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BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Glitzy, kitschy and increasingly shunned by Internet-savvy youth, the politically correct TV marathon beamed across China on Lunar New Year's Eve still pulls enough viewers to put the U.S. Super Bowl to shame.
"CCTV Spring Festival Gala," a more than four-hour showcase of comedy skits, music and dance, has become a lounge room fixture for hundreds of millions of Chinese since the first edition beamed in the 1980s. Lunar New Year starts on January 26.
The show has also become an object of derision for much of the younger generation, poking fun at presenters' gaffes and the sometimes shoddy production quality, something of an annual sport among China's soaring Internet population.
China Central Television (CCTV), its producer and state-controlled broadcaster that beams the show on at least three different channels, cops especially raw criticism.
"The show once did give Chinese people much pleasure ... But in the last 20 years it has become more and more insufferable," said Ling Cangzhou, a Beijing-based editor leading an online campaign to boycott CCTV.
"It not only monopolizes TV screens on New Year's Eve, but also repels young people with its crass commercialism."
The negative online publicity has not stopped the stodgy state broadcaster, which describes itself as a non-profit organization, from reaping a bonanza from its enormous ratings.
The show boasted 396 million viewers last year, up 3 percent on the previous year after numbers dipped slightly in 2007, according to figures provided by the network. The 2008 Super Bowl was watched by 97.5 million U.S. viewers, a record number.
Midea Group, a household appliance maker based in China's southern Guangdong province, bid a record 47 million yuan ($6.87 million) to be the show's banner sponsor at CCTV advertising auctions last year.
In between ad breaks, viewers of past editions have been treated to ranks of women dancing in army fatigues and their male air force counterparts brandishing model fighter jets.
Ethnic dances stressing harmony between China's 57 nationalities are generally on the roster.
Less animated Communist Party elders hog a lot of air time clapping between performances, as cameras pan across a delighted, if carefully hand-picked, studio audience.
Amid claims the propaganda-heavy content is turning off the young, producers have introduced more contemporary themes.
Stock market chatter was a hook for one comedy skit last year, while "Song for the Rural Migrant Workers" gave a nod to China's vast floating population. This year's edition promises the heroes of China's third manned space mission.
Chinese movie stars and pop groups also perform to boost the time-worn program of kitsch child-led folk dances.
Results have been mixed.
A presenter on the show last year was roasted by Internet users after allegedly introducing an all-girl rock group from Taiwan as "foreigners." Since 1949, China has proclaimed the self-ruled island as sovereign territory.
Zhang Ziyi, one of a handful of Chinese movie actresses to star in Hollywood films, was also slammed for doing a poor job of miming her way through a song during the last edition.
"Gala's" producers have promised only "real singing" this year after a recent missive from China's media watchdog demanded no lipsynching, a controversy which also arose during the opening ceremony of the August Beijing Olympics.
Already under pressure to satisfy China's propaganda mandarins, while providing some appeal to new viewers, the program faces a new, if rather one-sided, battle against a cheeky grassroots rival aiming to steal its thunder.
China Countryside TV (CCSTV), an amateur troupe of volunteers and Internet supporters, will air on online broadcast of their own New Years' gala (www.ccstv.net) at the same time as CCTV's. The project has tickled local media, but only drawn an aloof shrug from the state-backed broadcaster.
"We are very poor and unprofessional ... We are basically the same as CCTV's Gala. We want to wish all the common people a happy new year," said CCSTV's director.
Editing by Miral Fahmy