As the U.S. gears up for the Super Bowl, China is also preparing for its biggest TV event of the year: the Spring Festival Gala, on China Central Television. More than 800 million viewers. Nearly five hours of live programming. But unlike the ad extravaganza that is the U.S.'s biggest TV event, China's has zero commercial breaks -- and the product placements that marketers have traditionally crammed into the show are banned this year.
The variety show airs on Lunar New Year's Eve -- Jan. 22 this year -- and is perhaps best described as Chinese Communist Party meets Las Vegas, interspersed with hokey skits and comedy routines. Last year's program featured dozens of dancers, singers and adorable children, shimmying stewardesses and a high-speed train rolling onstage -- all in the first two minutes.
Though producers tweak the lineup each year, the content is largely considered bland and out-of -date, the result of trying to appeal to multiple generations. Even the People's Daily newspaper, mouthpiece of the Communist Party, ran an article recently with the headline "Passe Gala."
Nevertheless, the show is as much a part of the Chinese New Year experience as is eating dumplings to ensure prosperity. Most families watch at least part of it, or keep it on in the background during holiday visits with family and friends.
"If they are tuning into a TV program, the likelihood is they are tuning into CCTV," said Bertilla Teo, CEO-Greater China for Starcom MediaVest Group.
About the only thing the Super Bowl and the Spring Festival Gala have in common is being the largest TV events in their home countries, according to Seth Grossman, managing director of Carat China. The gala is "much more akin to the family getting together for Thanksgiving dinner," he said. "It's a cultural ritual."
Being commercial-free in a huge and fast-growing market seems like a missed marketing opportunity. But CCTV is the government mouthpiece, and past product placements drew heavy criticism from viewers, who said the national network was commercializing a holiday tradition.
One widely panned segment was a 2010 comedy skit that included clumsy mentions of internet portal Sohu, search engine Sogou and island holiday destination Sanya. Local liquor brand Guojiao was also prominent, with a placement that cost more than $1.58 million, People's Daily said.
The chief director of this year's show has pledged there will be no hidden advertising.
"The cost of the gala is paid for with CCTV funds, not with advertisement revenue," Ha Wen was quoted as saying in recent state media reports. "The gala is not a commercial performance."
Industry experts say cutting placements is the right move for this kind of show.
"To try and integrate from a product placement point of view has to be done with the greatest care and respect. It's like if the State of the Union was brought to you by PepsiCo," Mr. Grossman said. "It would be so hard to pull off ... that it's not worth doing."
The product-placement ban comes as China is implementing new rules restricting TV advertising. Inventory has been slashed, which has caused prices to climb by as much as 80% and has driven marketers to other media, including digital.
But the restrictions do not really affect the gala, and the 15-second spots that come immediately before and after the program remain highly coveted. They are sold as part of a bundle of ad time on CCTV during the Spring Festival holiday period, with an average bundle cost of $2.4 million this year, according to media-industry executives.
There aren't many other choices for TV programming on the night of the gala-this one heralds the Year of the Dragon -- though some provincial satellite stations have launched their own shows. Instead, competition is increasingly coming from video sites, which younger Chinese watch while Grandma is glued to dance performances by smiling ethnic minorities on the TV set.
So rather than go head-to-head with CCTV and its 30-year gala tradition, China's commercial stations are finding opportunities with the other New Year's Eve, which carries much less cultural baggage. Avril Lavigne performed on Jiangsu satellite TV's Dec. 31 spectacular, while actress Zhang Ziyi sang on Shenzhen satellite TV. In total, 16 stations spent $79 million on such New Year's Eve programming in 2011, the China Daily newspaper said.