Super Girl, China's controversial answer to the singing contests that have swept the world in recent years, is gripping millions of young people by offering an alternative to propaganda-driven historical series or modern dramas.
Super Girl's powers are no idol boast for Chinese
BEIJING // They are scenes familiar to anyone who enjoys watching television talent shows: singers vying for the votes of the public, emotional farewells to those who get voted off, and judges shouting one another down as they disagree over the merits of contestants.
This could be another episode of American Idol, but Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul or Steven Tyler are nowhere in sight.
Instead it is Super Girl, China's controversial answer to the singing contests that have swept the world in recent years.
This year's series, which is currently featured on billboards, is gripping millions of young people by offering an alternative to propaganda-driven historical series or modern dramas.
"Most of us in our class, about 20 of us, watch these programmes," said Bai Yu, 15, a schoolgirl from Shenzhen who was visiting Beijing with her family.
"They are popular because the people are the same age as us. We can learn from them. Nowadays you can succeed, so students dream to be them."
Super Girl, produced by a satellite channel in Hunan province, first aired in 2004, three years after the original Pop Idol, the show that spawned the global Idol phenomenon, was first broadcast in the United Kingdom. Pop Idol was itself inspired by Popstars, which originated in New Zealand.
It was the second series of Super Girl in 2005 that really captured the public's imagination, attracting a reported 400 million viewers and making a national star out of its winner, Li Yuchun, whose "tomboy" image was much commented on.
Li's success was described as being the result of the biggest democratic vote China had seen, even if a vote was officially called a "message of support".
State media worried whether Li's success would encourage more young women to become "unisex" with short hair and trousers. However, the negative press had little effect on the show's popularity, with 100,000 young women entering the contest the following year to replace her as the country's Super Girl.
Despite - or perhaps because of - their appeal, the shows have attracted harsh criticism from the authorities.
In 2007, Wang Taihua, then head of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, said many reality television shows were "low-quality, low-brow programmes only catering for the bottom end of the market".
Later that year, the administration banned the show The First Time I Was Touched, which had become known for lurid news reports about its presenters and arguments between contestants and judges.
"The design of the show is coarse. The judges' behaviour lacks grace. The programming lacks artistic standards. The tone of the show has cheapened. The songs performed are vulgar," the administration said in a statement at the time.
Controversy has continued, with the death late last year during cosmetic surgery of Wang Bei, a former Super Girl contestant, causing concern over the country's apparent growing obsession with fashion and celebrity.
Stories about the programmes have even spread outside China. Two years ago racist online abuse directed at a contestant with a Chinese mother and black father made headlines in international media.
Yet despite the controversies, and the less than rapturous welcome from the authorities, television talent shows remain hugely popular in China.
Recently, a 65-year-old grandmother became an internet sensation after dancing to Michael Jackson songs on China's Got Talent, the local version of Simon Cowell's Britain's Got Talent programme. Liu Wei, a young man who plays the piano with his feet after losing his arms in an accident as a child, made headlines internationally last year after winning the first series of the show.
Super Girl returned after several years off in 2009, and has proved successful again during its 2011 series.
"Young idols ... automatically become important in this era of consumer culture developing in China," said Lo Wailuk, an associate professor in the Academy of Film at Hong Kong Baptist University, whose research interests including contemporary television.
"China is changing and so individual values and idols spun from lower-class families ... these successful stories are fuel for the young generation."
In a society where corruption is acknowledged to be common, the programmes are seen as offering a way to become successful without losing integrity.
"If you become a popular idol you need not bribe your way to rise up through corruption," Mr Lo said.