the investor over 10 million yuan (US$1.46 million) in profit. “Qianfu” is about Yu’s experiences during the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang as well as a love story with his true love and wife.
“Chinese Band of Brothers,” “A Fast-Changing World” and “My Brother’s Name is Shunliu” are also very popular.
Previously, mainstream series were brimming with images of a hero who was tall, handsome, selfless, flawless and worldly. He was usually a brave, smart soldier in the Chinese Communist Party fighting the Japanese or Kuomintang. The characters and storyline were very similar and basic and gradually saw viewers choose other channels and programs to watch.
Mainstream series were used for political propaganda with characters often devoid of personality and despite heavy funding, the shows could not survive among a sophisticated audience, according to Yin Hong, a film and TV series expert from Tsinghua University.
Years of failing to attract viewers pushed directors, producers and scriptwriters to come up with a new formula.
True-to-life characters with varied and interesting personalities coupled with high-level production techniques have helped make many of this year’s mainstream TV series a success. Alongside the changes in approach, the theme of mainstream series has also evolved to match societal changes.
Previously mainstream shows had a strong political focus and reflected the government’s ideology. The new productions have a strong personal content of being true and pursuing one’s ideals. Love, friendship and kindness are frequently explored in relation to ordinary people’s fate, which is boosting their appeal Yin explained.
“These ordinary soldiers are not tall, handsome or cultivated. Instead, they are vulgar, sometimes selfish, will fight or quarrel with others and are even afraid of death and become deserters. But I like them and I can understand their behavior most of time and I think if I were them, I would do the same. I like this TV series because I think the director is presenting true history — most of our soldiers do come from poor families. They are just like these characters who have a lot of shortcomings. But these small potatoes are the real heroes, who touch us and should be remembered forever. The war scenes in the series are very real and shocking, it reminds me of the cruelty of war itself and the value of life.”
While Chinese mainstream TV series are reaching new heights, Yin warned that production teams must be vigilant and keep the shows up to date and interesting. He added that satisfying the audience is now a key element in making successful mainstream TV.