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Pulp friction?
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Zhao Chuan and his guests at the show of Who is Speaking.

Some faint, some get angry and some are ready to fight, all in front of television cameras. They're not actors but common everyday people who willingly share their personal stories - good or bad - for the sake of melodramatic talk shows that are becoming more popular every day.

Usually, the host of these shows will sit and talk with the guests, who share their dramatic experiences, mostly tribulations, uncanny experiences, or skirmishes with family members and lovers. Sometimes the two parties in conflict are invited to talk with each other before an audience.

The dramatic events, and the debates - sometimes a quarrel or fight among guests - also spill over to include the audience. During one show, a guest fainted when her rebellious daughter left the studio suddenly. A woman in another show tried to cut her vein while another fought with her husband's father using dirty words.

These dramatic programs enjoy high ratings which have led to a boom of similar shows, such as Jiangsu TV's Harmonious World (Renjian) and Beijing TV's Who is Speaking (Shui Zai Shuo). Among them, Harmonious World quickly topped the ratings among similar shows two weeks after its March premiere.

According to Wu Jing, a Peking University associate professor of media studies, such melodramatic shows are not part of a new trend but have enjoyed popularity in Western countries for decades. But the difference is that in the United States and other countries, the shows are usually televised during the daytime and are aimed at housewives and elderly people who have time to kill at home. In China, the shows are often aired during prime time or early evening, as Chinese families tend to watch TV together after a day's work.

These shows' popularity, says Fang Yanming, dean of Nanjing University's Journalism and Communications School, can be attributed to the fact that Chinese society is experiencing a great transformation with new social problems emerging.

"People want to express their confusion over these problems, while at the same time they like to peep at others' problems and how they deal with them," he says.

Wu agrees with Fang in the sense that audiences are curious about others' lives, but she does not think that the changing society has a great impact. "Chinese society's transformation actually started as early as the 1980s, and continues today," she says. "But TV as a medium then was not that market-oriented, so audience rating was not that important, either. Media's achievements then were measured by something such as authority or the government's praise."

But now, Wu says, winning viewers' attention is the top goal of most TV shows and it seems clear that such dramatic shows are enjoying great attention.

"The problems were always there, the difference is that now the TV media is ready and bold enough to present them," she says.

Zhao Chuan is the host and producer of Who is speaking, a popular TV talk show by Beijing TV. Photos courtesy of Beijing TV

In addition, she attributes the popularity of melodramatic shows to the traditional preference among Chinese people for pop culture. This is evident in the prevalence of TV series about family life and criminal cases, and the long-thriving magazine of pulp stories such as Story Club (Gushi Hui) and Legends (Jingu Chuanqi).

"People like to read pulp fiction," Wu says. "So when the shows claim that their stories are all real events, the audience will be more attracted because compared to fictional characters, real people have wider resonance."

However, many people doubt the authenticity of some of these stories.

Zhao Danjun, producer of Harmonious World, claims that the show's materials are supplied by audience members. But she did not say how they confirm whether the stories are true. Zhao Chuan, host and producer of Who is Speaking, says they have the following steps to ensure the stories' authenticity.

The directors have a pre-interview when they get some clues about stories to know more about the guests, who are also required to offer a copy of their identity card and signature. They will also interview their friends, family and colleagues. The directors will discuss whether there is something contradictory or unreasonable in the pre-interview record before inviting them to the studio.

Xin Xin, a TV director who has been in the industry for 10 years, did not deny that some shows provide a financial reward to obtain stories. Also, she says TV tends to exaggerate to attract more viewers.

"For example, when the guests talk about the most dramatic part of their stories, we will play a mock representation of the scene we shot in advance, or keep asking them about the point to reveal as many details as possible," she says.

Zhao Chuan denied his show would do that. He insists that Who is Speaking is meant to provide a voice to common people. He says that more than half of the show's content is about social issues, while only less than 20 percent are about love stories.

Zhao says he knows that complicated love stories make for the most attention-grabbing material, but he prefers to stay away from them.

"The standard we use to choose materials is not whether it is uncanny or dramatic, but its possibility of raising many opinions," he says. "We aim to provide a variety of opinions by stimulating effective discussions and debates among the audience. If the guests are deliberately performing, exaggerating, or lose control of their emotions, we will not air the program even if it is very exciting."

Wu has mixed opinions.

"I hope the shows can help people better understand and reflect on their state of living," she says, "rather than simply using the audience's anxiety, curiosity and privacy to make money."

(China Daily October 24, 2007)

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