The unpredictable reality show was created by Hunan Satellite Television in western China, not state-run China Central Television (CCTV) in Beijing. Its second season, which ran through the summer, was won by a 21-year-old tomboy from Sichuan, Li Yuchun, the antithesis of the beauty queens typically paraded on CCTV programming.
Far from turning off viewers, her androgynous appearance and earthy personality helped fuel the show’s popularity. “Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest,” as the program is formally called, was seen by up to 400 million Chinese, ranging from briefcase-toting execs to village farmers, and thousands of blogs and chat rooms have sprung up online around it.
At its peak, Super Girl’s 15 rating even topped CCTV’s ultra-popular Chinese New Year variety show, putting the Beijing-based broadcaster on alert.
Super Girl “marks the first time a satellite show has really broken out of its own province, did very well around the whole country and was promoted nationally. That’s a big challenge to CCTV’s dominance,” said Quinn Taw, Beijing-based managing partner in China for MindShare and Maxus.
Rumors have circulated that CCTV might use its influence with China’s broadcast authorities to prevent Hunan from developing a third season of the show or even force it off the local cable stations that distribute Super Girl.
Industry execs like Mr. Taw say that’s unlikely to happen because the show is too popular and the government sees value in balancing CCTV’s power with other homegrown media operators like Hunan Satellite TV and Shanghai Media Group.
But nervous authorities are likely to dictate a few changes in the show’s structure for another reason: letting Chinese vote for the first time could set a dangerous precedent.
Inspired by grass roots campaigns for the top contestants, more than eight million Chinese paid about two cents, a sizable amount in local terms, to send a text message by mobile phone in support of one of the three Super Girl finalists.
“The show may be less voter-oriented in the future,” said Mr. Taw, “but even if they tone down that element, the show will not disappear. It’s good for another year; there is too much money involved now. It’s a hot property.”
Media buyers say the price of 15” spots during Super Girl were priced as high as $15,000, making it more expensive than CCTV’s top-rated programs.
Through the second season, title sponsorship of the show belonged to Mongolia-based Mengniu Dairy, which used the show to market a new sour yogurt drink, Suan Suan Ru, and give its brand a dynamic boost, particularly among women. It also used the show as a trade promotion tool to grow orders from retailers and distributors.
“It’s hard to differentiate dairy brands, so Mengniu used the show to launch Suan Suan Ru and expand its brand among young adults, a demographic that is very hard to reach in China,” said Viveca Chan, Grey Global Group’s former chairman-CEO, China.
The dairy will not reveal how much it invested in the show, but the naming rights are believed to have cost $1.7 million.
Mengniu’s investment was “a surprisingly small amount compared with the result, the show made the product quite hot,” said Matthew Fan, founding partner of Apex, the dairy’s ad agency in Chengdu in Sichuan province. Sales of Suan Suan Ru more than tripled from $86.5 million before the show aired to $185 million.
“We’re happy with the sponsorship and may do it again, or perhaps sponsor a similar show, but no decision has been finalized,” he said.
The decision may not be up to Mengniu, however. Media buyers say the dairy got the show on the cheap. Now that Super Girl is a hit, the cost of naming rights has shot up past $6 million and would-be sponsors are lining up to offer more.
Super Girl was not a guaranteed success. MindShare, for example, stumbled just two years ago when it developed a similar reality show, Dreammaker, with Hunan Satellite TV (even starring one of Super Girl’s hosts) for Masterfoods’ M&M’s brand.
”Our thinking was right, we just didn’t execute it the way we needed to with enough marketing support. It was a painful lesson, but Super Girl gives us more confidence in advertising-funded programming. The success of this show and its satellite distribution model point the way forward in China,” said Mr. Taw.