China's CCTV New Year's Gala to Use Fewer Celebrities, Take Moral High Ground


Ha Wen, who in 2012 became the first female to direct it, will be in charge of the world's most-watched TV variety show to kick off the Year of the Goat

With the Year of the Goat set to kick off in China in February, expect plenty of frugality and no vulgarity during the world's most-watched TV show, the Spring Festival gala on China Central Television (CCTV), which takes place at Lunar New Year.

"The crew for CCTV's 2015 Spring Festival Gala was established today! Ha Wen will be the director… Tell us what you expect from the Spring Festival Gala for the Year of the Goat," said a post on CCTV's account on social media service Weibo.

Last year, 704 million people watched the Spring Festival Gala on TV, and 110 million watched online, with the overall audience handily exceeding that for the Super Bowl in the U.S., when the event was overseen by  acclaimed director Feng Xiaogang. But many critics felt it fell a bit flat.

Some have been questioning whether the show is losing its relevance in the online era, and there was speculation it might not even go ahead this time around.

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The show has been broadcast every year since 1983. It's a hugely important event in China and was upgraded to "national project" status earlier this year, but for many younger viewers it has become irrelevant.

CCTV head Hu Zhanfan said the show would avoid vulgarity, "low style" and "actors with stains or moral misdeeds," a reference to a series of scandals this year involving actors and singers getting caught up with drugs and prostitutes.

China’s media watchdog, the powerful State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARPPFT), has banned "tainted" stars who have used drugs or visited prostitutes from TV and other media outlets after a flurry of big names in the entertainment industry were nabbed in drug and vice busts in recent months.

Last month, Golden Bear-winning director Wang Quan’an was arrested for "paying for sex," while Jaycee Chan, son of veteran Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, was busted smoking marijuana at a foot massage parlor in Beijing in August.

The show will also try and use fewer celebrities and more people who have won talent shows.

Ha has directed the gala before - in 2012 and 2013. She is married to former CCTV host Li Yong, and she has produced several different programs for the national broadcaster, including 6 +1, which is hosted by her husband.

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She became the first woman to direct the show in 2012 when she caused controversy by dumping the comedian Zhao Benshan who had become a fixture of previous galas. She said afterwards she wouldn't direct the show again as it was too exhausting.

In an attempt to make the show more appealing, there have also been some foreigners taking part. Celine Dion appeared in 2013, and Sophie Marceau appeared earlier this year.

All Chinese channels are required to air the Spring Festival Gala, but the increasingly powerful local satellite channels are putting on their own shows, and the online audience is also growing.

An ongoing crackdown on corruption, led by President Xi Jinping, means the Spring Festival Gala has become less extravagant of late, and advertising for expensive liquor and gold coins is no longer tolerated.

There had also been rumors the show would be canceled as at least 10 senior producers and anchors from CCTV have been caught up in an ongoing probe into graft at the station.

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Online reaction was underwhelming on Friday.

"I don't expect too much," wrote one person, Hake Sasi Niuai, on Sina Weibo. "I think director Ha must be feeling the pressure of such a frugal background." Another commentator, Dacong Rex, said they might just as well record it as show it live. "There is so much lipsynching anyway. That way fake singers can't take a night off and we don't enjoy the lipsynch," he wrote.

Chinese New Year's Eve falls on Feb. 18 in 2015.