Actors audition for an online New Year's Eve gala program in Beijing on Jan 1.
Zhang Haihua, 28, has spent every Chinese New Year's Eve the same way: Bunkered down with her relatives in front of the television from 8 pm to midnight watching a kaleidoscopic array of dancers and comedians.
But for the Shanghai office worker and her netizen friends, watching China Central Television's (CCTV) end-of-year TV gala is a tradition that is now outdated, or at best, a nostalgia trip.
Despite the amount of revenue the program creates, complaints about the show from disgruntled viewers who bemoan its staid stand-up routines and traditional singing and dancing performances have been gathering steam in recent years.
Critics say it is out of touch with modern China's taste for new entertainment and progress.
For a growing number of people who spend hours each day tailor-making their own online agendas while reading news feeds or posting tweets, more New Year entertainment galas provided by competitors like www.tianya.cn and Beijing TV (BTV) are more engaging.
"The Spring Festival TV gala is like a grand end-of-year banquet," said Zhang. "In the past, we audiences were like babies who ate whatever CCTV fed us. But now we are finally granted the right to order the dishes we like. It's very exciting."
BTV launched its first online Spring Festival gala this year. The gala was broadcast on television and online on sina.com.cn from Feb 6-12. Tianya broadcast its online gala, already in its fourth year, on Feb 11 for its 33 million registered members.
Both ran before the traditional CCTV gala on Feb 13, Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve.
The BTV program was selected by Internet users like Zhang, rather than officials and bureaucrats, as in the case of CCTV.
Netizens argue that, in a country of 1.3 billion people, with 56 ethnic groups spread over 9.6 million sq km, it is impossible to cater to all tastes, and the rise of the Internet serves a demand that no single supplier can fulfill.
Responding to this grassroots demand for a bigger say in the broadcasting schedule, the BTV organizing committee began soliciting advice from the public in mid- December about what to include in its show.
Zhang voted to have one of her idols, Zeng Yike, the star of last year's reality TV show "Super Girls", sing on the gala. She soon found out that Zeng received 3.3 million votes and would be appearing on the show.
"I was so happy to get the news," said Zhang. "Finally I can celebrate the most important holiday of the year with my favorite singer."
Talented netizens were even asked to recommend themselves to the committee, and the top vote-winners had their performance recorded by BTV and broadcast on television and on the Internet.
Popular members of the online community were also invited on the show, such as a mother who donated her liver to her son (named best mom of 2009), a man who threw his bicycle at a thief on a motorbike to stop him escaping (most brave man of 2009) and a middle-aged female singer who claims she can compete with Russian tenor Vitas.
What gave BTV an edge over tianya.cn's Spring Festival gala, and the reason why BTV can credibly claim to be setting a new Spring Festival milestone, is that tianya's bash only targets members of the online community.
Chen Sixin, who directed this year's tianya Spring Festival gala, said programming was based on contributions from the public rather than employing the services of paid-for celebrities and entertainers. Everything from logo design to virtual entrance tickets is designed by netizens, he said.
"It is like an end-of-year carnival for all of our members," Chen said. "We guesstimate that about 50,000 Internet users will sit down in front of their computers this year and enjoy the programs posted by their peers," he said before the show was broadcast.
He said growth has been explosive, with 20,000 people participating in the production of content this year, up from 5,000 in 2007.
Chen said some of the programs are simple and juvenile. Doctored celebrity photographs is a popular form of social comment but the tone is light and it is a creative atmosphere.
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