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Chinese netizens mourn demise of online talk show

Chinese netizens are mourning the demise of a popular online talk show that dared to tackle social and political topics in a media landscape dominated by vapid soap operas, staid costume dramas and webcam girls.

The final episode of “Xiaosong-pedia“, hosted by songwriter, music producer and film director Gao Xiaosong, was aired on Friday on iQiyi, the online video platform owned by internet search group Baidu. The show received more than 900m views over its two-and-a-half year run.

Mr Gao, who also serves as chairman of Alibaba Group’s media division, announced the end of his show on December 18 without stating a reason. But he had previously expressed increasing frustration with censorship of the show’s content — some of it commercial rather than political.

Mr Gao’s cultish fans praised his wit and intelligence in a media landscape largely bereft of intellectual content. Recent shows covered CIA assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, the US presidential election, Star Wars, Viking pirates, Ming Dynasty concubines, and secret meetings by Zhou Enlai, Mao’s longtime right-hand man.

“If talking is an art, then Gao Xiaosong is undoubtedly a skilled craftsman,” netizen Niudanji said in a blog post. “History, local culture, people from various social strata, politics and economics — he has an effortless command of it all.”

In August, Mr Gao publicly accused Canada’s government-backed tourism agency of pressuring iQiyi to censor an episode it sponsored because it featured criticism by a First Nations chief of Canada’s past treatment of aboriginals, ahead of an official visit to China by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

To his Weibo audience of 39m — more than twice Donald Trump’s on Twitter — Mr Gao posted pictures of emails in which an official with Destination Canada objected in red typeface to the discussion of an “unpleasant past” and stated that such content “definitely cannot appear”. The agency told Reuters that it had the right to “suggest changes” and make “recommendations to ensure a focus on Canadian tourism”. 

Mr Gao never made clear if he ultimately went along with censorship in this case, but he acknowledged that his contract with iQiyi granted the company a right to review content. 

The pudgy, goateed Mr Gao studied radar engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing — known as China’s MIT — before transferring to the Beijing Film Academy.

His 1994 debut album, Campus Folk Songs 1, spoke to a generation of Chinese youth with nostalgic, unadorned ballads such as “My old classmate“, in which the narrator wonders whether a school crush still remembers him. A better songwriter than singer, he often composed and produced for other performers, launching two record labels before serving as Alibaba Music Group’s first chairman. 

After achieving fame as a musician, he turned to films. His fifth, in 2014, was named after the iconic song of 20 years earlier and topped the domestic box office rankings for two weeks despite a modest budget, sandwiched between Hollywood blockbusters Captain America and Spider-Man 2.

His first talk show, “Xiao Speaks,” debuted in 2012 on Youku, a rival video platform owned by Alibaba. As the show exploded in popularity, Mr Gao marvelled that he had won more success from a talk show “on which I really didn’t spend much energy” than from four feature films in which he had invested “uncountable sums” of money. He moved to iQiyi in 2014. 

Another censorship controversy erupted this month over a December 16 segment devoted to Hacksaw Ridge, the Mel Gibson second world war film that centres on the Battle of Okinawa. Japanese automaker Subaru, a sponsor, demanded cuts to a segment where Mr Gao interviews Mr Gibson and co-star Vince Vaughn. 

“I almost threw this episode out the window. I repeatedly begged the pettifoggers to rescue this whole half of the programme, but they cut all the most entertaining bits,” Mr Gao said on Weibo. “Better to kiss up and keep things tidy, set a date to wrap this job and go home to tend my field.”

Mr Gao may also have been influenced by the government’s move to tighten overall control of online video. On December 18, iQiyi sent an “urgent notice” to all producers instructing them to complete a registration form describing their shows’ content in detail.

The notice followed new rules in May the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television requiring registration of original online programming, including a statement of “ideological intention”. The measure was seen as a step toward regulating online programming in the same way as traditional media.

Mr Gao could not be reached for comment. 

Additional reporting by Ma Nan

Twitter: @gabewildau

Via FT