While Chinese Idol Groups Flop, Idol Survival Shows Are Flourishing

From left to right: Cai Xukun, Yu Shuxin, Yang Chaoyue (Source: Caiwei Chen/Pandaily)

The popularity of iQIYI’s female idol survival show Youth With You 2 is exploding. As the COVID-19 outbreak keeps young audiences indoors, discussions around the show are filling everyone’s social media feeds. On March 24, iQIYI released the theme song of the show together with its music video – an iconic staple of the series. As KUN (Cai Xukun), host of the show and a former contestant of Idol Producer, started off the video stressing the core values of hard-work, daring to dream and passion, 109 young women in uniforms rose with the stage in shining spotlights. All contestants share the same goal: to make the final 9-member line-up and debut as a girl group.

With A-list celebrity mentors, already-popular contestants and controversial performances, Youth With You 2 is the whole package. SinceiQIYI’s Idol Producer started off the new “Idol Era” in China by successfully replicating its Korean counterpart Produce 101’s success, numerous idol survival shows have emerged over the past three years. Among the shows, iQIYI’s Idol Producer and Tencent’s Produce 101 China are the most notable. Both shows have refreshed the ratings of China’s online variety shows, triggered heated national debates, and created unprecedentedly popular Chinese idols, such as Cai Xukun and Yang Chaoyue. While Cai is widely discussed for his performances that deviate from traditional masculinity, Yang became a national meme for her eccentrically naive personality.

Despite their popularity, both shows have so far failed to create a successful idol group. Given the sky-high popularity of the shows, the result may seem counter-intuitive. However, if you have been closely following China’s entertainment industry, you may not be surprised at all. Despite the continuing efforts by entertainment agencies to recreate K-Pop’s success domestically or internationally, the Chinese idol economy is still far from mature. On one hand, endless survival shows are draining China’s young talents, while on the other hand, the exposure debuted groups get can hardly catch up with their Korean counterparts. For most contestants on these shows, wether or not they make it in the final, the show will be the peak of their brief career in the ruthless entertainment industry.

The blueprint for all the popular Chinese idol survival shows these years, based on the 2016 Korean hit show Produce 101, was a large-scale project in which the public “produces” an all girl group by choosing members from a pool of 101 trainees from 46 entertainment companies. Since most of the trainees are already signed to an entertainment agency, the formed group will only receive a limited contract with their final producing company. This means the group will only work together for a limited time or under certain conditions and is scheduled to disband after 1-2 years.

Korean trainees are more likely to enter a highly polished process after their elimination from the show or their group is disbanded. This means they would very likely debut with other trainees, perform on regular music shows, go to fan meet-ups or on tour, and promote their merchandise. However, their Chinese counterparts are not as lucky. Without established practices, Chinese entertainment companies simply do not know what their idols could do after the show ends. In fact, many idols are signed to the company only for the sake of making appearances on survival shows.

The practice of “limited groups” seems to make things easier, but what actually happens is endless contract disputes. Nine Percent, the nine-member boy group that debuted on Idol Producer, is known as “the group that rarely meets.” In their second and last album, each member had one solo song because the members could not find time to record and learn songs together. As for Rocket Girls, the self proclaimed “No. 1 Girl Group” in China, two of its agencies got into direct conflict with the shows producer Tencent Video, leading to three members of the group, including Meng Meiqi and Wu Xuanyi, leaving shortly after its debut.

Some members are so busy with opportunities provided by their own companies that they cannot participate in group activities. Other members are still signed to smaller labels and have to go through litigations to break free from their old contracts. The multi-layered contracts between the idols, the show, their original agencies and their managing company have resulted in a chaotic situation full of conflicts of interests. These conflicts and disputes on the management and legal levels can do irreversible damage to the group’s image and morale.

While groups are struggling to survive, their members are also experiencing personal challenges. For most idols, their popularity is the sole justification for their place in the company, and even their entire identity as an idol. Compared to a singer or actor, typically more mainstream roles, idols tend to possess less artistic skills and transmit a less mature image. In Chinese media, popular idols are referred to as “liu liang”, which literally means traffic/stream number. For most mainstream advertisers, directors and producers, an idol is no more than a pretty face that comes with an impressive army of loyal fans. The replaceable nature and lack of real skills have given idols an inferior status in the traditional singing/acting business. Despite her sky-high popularity, Meng Meiqi, the champion of Produce 101 China and a member of Rocket Girls, was mocked by the public without mercy for her lackluster performance in the 2019 movie Jade Dynasty.

However, China’s experiment with the idol industry hasn’t been a complete fiasco, at least not for video streaming platforms. Although creating original content is nothing new, the massive success of iQIYI’s Idol Producer and Tencent Video’s Producer 101 China brought the scale of platform-made, online streamed reality shows to a new level. After major Chinese video platform Youku’s idol survival show All For One turned out to be an epic failure, iQIYI and Tencent took the chance to start an “online traffic” war. The ongoing battle in the field of idol survival shows with iQIYI’s “Youth” series and Tencent’s “Produce” series have provided audiences with a smorgasbord of choices While everyone can pick and root for their preferred contestant during the show, no one needs to actually take responsibility for the group formed.

The idea that every audience member can be a producer of the group is a fascinating aspect, but that means that no one is actually in charge. Formed by trainees from different backgrounds that have distinct styles, survival show generated groups tend to be less than cohesive. The dilemma between making a good variety show and a good idol group has also haunted show creators. While plots, personas, conflicts and controversies are exactly what variety show producers are looking for, these factors often make the shows look insincere in their purpose of putting together a group.

Yu Shuxin, a trainee who currently ranks first on the ongoing Youth With You 2, went viral on social media for her exaggerated reaction to performances and flamboyant personality. While Yu is now China’s most popular meme of 2020, she lacks the singing and dancing skills that are essential for an idol group member. Yu was an actress before joining Youth With You as a trainee, and will most likely continue to be one in the long run. Although it is clear that neither she, nor her agency were serious about becoming an idol, she still managed to top the contestant charts.

For the time being, any given idol survival show in China is still more of a traffic and popularity generator rather than a project that aims to reinvent the idol industry. To find its own path, the Chinese idol industry still has a long way to go, and it will not succeed by simply imitating K-Pop. The record-breaking ratings of iQIYI’s Youth With You 2 and the hype around Tencent’s upcoming Produce Camp 2020 hint at a promising future for these video streaming platforms, and possibly the idol industry.