At first glance, “Youth With You 3” didn’t sound that different from the reality shows I watched ten years ago. Of course, the cast of 119 was larger than what I was used to, but the rules were instantly familiar to me: four musical mentors guide aspiring idols through a series of challenges and performances; after each round, some are eliminated until there are only nine competitors left. The winners are then grouped into the newest boy group in China.
Only, what if the rules, games and mentors don’t matter? âYouth with You 3â was the first talent show I had watched in eight years, and it was a shocking lesson in how much entertainment culture in China had changed during this time. When I complimented some of the performers in a focus group, saying they seemed like good bets to make the final list, my friends were quick to cheat me: performances don’t matter, they informed me: only fans do.
At first I didn’t understand what they meant, but as the series progressed I got really bothered with what I was watching. âYouth With You 3â represents the vanguard of China’s hyper-commercial and hyper-populist fan culture, where companies and brands exploit and manipulate viewers under the guise of empowering them. The more I saw, the more upset I became; then, at the beginning of May, everything collapsed.
A GIF shows a performance given by the contestants of “Youth With You 3”, 2021. From @ ç± å¥ èº éæ¥ æ ä½ on Weibo
Since their emergence in the early 2000s, the most fascinating element of reality TV shows has always been the power they give fans to decide who wins and who loses. There are mentors and experts on screen, but ordinary home-voting viewers choose their idols – and the ever-present potential for them to revolt against the likes of the elite or the mainstream culture is part of it. which makes the format so exciting.
The first fan-centric talent show produced locally on mainland China was Hunan Satellite Television’s “Supergirl.” Created in 2004, it followed the âAmerican Idolâ model, allowing fans to choose their favorite female competitor to become China’s next superstar singer. Over the next 17 years, Chinese academics hailed the format as an example of “democratic entertainment” and a way to encourage “entertainment-based civic engagement.”
But while talent shows were once applauded for their supposedly liberating potential, they have since followed the global trend towards anti-elitism and have gone completely populist: fans now hold absolute power over the outcome of the contest, and the coaches and experts on stage are mainly for the show.
This is the central idea of ââthe series “Youth With You”, which explicitly refers to its audience as the real “producer” of the show. Public votes seem to have little to do with the actual skill or talent of the candidates. Some of the more talented candidates are doomed by a low number of votes, while others, who can barely sing or dance, rush round after round. Mentors, powerless to get past viewers’ whims, can only watch some of their best team members get kicked from the show.
This is markedly different from the âSupergirlâ era, in which mentors and fans shared the power of decision. This ensured that the most talented candidates could be selected, regardless of the outcome of a given vote. In âYouth With You,â however, it doesn’t matter if the contestants are lazy or totally lacking in skill; as long as the public is ready to vote for them, they win. Arguably the most famous example of this happened during another idol show, “Produce Camp 2021”, in which a reluctant Russian candidate was elected until the final round despite his best attempts. self-sabotage.
Lest this be mistaken for a democratic victory over disconnected elites, fan voices may be the deciding factor, but not all fans are created equal. While ostensibly allowing viewers to control the outcome of their shows, streaming networks and services are opening up new channels to monetize fan culture and engagement. The result is less a contest between apprentice idols than a battle between groups of fans with deep pockets.
âYouth With Youâ offers two voting channels. The first is largely free: viewers on iQiyi’s streaming platform each get one vote per day. (The channel’s paying customers get two votes per day.) The other way is to pay: Viewers who buy a dairy product from the show’s sponsor Mengniu can scan the attached QR code to vote again for their favorite contestant, known among fans as a âmilk ticket.
Sponsorship deals are nothing new to the world of reality TV and talent shows. “Supergirl” was also sponsored by Mengniu, and with great effect: a to study found that Mengniu’s 40 million yuan (approximately $ 4.9 million in 2004) sponsorship deal with the show resulted in huge brand awareness and increased sales, revenue from the beverage at Mengniu yogurt having gone from 800 million yuan to 2.7 billion yuan in 2005.
Unlike when Mengniu had to just promote his products 17 years ago, the company’s deal with “Youth With You 3” allows it to sell milk by selling votes.
This new paradigm draws fans into a kind of âself-exploitationâ: in order to accumulate money and buy votes for their favorite idol, fan groups adopt all kinds of fundraising tactics. One popular method is the fan group “battle”, in which several fan groups compete against each other to see which can raise the most money over a period of time. According to media reports, these battles can earn over one million yuan in a single night. In early May, the fan group of “Youth With You 3” top contender Luo Yizhou had raised more than 18 million yuan to buy him milk tickets.
An advertisement for a live broadcast sponsored by Mengniu and featuring popular “Youth With You 3” contestants Luo Yizhou (left) and Tang Jiuzhou. By @ ç± å¥ èº éæ¥ æ ä½ on Weibo
I am not the first to find fault with this model. Critics see it as unreasonable and possibly unfair to more qualified candidates, while mountains of food waste produced when fans buy unwanted milk or yogurt just for a QR code have aroused the ire of social media users and government.
But the fans themselves have largely internalized this money-first rule, and they’re more than willing to justify it when in a rush. One of the most popular slogans associated with “Youth With You 3” was “Respect the Money,” which meant that no matter how well an idol performed, as long as the money was there, it deserved to be a part of. of the final group. Those who had talent but no financial support were dismissed as “unworthy”.
Again, this is not technically new. During the âSupergirlâ era, some fans bought multiple SIM cards or hired companies to vote for their idol. But at least back then, fans seemed to be aware that what they were doing was either fishy or against the rules. Now everything is open and the idea of ââpaying for the votes is adopted. There are those who resent the exploitative voting models, calling themselves “young victims” rather than the favorite term of the “young producers” show, but there is little sign of a real backlash.
At least, not until the start of the month, when a video of people opening dairy bottles, scanning the QR code on caps and dumping their contents into a ditch went viral on social media. On May 4, just days before the premiere of the series finale, the Beijing Radio and Television Bureau ordered iQiyi to suspend the broadcast.
I had mixed feelings about the whole affair. On the one hand, I felt a sense of relief that it was all over. Still, I couldn’t forget my disappointment that the fatal blow came not from tired young fans, but by social media users and regulators appalled at the food waste. I don’t know what the fans thought of all of this, but until they stop buying what the shows are selling, the gambling probably isn’t going to end anytime soon.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: a group photoo from âYouth With You 3â (continued)estants, 2021. From @ ç± å¥ èº éæ¥ æ ä½ on Weibo)