‘Respect Money’: How a Chinese Talent Show Put Its Fans Up for Sale

Success on “Youth With You 3” had less to do with talent and more to do with who could buy the most votes. So why don’t fans care?

At first glance, “Youth With You 3” didn’t seem that different from the reality shows I used to watch a decade ago. Sure, the cast of 119 was bigger than I was used to, but the rules were instantly familiar: Four musical mentors guide aspiring male idols through a series of challenges and performances; after each round, some are eliminated until there are just nine contestants left. The winners are then grouped into China’s newest boy band.

Only, what if the rules and games and mentors didn’t matter? “Youth with You 3” was the first talent show I had watched in eight years, and it was a shocking lesson in just how much China’s entertainment culture has changed in that time. When I complimented some of the performers in a chat group, saying they seemed like good bets to make the final roster, my friends were quick to disabuse me: The performances don’t matter, they informed me: only the fans do.

At first, I didn’t understand what they meant, but as the show progressed, I grew genuinely disturbed at what I was watching. “Youth With You 3” represents the cutting edge of China’s hyper-commercializedhyper-populist fan culture, where corporations and brands exploit and manipulate viewers in the guise of empowering them. The more I saw, the more upset I became; then, in early May, it all came crashing down.

Since their emergence in the early 2000s, the most fascinating element of reality talent shows has always been the power they give fans to decide who wins and who loses. There are mentors and experts on screen, but the ordinary viewers voting at home choose their idols — and the ever-present potential for them to revolt against elite tastes or mainstream culture is part of what makes the format so exciting. Continue to read the full article here

– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.