TV Dating as a Mediated Dating Text
This chapter employs an active audience reception framework to explore Chinese youth’s understanding of and attitudes towards the most popular reality TV dating programme in post-reform China. As an open-ended dating text, the TV dating programme If You Are the One becomes a site for Chinese youth to carry out diverse examinations regarding its authenticity and further serves as an important modern template for the audience to decode love and romance in an everyday setting. By examining audiences’ understandings about the interests of the production team and the ‘ordinary’ guests, the role of reality TV, especially the dating programme in audiences’ identity construction, is explored.
Since the introduction of the open-door policy in 1978, the changing socio-cultural environment has led to a much bolder expression of dating and sexual matters in both media representations and real lives (Huang 1998; Cheng et al. 2000; Keane 2002). This may symbolize the transition of love and relationships from a traditionally private practice greatly influenced by Confucian culture to an increasingly heated topic in a public setting and only restrained by loosened government censorship. At the same time, the growth of commercial media, which thrives on human interest stories, confessional and reality TV, has fuelled this transition process (Turner 2010). For instance, alongside a number of ways for people to embark on dating relationships in urban Chinese societies, such as newspaper ads in the 1990s and online dating since the 2000s, TV dating has gradually become a new way for people to establish a relationship in recent years (Li 2011).
As the research project examines the identity construction of a group of young Chinese professionals as regards love and romance, the sample group of Chinese youth was situated in an active audience research paradigm, in which the TV dating programme is seen as an avenue to generate the various attitudes and interpretations of audiences with different cultural competencies (Fiske 1987; Hobson 1982). In addition to this, TV dating as a mediated text may have worked as a public template, in which the topic of love and intimacy has tended to become a less private and sensitive issue, facilitating broader discussions among the participants in the research project. As audiences often tend to comment on a TV programme in relation to their daily lives (Livingstone and Lunt 1994, p. 82), reality TV dating programmes are likely to become the catalysts for audiences to further relate what they see on-screen to their own dating experiences and values in a real-life setting and help them explore the way they structure their own dating and relationships.
The TV programme If You Are the One may have worked as an opportunity for reflection or even as a modern allegory for Chinese youth to identify and construct their values vis-à-vis love and intimacy by comparing the media representation with their experiences and observations about dating and relationships in their everyday lives. According to Richardson’s (2000) argument about a crystallized enquiry, televisual platforms are likely to become the ‘prisms that reflect externalities and refract within themselves, creating different colors, patterns, arrays, casting off in different directions’ (p. 934). That is to say, the TV dating programme could be seen as a mediated simulation of a romantic setting in an urban Chinese society with a representative group of young Chinese professionals as its inhabitants. Audiences are likely to understand the social construction of love and intimacy within a postmodern framework. This is comparable to the one introduced by Jean Baudrillard, who argues that, rather than finding a way to interpret the social reality, people can only create ‘a kind of vision, a style, to see and decode’ it (cited in Walden 1997, p. 22). Within an open-ended crystallization process (Ellingson 2009, p. 190), Chinese young people were inclined to produce diversified examinations of the programme If You Are the One and its possible implications in a modern-life setting in post-reform China.
By introducing the ‘encoding/decoding’ model, Stuart Hall (1980) provides a possible framework to understand the power dynamic between the audience and the TV programme. The dating programme tends to produce and deliver an authoritative message of the media organization, which is under the dual control of government censorship and the free market economy (Curtin 2007; Hall 1980; Li 2001; Wang 2011). The programme, which aims to build an authentic public-service platform, may reflect both post-socialist institutional ideology and the modern commodity culture. Audiences with different socio-cultural backgrounds are inclined to engage with the media text in different ways and create polysemic meanings, which could be aligned with, negotiated with or opposed to the preconceived reading in the televisual text (Bourdieu 1984; Fiske 1989; Hymes 1972; Morley 1989, p. 18; Skeggs 1992, p. 91). Alongside this, according to social cognitive theory and cultivation theory, the role of television is greatly associated with audiences’ understandings of the ‘authenticity’ of TV programmes (Bandura 1986, 2001; Gerbner 1998; Gerbner et al. 1980; Gerbner et al. 2002). For instance, audiences are more likely to be influenced by a mediated text if they believe it is real or can identify characters similar to those they might encounter in a real-life setting. By connecting audiences’ understandings about dating and relationships in the programme’s setting and in their daily lives, the question of the authenticity of the TV dating programme has become a core issue to explore in the crystallized enquiring process.
Thus, this chapter intends to examine how audiences view the TV programme If You Are the One as an ‘authentic’ dating platform and whether it reflects the ‘ordinary’ urban youth’s values in respect of love issues. First, the next section seeks to situate the term ‘authenticity’ in a dialogue between the private and public domains in relation to personal relationships via assessing audiences’ attitudes and feelings about dating practices in a TV programme’s setting. Second, section three focuses on audiences’ understandings of the role of the production team and the motives of the guests in the programme, which may be seen as a more complicated platform, sometimes beyond the function of relationship-establishment. Then, section four intends to connect the mate-choosing process in the TV dating programme with the postmodern consumerist culture and explore how audiences view the gendered partner-selecting values under a speeded-up programme setting.
2.1 Dating Goes from a Private Practice to a Show in the Public Domain
This section first explores the possible strengths and weaknesses of dating on a public programme by examining Chinese youth’s attitudes to it. Then, it intends to examine further whether it is an authentic way to establish a personal relationship under the power dynamic between public and private.
By recruiting ‘ordinary’ people as participants, reality TV dating programmes (RDPs) may to some extent facilitate the shift of dating practice from a private sphere to a public domain, which tends to be linked with Hermes’s (2006) argument that the private-public boundary has been blurred in popular culture. As a public platform for people to approach love and intimacy, TV dating may offer a performance about relationships generated by ‘ordinary’ people on a reality programme set, which is likely to be different from relationships being performed in fictional TV genres such as soap operas. As guests on RDPs are likely to hold more individualized values, willing as they are to express diverse feelings and opinions about personal relationships in public, the programme If You Are the One may reflect the changing identity of Chinese youth in a more authentic way. In comparison with the first wave of RDPs broadcast in 1997, which lasted only a few years, the new wave of TV dating programmes is likely to be increasingly associated with the social and cultural change in post-reform Chinese society since the start of the twenty-first century.
Since the TV dating programme If You Are the One 1 (非诚勿扰, Fei Cheng Wu Rao) was first broadcast in 2010, it has become the most popular TV dating programme in modern Chinese society and has led to the production of RDPs by satellite TV stations across the country (Li 2011; Zhang 2012). As one of the most popular entertainment shows in contemporary China, If You Are the One attracts young professionals from across the country as its guests and to some extent may mirror urban Chinese youth’s real-life dating practices and mate-selecting values. Alongside this, RDPs, which may offer informal lifestyle guidelines (regarding, for example, the dress code for a blind date or the way to communicate with a potential partner), are likely to work as a neoliberal cultural technology for people to approach love and relationships in post-welfare societies (Murray and Ouellette 2009; Ouellette and Hay 2008).
Former programmes usually in a type of same number of male and female guests, for example, five male guests facing five female guests. It (If You Are the One) is like choosing one from 24 and it is divided into several rounds…It is not like some former programmes, which were relatively implicit, not very straightforward. This programme is free. It is very open. The guests can speak everything and may have a quarrel on stage. (Zhang Tao, 24, man, interview)
Alongside this, as a nationwide popular dating programme, If You Are the One, which suggests that dating in contemporary China may have gradually shifted from a private practice towards a public experience, often generates controversial ideas among its audiences.
It is like people, who buy products on Taobao (an online shopping website), surely would find a shop with higher reputation…The programme is broadcast on TV. Bluntly, not only a live audience but all the people who sit in front of TV watch it. So it is not like some matrimonial agencies which would just give people some unilateral introduction. No one else would know about this. But If You Are the One has already got a reputation. (Wang Hong, 23, man, interview)
Some interviewees argued that dating in a mediated public setting might increase the possibility of guests coming across a potential partner both inside and outside the programme setting. For example, Deng Yun, a 23-year-old female website editor, indicated that the programme may have ‘a circulation sphere actually wider than dating websites or other ways’. By showing the guests’ contact details, the programme is at times seen as providing more opportunities for them, as they are likely to get to know a potential partner from the programme’s audiences. TV dating to some extent may facilitate a dating market without regional boundaries and become a possible platform to help enlarge the guests’ social network.
I saw some guests were on the stage for many episodes. It would be impossible for a person with a normal job to take part in the programme for so many episodes…Guests need to ask for leave and pay the travel expenses. I think the costs of looking for a partner are too high (laughs). (Deng Yun, 23, woman, interview)
I think the things that people pay most attention to can be divided into considerations of the mass and of the individual. And this programme inevitably only presents the part that the mass care about, such as so-called income, educational background, social network and hobbies…While something about emotions in a relatively exquisite level, such as a male guest’s feeling towards a female guest, or her personality and moral quality, which are very important in my mind, are not able to be shown in this programme. (Ma Liang, 24, man, interview)
I think the matter of dating and marriage shouldn’t be shown in this way…I would have resistance in my heart, if I needed to go on the programme…It seems that I want to find a marriage spouse and my conditions are like this. All of them can decide whether it is suitable or not. It is like I have exposed everything in front of other people and I feel a bit bare. For me, human nature or romantic relationships are a bit mysterious and hazy. This is so realistic and bare, in which I feel nothing at all and I refuse this kind of relationship. (Hu Jieru, 29, woman, interview)
From the comments above, it seems dating in such a public forum might go against the nature of romantic love, which is traditionally understood as an intimate emotional attachment at a private and individual level. The strong rejection of dating in such a setting may be connected with an ethical concern about the rights of the participants, who tend to be exploited by commercial surveillance (Andrejevic 2004, p. 78; Hill 2008, pp. 173–174).
Like Ma Nuo said that ‘I’d rather cry in a BMW’, I feel this is a very true and natural expression. When she was on the stage, she just said things she wanted to express boldly. I think this is nothing bad. It is just because this is a public occasion, so it would cause a lot of waves. (Zheng Anchi, 24, man, interview)
If they really wanted me to take part in the programme, I’m not sure to go…I think if I went on the stage, I would need to follow the way required by the programme producers to answer questions. If I needed to say something that they required, I don’t think this is good…People often judge the guests on the stage and see which one is relatively beautiful, which one is relatively weird and which one is relatively funny. My family think that it would be very silly if I was on the stage and judged by other people. People more or less would think that I have nothing good, as I am not able to marry up to a certain age. So it would not be honourable if I was shown on TV. (Guo Zhenzhen, 28, woman, interview)
Like Zhenzhen, some participants were reluctant to participate in a TV dating show; often, this was their least preferred way of approaching a personal relationship as it would, to some extent, demonstrate their undesirability in a competitive dating market. These concerns resonate with an argument that guests on RDPs are likely to be objectified as sources of entertainment for audiences, who are inclined to see their sometimes ‘shameless’ performances as ‘both attractive and repulsive’ (Hill 2008, pp. 173–174).
(TV dating) is mainly a way for other people to know the guests, while there is a small opportunity for the guests to know others. Even for female guests, who choose from male guests, it is a small chance for her to select one male guest, who also chooses her…Even some people write letters to her, she would have no idea about this person, about what he looks like or his personality. (Deng Yun, 23, woman, interview)
Thus, although the TV dating programme If You Are the One obtains a high audience rating across the country, most respondents did not see it as a feasible way to find a partner. At the same time, dating as a traditional practice being shown on a public programme may generate all sorts of ideas and feelings about its staging and scripting strategies among audiences, who tend to question its authenticity. As a subgenre of reality TV, If You Are the One may have facilitated a critical viewing culture among its audiences. This is likely to resonate with the idea that reality TV has shifted televisual culture towards a demotic turn, in which ordinary viewers tend to be empowered to construct the ‘reality’ in media texts based on their own ‘moral, ethical and social judgements’ (Turner 2010, p. 42).
According to Hill (2005), reality formats, which fuse with elements of both factual and popular television, often claim to present unscripted stories and provide entertainments for audiences (pp. 57–58). For most respondents, If You Are the One was seen, first of all, as an entertaining show rather than an effective dating platform, which might suggest that, to a great extent, it follows the tradition of popular fictional television in adopting ‘character and speech-focused entertainments’ as its main programming strategy (Kilborn 2003, p. 119). As a format distanced from some sanctioned factual genres such as news and documentary, the scripting strategy of If You Are the One generated heated discussion, which may align with the idea that an increasing number of entertainment elements in a reality programme might reduce its authenticity for viewers (Hill 2005, p. 57).
If a female participant found a date on the stage, she wouldn’t take the male guest as her real partner after the show. It is just a show. Anyway, like every programme, they just pretended to be together on the stage to show the audiences. Things would be different after they were off the stage. (Sun Yi, 24, man, interview)
If it broadcasts on TV, it has an off-screen team, which makes up stories for you. There would be words that can be said and words that can’t be said. Things can be broadcast and things can’t be shown. It will select some special things, which can have some character, to make people like to watch. (Wu Wenze, 26, man, interview)
As it is a programme, the director may guide them (the guests) to talk or to get matched or not, who would give some hard intervention. For example, two people seemed to be very suitable, or people really wanted them to be together or all think that they would be together. In the end, the director wouldn’t let them get matched. No matter how many tears this person had. Afterwards, people would begin to comment upon this, which would achieve the aim of propaganda. (Xia Kai, 29, man, interview)
Including some very exaggerated statements, for example, Ma Nuo said that ‘I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh at the back of a bike’ or some very fat or strange female guests, these were all made up. To increase the ‘Kan Dian’ (scenes that benefit the spectacle) and attract audiences, they made up their personalities deliberately. (Li Sha, 27, woman, interview)
The production team of If You Are the One may not only reflect but also help create ‘ordinary’ personalities. This is likely to resonate with the new capacities of mass media under a demotic televisual culture, as Turner (2006, 2010) indicates that the reality genre may have become a translator and sometimes an author constructing ordinary identities.
I think it relatively suits the values of people from different classes and backgrounds…As there are only 24 female guests, it is impossible for them to represent 240 million women. I mean they are not likely to reflect the concept of all women. But it reflects some phenomena in society. (Song Zixi, 24, woman, interview)
In fact, the choice for dating and marriage is controversial, as people have different standards. But I think at least the society would become more and more tolerant via this programme, as people have more and more multiple values towards dating and relationships…Actually, it is not like everyone must have a certain suitable partner. He or she could change constantly, including personal conditions under different environments. (Zhou Jun, 29, man, interview)
Overall, by showing dating practice on TV, the programme not only facilitates the expression of diverse values in respect of relationships, but also triggers a critical viewing culture among young Chinese people, who tend to question the authenticity of its scripts. Although reality TV was at times considered as a dating platform with a good reputation and wide acceptance, it was often seen as entertainment rather than a feasible relationship-establishing strategy for most young people in my sample group. Specifically, TV dating is often criticized as having low success rates and as a dating avenue with mandatory arrangements from the production team, a high cost for the participants, and lacking private communication between potential partners. The public programme setting is at times seen as contrary to the nature of romantic love as a private and intimate attachment, and guests on the programme are likely to become entertainment resources.
2.2 ‘Ordinary’ People in the Context of a Dating Programme
In the previous section, the authenticity of dating practice in a public programme setting was examined, which suggests that TV dating is a less common way for the sample group of Chinese youth to seek a partner, and many respondents tended to have a distant feeling towards the scenes behind the screen. It is likely that, by identifying the similarities and differences between guests on the stage and young people in a real-life setting, the audiences will have a clearer idea about their own identity construction in terms of love and relationships. Hence, this section intends to assess the relationship between audiences and guests by exploring whether Chinese youth see the guests as ‘ordinary’ people and what they assume their aims are for taking part in the programme If You Are the One. As most respondents showed their concerns about TV dating as a feasible strategy for approaching relationships, the motives for watching, and the way for Chinese youth to connect their own relationship-related values and experiences to the guests in the programme are further discussed in this section.
Theoretically, it is a programme for all the people to take part in, which is not like Kuai Le Da Ben Ying (Happy Camp, a popular Chinese variety show), as only celebrities can take part in it…Of course there are some ‘Ji Pin’ (extreme cases) and some very excellent ones. But I think most (guests) are ordinary people, normal people. And as they would be shown on TV, there would be a package. In a word, I think they are normal people with some package. (Hao Dongsheng, 27, man, interview)
I think it is not completely authentic. They definitely would find some people to enhance the audience rating, such as weirdo, funny people or handsome guys. It is impossible that 24 people are all ordinary people. (Ai Yue, 26, woman, interview)
Although the programme If You Are the One is at times seen to recruit ‘ordinary’ participants to replace the celebrities in traditional television programmes, it may become a platform to produce celebrities, as Andrejevic (2004) indicates that reality genres often embrace a promise of creating ‘a lottery of celebrity’ among its participants (p. 68). Reality TV is likely to cast the ‘ordinary’ guests as ‘celebrities’ in order to enhance the programme’s impact and audience rating. However, the TV stars created via reality genres often attract media attention in a very short period of time and correspond to a particular type of celebrity. By introducing the notion of ‘celetoid’, Rojek (2001) argues that these celebrities are like ‘the accessories of cultures organized around mass communications and staged authenticity’ (pp. 20–21).
My sample group of Chinese youth often tended to judge the ‘ordinariness’ of the guests on-screen. Specifically, for some of them, a business operation between the programme and its guests was identified, in which some guests are invited and paid to perform on the programme. For instance, one of my respondents, Zhou Yuxia, a 20-year-old female undergraduate student, said, ‘I also heard that they found some beautiful girls in university and paid them some money per hour. Also, some people were on the stage for a very long time, they got paid.’
If I were very ordinary looking, wore very ordinary clothes, spoke in a very ordinary way, came from a very ordinary family and had a very ordinary educational background as well as very ordinary experiences, there would be no dramatic effect. For example, a person broke up for more than 300 times, so he is a person with stories. This person is an overseas returnee, very rich, who had a few unsuccessful relationships, as he always suspected that the girls were aiming for his money. Then this person has a special character. (Zhao Wei, 28, man, interview)
From the above statements, the production team is at times seen to select guests with some special relationship-related or work-related experience to make a dramatic effect in the programme, which aligns with the idea that reality TV is a genre creating dramatic pleasure for audiences (Murray and Ouellette 2009, p. 4). This ‘extraordinariness’ produced in the reality dating programme may resonate with an idea of ‘extraordinary subjectivity’ introduced by Dovey (2000), who suggests that media narratives tend to be ‘grounded in the personal, the subjective and the particular’ context (p. 4). Turner (2010) further indicates that ‘the excessive, the extraordinary and even the offensive’ performance is likely to become an effective programming strategy for reality formats (p. 69). By selecting guests with ‘extraordinary’ characteristics, the programme is likely to present the exaggerated romantic subjectivities of young Chinese people in the post-reform era, which may influence audiences’ identities in terms of love and relationships.
They need to speak in a bold way and are willing to be blamed by others. Nowadays the social values are not that if people all praise you, then you can become famous. If people all curse you, you can also become famous. So people all work hard towards this direction…Some people would make plans for them and ask them to say something, which would generate public hatred or sympathy. (Fan Fang, 27, woman, interview)
I think the production team chooses people from all walks of life. You would see 24 female guests with a variety of professional backgrounds, educational backgrounds, appearances, and they are from China or abroad, so male guests could choose from a variety of people. (Huang Xinya, 27, woman, interview)
At the same time, some respondents observed that the programme can facilitate the recruitment of guests with good communication skills in a public programme setting. For example, Du Kewei, a 27-year-old female marketing planner, argued, ‘They (the guests) must be able to show themselves on the stage. Diffident people can’t be on the stage at all, they (the producers) don’t want them!’ This may fit into a selection criterion for producers introduced by Andrejevic (2004), who indicates that a natural tendency towards self-disclosure is often considered as a ‘form of being honest to oneself and others’ (p. 106).
My sister is 22 years old. She said her peers said that the reason people went on the show at such a young age was not for a partner, but for letting more people know them and becoming famous. But I think that people older than 26 or 27 aimed to find a partner in the show…Maybe it is because the post-90s are different from the post-80s. Now WeChat (an online social platform) is very popular and everyone is adding others. For them (the post-90s), more attention from other people is in vogue. (Wen Jing, 31, woman, interview)
They (the guests) may think this is a good way to find a suitable partner from mutual selection. Among these people, some may have relatively high requirements and want to find a partner with better conditions. It’s likely that they lack such resources around them. Some other people may also want to find a partner and see this as media exposure for them. I heard that for some female guests who didn’t find a partner on the stage, many other people got in touch with them. And this was a chance for them. (Li Sha, 27, woman, interview)
I saw that some guests couldn’t be called as leftover women. Some of them may still be university students, who are only 21 or 22 years old and they are surely not eager to find the other half. So why do they come to this programme? Although the status of guests should be real, some guests are said to have a very high position in a company or to be the rich second generation, who come from a wealthy family. When they are marked like this, I would doubt whether this is real or not. As they are excellent, do they really need to attend the programme to find their partners? (Jiang Xin, 24, woman, interview)
Some young people who want to become famous may take the programme as a stunt to show themselves. They may either want to enter into the entertainment industry, or sell books they have written or sell products. (Song Zixi, 24, woman, interview)
For example, some male guests wanted to start a business and they thought why not pay some money to be shown on If You Are the One? Then people at least would know something about this brand. Then, if they wanted to start a business, they could write in their CV that they had been to If You Are the One and attach a clip link to it. (Hao Dongsheng, 27, man, interview)
Male guests may have a relatively pure aim such as being fond of a female guest and just coming to the show for her. Also, this programme is relatively hard to participate in, as it is with certain challenges. So I think male guests are more reliable than female guests. (Feng Wanjiao, 27, woman, interview)
Although guests on If You Are the One often claim that their sincere aim is to find a partner, audiences tend to believe that some guests may have intentions that differ from mate seeking when taking part in the programme. Guests in the dating programme are likely to use performances to cover their true intentions, which to some extent resonates with an idea that the reality setting tends to facilitate performing ordinariness and naturalness (Bonner 2003; Turner 2010, p. 19). Hill (2005) further argues that the ‘performed selves’ and ‘true selves’ are often fused with each other in reality formats (p. 67). Alongside this, viewers tend to identify the guests’ motives via examining their personal information and social interactions on the programme set, which may align with Corner (2002)’s argument that the ‘true selves’ of guests are likely to be projected from ‘performed selves’ (pp. 263–264). Audiences’ concerns about a lack of authenticity in the relationships on a programme set may mirror an uncertainty about the authenticity in dating and relationships in everyday life, in which material interests may sometimes replace intimate emotional attachment.
I don’t care much, I just want to be on TV. If you want me to take part in a programme about career, I also want to go. But I feel this programme is more fun and I could be much happier. Anyway, I don’t suffer any losses if I go on the show. If I find a date in the show successfully, I win. If not, I also achieve my goal. (Le Jiahui, 26, man, interview)
According to the above example, the programme may facilitate a mediated entertainment for guests in the programme, which may be connected to the game show tradition.
Audiences are different from people who want to take part in the programme. I’d love to watch it, I may watch it for Meng Fei (the main host) is so handsome, Le Jia (a former guest presenter) is so cool, or this male guest is so silly, this female guest is so money-worship, this is my entertainment, which is very different from being a guest in the show. (Zhao Wei, 28, man, interview)
It is real-time and it moves matchmaking on the stage. Audiences feel it is quite new. People all have an attitude of seeking novelty and may want to pay attention to others’ privacy. (Shang Juan, 29, woman, interview)
Therefore, in a ‘reality’ programme setting, TV dating is likely to satisfy audiences’ voyeuristic mentality vis-à-vis the private issues of ‘ordinary’ people (Gray 2009; Murray and Ouellette 2009, p. 4).
It (the programme If You Are the One) provides a contrasting impression. It is likely that the traditional values towards dating and marriage are like this, the topics generated in this programme are relatively conflicting. It is like watching a blockbuster, no matter it is a beauty of horror or violence, or some topics about human nature such as Ma Nuo, who said that ‘I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh at the back of a bicycle’. (Zhou Jun, 29, man, interview)
Thus, the controversial attitudes towards dating in contemporary China, which sometimes generate audience disapproval, may serve as entertaining performances, blurring the boundary between reality and fictional genres (Turner 2010, p. 51).
The design of sessions in the programme triggers people’s curiosity step by step and attracts them to watch it. Firstly, people can have an initial evaluation towards a male guest and after a video clip has been showed, people can have another judgement towards the man. Thirdly, he may say some stories about himself and people would have another evaluation towards him…They also say something about female guests, for example, this female guest is especially assertive, dressing up in a strange way or with a weird personality, which quite suits the spirit of entertainment and gossip! (Du Kewei, 27, woman, interview)
They (the audiences) are likely to be moved by TV dramas, which are not real as they know. When watching this (the programme If You Are the One), they can make remarks on the guests’ appearance, wow, this young man is not as good as my son! Girl, don’t behave like her! (Zhao Wei, 28, man, interview)
The programme broadcast the vcr (video) of the participants, which would mention some experiences and details of their former relationships. Maybe this male participant had gorgeous or perfect experiences, people may admire him. If some participant had miserable experiences, people may show sympathy for them. Some audiences may have experienced hurtful relationships and the viewers may feel that their experiences are not worse than the participants in the show. No matter it is a feeling of admiration, sympathy or self-satisfaction. The show has a mass basis. (Chu Junqi, 30, man, interview)
Sometimes I may think that this girl has this condition, but she met such a good man. So I may envisage whether I would have such an opportunity or may compare with her to see what my advantages and disadvantages are in the mate-choosing process in the future. But I think for me it doesn’t influence my life a lot. I see it as an entertainment and don’t take it as a standard for my partner-choosing or life guidance, which would be too childish. (Song Zixi, 24, woman, interview)
Zixi’s example may suggest that, as an entertaining platform, the programme If You Are the One may tend to affect the viewers in a more subtle way.
I wouldn’t consider TV dating unless I have to, as I would face nationwide several hundred millions audiences. And my parents would also follow me and my neighbours would ask, wow, this is your daughter, who needs to go on this programme to find a partner. (Huang Xinya, 27, woman, interview)
Some participants may reassert traditional and conservative family values as regards dating and relationships, which tend to be the opposite of the often individualized expressions on the programme set.
They (female guests) may compete with other female guests to speak…They may make up a lot and wear high-heel shoes, who may want to be selected by a small boss or some performing company. We are different. (Tang Lili, 23, woman, interview)
I think guests of this programme surely relatively approve of this programme. I mean they accept the values showed in this programme. There are quite a number of people who don’t acknowledge these. I think people who don’t accept this form wouldn’t take part in the programme…Honestly, the aspects the show selects are not my main considerations, while there would be no opportunity for me to show the most valuable characteristics of mine on the stage. (Ma Liang, 24, man, interview)
By separating themselves from the guests on the programme If You Are the One, most participants tended to believe that an emotional attachment at a private level is the basis of an authentic dating relationship. This may be connected with an understanding of authenticity introduced by Van Leeuwen (2001) as something revealing the truth of ‘a deeply held sentiment’ (p. 393). The commercial operation generated by the mediated dating platform is likely to generate an anxiety about inauthentic love and relationships in general.
2.3 An Accelerated Relationship in a Postmodern Consumerist Culture
In a short twenty minutes, it is unlikely to judge a person’s personality, right? It is still like love at first sight. I choose you, you choose me. General conditions of two people almost satisfy each other’s wishes. (Song Zixi, 24, woman, interview)
As this example demonstrates, the mate-selecting process is sometimes assumed as a dating ‘transaction’, in which guests may tend to have a consumerist mentality. TV dating to some extent may repeat a traditional matchmaking script, in which marriage was often arranged by a third party and based on material transactions between the two families. Thus, the popularity of this programme is likely to suggest a market principle in establishing dating relationships, which is likely to resonate with the idea that the changing economic environment in the reform era may have greatly facilitated a mentality of seeing personal ties in terms of material transactions (Osburg 2013, pp. 163–165; Osburg 2014; Zelizer 2005).
Nowadays most people, who are at a suitable age for marriage, are young people from the post-80s, and dating and marriage is a very big problem in a relatively competitive society. Unlike people from the former generations, who often had an arranged marriage, the post-80s advocate romantic love and want to find a partner by themselves. So this has become a difficult matter, which attracts people’s attention naturally and becomes a market for them to explore. (Hu Jieru, 29, woman, interview)
It seems to be the first programme like this in mainland China, which has created a well-known brand from the very beginning. When thinking about marriage and dating programmes, If You Are the One may firstly come into people’s mind. (Deng Yun, 23, woman, interview)
This type of programme finally aims for pure commercial interests, including the people, the media as well as the male and female guests it promotes…As it has been made as a brand, people all want to become famous in it…For example, female guests can become famous via this programme and they can act in films and advertisements. Also, the hosts can become an author of a book and broaden their popularity. They can give a speech somewhere and have a book signing session, which makes a lot of money for them. (Fan Fang, 27, woman, interview)
Women, no matter on which level they are, they all choose a man with money and high personal quality. Women think that they can marry a very good man. It is like they expect to sell at a high price. But in fact, they are not necessarily finding the man they want. If they can’t find the man, they would sell at a discount (laugh)…Actually, this programme should also reflect people in real lives. (Hu Jieru, 29, woman, interview)
It is a speeded-up programme for female guests to show themselves and there are mutual comments between female guests and a selected male guest. After two to three rounds of PK (player killing), people would find the other half, which is watched by nationwide audiences and commented by the hosts. I think this is speed dating. Honestly this is love at first sight. (Li Sha, 27, woman, interview)
It is just a dating platform for people to know each other…I think it delivers the simplest question of dating and marriage. Love is very simple. This is the basic instinct of human beings. I love you. I can fall in love with you at first sight and feel attracted to you. I just pursue. I just go with you. (Le Jiahui, 26, man, interview)
Why did they (female guests) let an excellent man go (off the stage) by himself? He may have just said one sentence wrong or not expressed one idea clearly. As it was in a short time, there may be a misunderstanding, which was not explained clearly. (Huang Xinya, 27, woman, interview)
For one male guest, excluding the time for advertisements, he only has 12 to 15 minutes and he has to make a decision from 24 girls. He may also be influenced by the hosts. He may choose someone he thought very suitable at that moment, but after he was off the stage, there would be a process to get along with the girl…I think the choice in the show to a great extent is not a gradual process. It is not a real acceptance. It could be a very initial choice. (Zheng Anchi, 24, man, interview)
Of course they get matched in the programme, but this success is just to show the audiences. I heard that after one or two months, two people broke up…They accept each other, which can be viewed as a start of getting along with each other or being wait-and-see. But there is still a long way to go before getting married. (Wang Rui, 30, man, interview)
In a TV dating programme, as people wouldn’t know about the past and social network of a person, it is possible for them to come across a great person and also possible for them not to…I think it was a very small possibility for them to be together afterwards. (Xia Kai, 29, man, interview)
Almost all the male guests belonged to the good-looks club (外貌协会, Wai Mao Xie Hui). When they were asked to choose an ideal girl at first sight, unless they had already chosen a particular female guest before taking part in the programme, basically they were members of the good-looks club (who would attach a lot of importance to the appearance of a potential partner). A male guest would use the aesthetic standards of men or himself, as he doesn’t know about the personality or family background of female guests. Although he can read female guests’ profiles online and watch their expressions in the former episodes, it is only a premise. (Zhou Jun, 29, man, interview)
The first session of the programme setting is to ask them about who is their ideal partner. Facing 24 guests, without any communication, male guests can only see their appearance, which is the dominant factor affecting their choice. Also, within such a short communication, unless there are some female guests with very outgoing personalities, who are likely to expose their personality, basically they all judge by appearance. (Ning Xiaoyan, 27, woman, interview)
The above observations suggest that appearance is often seen as a dominant mate-selection criterion for male guests, which tends to align with the idea that reality-dating programmes reinforce a beauty-centred traditional femininity (Graves and Kwan 2012). This can be linked to a traditional gendered stereotype in mate choosing, in which men often attach more importance to the physical appearance of a potential partner (Buss and Barnes 1986; Buss 1994; Townsend and Wasserman 1998).
Male guests would judge a person by her appearance and stature to see whether she is suitable to develop a long-term relationship with. Afterwards, they would see whether a person’s temperament, style of conversation, working experience and hobbies are suitable…Whether male guests choose to see the female guest’s bedroom scene, family background or income, they want to find a woman, who can be shown in public with him and cook in the kitchen, also with her own career and pursuits. There would be fewer over-shallow situations for male guests to only consider a female’s appearance. (Song Zixi, 24, woman, interview)
If a man has money and high social position and is well educated, he surely would require the female side firstly to be young and beautiful. Secondly, he would see whether the female side matches his level or not. Actually men are more realistic than women. They know which level they are decides what kind of partner they choose. (Hu Jieru, 29, woman, interview)
They really want to find a partner of their dreams…Male participants may have a model…They wouldn’t require girls that are that excellent or having that good economic background. For males, some of them have male chauvinism and they wouldn’t take the family background or financial status of the female side as a priority. While some males want to value the girl’s family background, but they wouldn’t say it or put it as the preferential conditions. (Chu Junqi, 30, man, interview)
I feel that female participants want to find a suitable partner in reality…Female guests would more or less take those as rigid conditions including male’s family background, working environment and economic conditions. If male participants in the show are not in good economic conditions or come from rural area, you will see that they surely can’t find a date. (Chu Junqi, 30, man, interview)
There is a common value orientation, which is surely very influential. For example, girls surely would have very high requirements towards income and family background of the male side. As soon as she accepts this or says it satisfies her expectation, she would consider whether their personalities match well or not. (Ma Liang, 24, man, interview)
For people living in big cities such as Beijing, it would cost a lot when they buy a house and a car. Like men, who wouldn’t have a development in a short period of time and are potential stocks in a long run, young and beautiful women don’t want to choose them. This is a very realistic question. (Fan Fang, 27, woman, interview)
I think they follow their emotions about their impression and interactions with a male guest. And for female guests who took part in the show for a long time before they found a date, I think they may have some experiences to compare male participants objectively. (Zheng Anchi, 24, man, interview)
In ordinary life, when I want to introduce a single woman to men, generally they all want to see the photo of the woman first. If I introduce someone to women, they firstly all ask the occupation background of the man. (Ning Xiaoyan, 27, woman, interview)
Rather than adopting a referential reading to see the guests on the dating programme set as real people in their daily lives (Liebes and Katz 1990, p. 100), my respondents often followed a ‘critical-cognitive’ viewing mode to see the televisual text as a commercial product and to respond to it with ‘a distanced, informed, or analytic approach’ (Livingstone and Lunt 1994, p. 71). This engagement framework may further motivate the reflexive nature of the audiences, who tend to assess critically the authenticity of the values as regards dating and relationships on a programme set in relation to those in a real-life setting. The programme If You Are the One, which is often seen to work as a neoliberal cultural technology for Chinese youth to identify and construct their own relationship-related values, may facilitate a new form of identity, fitting into the DIY (do-it-yourself) culture introduced by Hartley (1999, p. 179).
Specifically, although the programme If You Are the One is often seen as a subgenre of reality TV, which claims to use an unscripted programming strategy and recruit ordinary people as its guests, most respondents tended to see it as a popular televisual text combining the commercial interests of the production team and its participants. First, a fully or partly scripted programme strategy was identified by my participants, who considered that the programme tends to recruit actors and/or guests with unusual characteristics in order to obtain high audience ratings. Alongside this, many respondents tended to believe that the programme may stimulate the pecuniary intentions of its participants, who desire to change their status from an ‘ordinary’ person to someone more recognizable in the public domain or to promote their career development. Hence, most respondents adopted a ‘Kanke’ (spectator) mentality to see the programme as entertainment rather than an authentic relationship-establishing platform. In addition to this, there seem to be interesting parallels between the questioning of the authenticity of the TV programme by audience members and their reflections about what ‘authenticity’ means in relationships. For instance, as intimate emotional attachment is often considered as the basis for an authentic dating relationship, the commercial interests and operation in a public programme setting may generate viewers’ concerns about a lack of authenticity in dating relationships on-screen.
A boundary between guests on the programme and its audiences is observed during the interview process and most respondents tended to separate themselves from the guests by asserting a more traditional and conservative set of values as regards mate seeking. Although the speeded-up programme setting seems to enhance the efficiency in the partner-selecting process, TV dating is often considered as a relationship-building strategy with low success rates and hidden risks for relationship development in the long run. Specifically, the public programme setting is often seen to shape the guests’ values and constrain private communication and emotional interaction between potential partners. The shortened dating time may encourage the adoption of a ‘love at first sight’ approach in the mate-choosing process, whereby guests often attach more importance to some ‘visible’ and ‘realistic’ factors such as appearance, family and professional background. Moreover, the programme is often believed to reflect traditional gendered values in the mate-selecting process, in which women tend to think highly of the economic status of a potential partner, while men are inclined to attach more importance to physical appearance. In an accelerated programme setting, dating is sometimes seen as an ‘on-the-spot transaction’ between male and female guests, and the programme is likely to reinforce the fusion of a market principle and the script of an arranged marriage, in which material transactions between two families are the basis for establishing a marital bond.
Thus, by critically assessing young professionals’ dating practices in the reality programme If You Are the One, dating and relationships are likely to become a less private and sensitive issue for Chinese young people, who often embrace a more tolerant attitude towards diverse dating values in the post-reform era. Simultaneously, the popularity of the programme may reflect a problematic dating market, in which free-choice marriage is likely to be more difficult to pursue and the principles behind traditional practices of matchmaking may have been reasserted as the main way for people to choose a potential partner. Although Chinese youth may long for romantic love, they are likely to be under pressure to marry at an early age, which may facilitate more people accepting the use of matchmaking traditions, or at least the principles behind such practices. However, as many respondents believed that a reliable dating relationship is often established after a relatively long period of time, TV dating, which is sometimes seen as a risky dating strategy reflecting a fast-food culture, tended to be either rejected strongly or embraced reluctantly by my respondents. As the considerations of guests on the programme are sometimes thought to reflect partner-selecting values in matchmaking arranged in a real-life setting, the assumed material interests of the guests in the programme If You Are the One may further trigger uncertainty towards authentic love and relationships in real life.
First aired in January 2010 on Jiangsu Satellite Television, If You Are the One has been broadcast for about seven and half years. The programme has mainly recruited guests with various educational and professional backgrounds from across mainland China. At the same time, some participants from other parts of the world or with various ethnic backgrounds have also been selected to take part in the programme. The official language of the programme is Chinese (Mandarin). According to Beijing-based CSM Media Research, after screening a total of 343 episodes (till 22 May 2013), its ratings were 2.77 per cent of television viewers, or 36 million, twice as many as the nearest competitor for that time slot.
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