China Crushes Puny US Super Bowl Audience: 704 Million Watch New Year Gala

5:27 AM PST 02/04/2014 by Clifford Coonan
CCTV
China's New Year Gala on CCTV

While the football game was the most-watched TV program in U.S. history on Sunday, China's Lunar New Year special collected even larger numbers.

Some 814 million tuned in to the China's Lunar New Year TV extravaganza this year, with 704 million welcoming the Year of the Horse on TV and 110 million tuning in online, according to data from state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).

The 2014 Super Bowl, by comparison, became the most watched program in U.S. TV history on Sunday, with 111.5 million viewers. 

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The Chinese show, known as the Spring Festival Gala, has become an important part of Chinese New Year celebrations since it was first broadcast in 1983, as families gather round to make jiaozi dumplings and watch the five-hour show. But it has suffered from a certain staleness in recent years.

In a bid to make the show more popular with younger viewers, leading Chinese film director Feng Xiaogang was hired to helm this year's event, which traditionally is a mix of singing, dancing, sketches, martial arts, "crosstalk" comedy performances and Chinese opera.

While the increase in the number of TV viewers watching the show was largely flat compared to last year, the increase of viewers watching online using their PCs, laptops, phones or tablets was up nearly 15 percent.

This year's show featured South Korean pop star Lee Min-ho, who sang a Chinese pop song in both Korean and Mandarin with Harlem Yu from Taiwan.

It also featured the French actress Sophie Marceau, who is hugely popular in China, as many people believe she looks slightly Chinese. The onetime "Bond girl" performed La Vie En Rose with China's Liu Huan to mark 50 years of diplomatic relations between China and France.

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Hong Kong singer Kelly Chen and actor Tony Leung danced and sang, while internationally successful Chinese pianist Lang Lang also joined the festivities.

Many of the performances featured horses, to reflect that it is an equine year in the Chinese zodiac.

Comedian Zhao Benshan was named deputy general director in charge of the gala's comedy programming, although the stand-up element was considerably diminished this year, angering around 60 percent of the viewers, who prefer the earlier, funnier version of the show.

There was a comic series of pictures on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, showing people sacked out watching the proceedings, and many of the comments were uncomplimentary.

Despite Feng's best efforts, many webizens were underwhelmed by the event.

As part of a crackdown on corruption by the ruling Communist Party, many regional Spring Festival galas, sponsored by ministries and state media, were banned this year.

In a sign of the ideological aspect of broadcasting in China, the show featured multiple references to the "China Dream" endorsed by president Xi Jinping, a socialist idea of collective prosperity and unity.

The show featured a section from The Red Detachment of Women, a doctrinaire ballet set in the 1930s and beloved by the founder of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong, featuring young peasant women turned soldiers dressed in military jackets and shorts, bearing swords.

Iconic Chinese rocker Cui Jian, often known as China's Bruce Springsteen and whose music is closely associated with the 1989 pro-democracy movement, was originally scheduled to appear but didn't perform in the end over censorship concerns.

In one of the shows odder moments, a 15-year-old girl named Wei Caiqi spun in a circle for four hours.

More than seven times as many people watched the gala as watched the Super Bowl. Advertisers paid an average of $4 million for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl, but CCTV has been banned from charging for commercials during the Gala for the past few years as part of a broader austerity drive in China.

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