SHANGHAI (Reuters) - For the next few days, 26-year-old Joy Zhang will be watching her favorite American shows like “Prison Break” on a computer, since China’s TV channels will be devoted to state-approved fare for the duration of the Communist Party’s once-in-five-years congress.
Shanghai-based Zhang, who works for a manufacturing company, is part of a growing number of young people unimpressed by patriotic period pieces known as “red” dramas that swamp the airwaves at times of major political events.
“As a post-80s child I guess I want to see different cultures, thoughts, ideas and interesting things in this world,” Zhang said.
The red dramas, once an effective propaganda tool of the ruling Communist Party and which Zhang had to watch in school, “have nothing new to say”, she said.
But with the 18th Party Congress now under way in Beijing, the shows - which glorify the army, the party and ordinary villagers living hardscrabble lives during the early days of the communism - are unavoidable.
“If it’s not (family) dramas on TV, then it is all kinds of red dramas, don’t tell me I have to watch the news!” complained one microblogger in her twenties.
“I am going to sleep earlier today, there are no interesting TV programs. Red dramas everywhere,” said another.
With their effectiveness as a tool to propagate communist thought waning, experts say the government must re-invent the shows if they are to retain any relevance for young viewers.
“Red dramas need to change, for sure. The time is different now,” said Xiao Xiao-sui, a professor of media culture and theory at the Hong Kong Baptist University.
According to Aegis Media, from January to July last year viewership for red dramas doubled on some TV channels that have an older audience. On TV channels like Hunan Provincial Satellite TV that have a younger demographic, ratings plunged 80 percent whenever red dramas came on.
A show aired to coincide with the opening of the congress on state-controlled China Central Television is typical of the genre.
“Yangshan Zhou” is a 23-episode series named after a former municipal party secretary, styled as a humble leader of the masses. Zhou, known as the “straw hat secretary”, won posthumous awards for being a model cadre, including the 2012 “Touching China” award.
Such flag-waving patriotism is a turn-off for many.
“Red dramas need to be more realistic and not propagate ‘party worship’ and exaggerate so much...In some red dramas, if a character meets any trouble or danger he will definitely say ‘I voluntarily join the Communist Party of China’. When I see this, I usually switch channels,” said 26-year-old Qiu Ying.
There are signs that the party is beginning to listen. The recently released “Marching Towards Gunfire” is one of the top three television serials on China’s most popular video site Youku. It stars Taiwan heartthrob Nicky Wu.
In a recent episode of the staple wartime drama featuring Japanese soldiers as villains, Wu lights a stick of dynamite by striking it on his sleeve and then kills enemy troops with his bare hands.
The popularity of this show could be due to Wu rather than the plot. Youku Tudou spokeswoman Jean Shao noted that “Marching Towards Gunfire” was indexed as an “idol drama” on the website.
“Youku Tudou users watch more love stories, idol dramas and shows featuring urban, contemporary scenes,” she said.
Although red dramas have a long way to go to win the hearts and minds of younger viewers, the shows attract a core audience: older viewers who are comforted by the nostalgia.
While the shows prompt Qiu to reach for the remote control, her father is a loyal fan.
“A good red drama moves your spirit intensely,” he said. “I can feel spirit of the Chinese people constantly striving to become stronger... It’s very inspiring.”
Additional reporting by Jane Lee and the Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Nick Macfie