CCTV's New Year Gala Attracts Over 730 Million Viewers

Variety Show Has Huge Audience but Draws Criticism for Heavy Product Placement; Marketers Would Rather Buy Commercials

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BEIJING (AdAge.com) -- China Central Television's Spring Festival gala may not be the world's most sophisticated variety show, but it packs a punch with both viewers and advertisers. With a heavy emphasis on non-stop product placement, the program generates $95 million in revenue from advertisers.

The CCTV Spring Festival gala drew over 730 million viewers in 2010.
The CCTV Spring Festival gala drew over 730 million viewers in 2010.
Altogether, a whopping 730 million viewers tuned in across the country for this year's gala, said Beijing-based Zuo Hanying, associate director-marketing at CSM Media Research. But this is no Super Bowl -- there are no commercials during the six-hour annual gala.

Overall ratings for this year's show, which started at 7 p.m. on Feb. 13, the eve of the Lunar New Year, totaled 38.26% in China's top 31 cities, a 3.75% increase over last year, Ms. Zuo said. And audience share -- the percentage of all households watching TV that were tuned in to the gala -- reached 81.74%.

The show even airs live online on new media platforms such as CCTV Mobile TV and CCTV's national internet TV station, China Network Television (CNTV).

Cultural phenomenon
Known to many Chinese as "Chun wan," the variety show features singers, dancers, acrobats, comedians and celebrities such as Jackie Chan, Jay Chou, Faye Wong and Zhang Ziyi.

Even fans concede that some of the sappy songs, garish costumes and lame comedy sketches aren't great, and the overall format is charitably described as outdated.

These drawbacks don't seem to matter to most viewers, who get a dose of nostalgia from the gala and turn good performers into overnight stars.

A young magician named Liu Qian, who earned superstar status in China for his outstanding performance at the 2009 gala, was invited back this year.

Liu Qian at the CCTV Spring Festival gala.
Liu Qian at the CCTV Spring Festival gala.
Reaching hundreds of millions of viewers doesn't come cheap. China Central Television hit record ad revenue of roughly $95 million for this year's gala.

Ad rates for airtime during the show rose 30% in 2010 over last year to "ridiculous prices," Mr. Kan said.

But only a fraction of that revenue is spent on commercial airtime, because there are no ads during the six-hour show.

Instead, advertisers buy packages that range from $500,000 to $1 million. They typically include a few 15-second ads during pre- and post-show programming on various CCTV channels and a combination of on-air greetings, close-ups on brand logos during the show, segment sponsorships and mentions of the brand during a segment by a performer or host. And the top spenders get their brands mentioned during the countdown to the new year.

The package for this year's biggest spender, the Chinese home appliance maker Midea, reportedly cost $7.6 million.

Complaints
Despite the show's popularity, it's hard to find anyone in China who appreciates the current system. The level of product placement has become so intrusive that viewers are complaining in droves through blogs and newspaper editorials. The portal site Sohu.com and China Huiyuan Juice Group are the brands most frequently criticized from this year's gala.

Advertisers would also prefer to buy commercial airtime, which would give them a chance to create stunning spots like the ones airing during the Super Bowl in the U.S., said Charley Kan, Mediaedge:cia's managing director, Beijing, and national country director, China. "Instead, the amount of product placement in the show and the way it's done so badly has created controversy that doesn't help advertisers."

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The heavy criticism this year appears to have reached the top levels of CCTV's management. The head of CCTV's advertising department, Xia Hong Bo, resigned immediately after Chinese New Year. No official reason was given, but most in the industry believe it is related to the botched product placement during the gala.

National devotion has turned the gala into a cultural phenomenon, but timing helps too. Tens of millions of Chinese have left home to work and study, so extended families are only reunited in their ancestral hometowns during Spring Festival, as Chinese New Year was renamed by China's Communist Party.

Family gatherings are a major part of New Year celebrations, and watching the CCTV gala during a family reunion dinner has become a ritual since the show started almost 30 years ago.

The gala also brings in big viewership because there's little else to watch in that time slot.

The gala is broadcast simultaneously on several of CCTV's channels with national distribution as well as 23 provincial satellite channels and terrestrial channels, said Ms. Zuo.

Since it airs on several channels in each household, the gala is pretty much the only thing on TV that night in the world's most populated country, said Mr. Kan."You have no other choice but to watch this big show."

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