In recent years, fostered idol reality shows in China demonstrated the incredible consumption power of fans. However, in 2021, the Chinese government suspended this type of show as part of an intervention in idol fan culture. Drawing from existing literature, public and private media articles, and the authors’ observations of online fan communities, this study explores the incentives for fan consumption in the shows as well as the rationale and impacts of the regulation. We argue that fans’ seemingly irrational consumption behavior can be understood generally in the models of personal identity formation and consumer devotion. The market, legal, and social issues could have all motivated the regulation. After a normative analysis, we conclude that the extent to which the regulation can be justified in the framework of welfarist consequentialism remains unclear. Less ambiguous, however, is that the regulation would have improved overall social welfare more if it was a gentle nudge rather than a hard ban.
The term “fostered idols,” or yangchengxi ouxiang in Chinese, refers to entertainment celebrities who began their career as “blank slates” (Zhao and Wu 2020). Compared to traditional entertainment celebrities who appear under the spotlight as mature stars, fostered idols are stars in the making. Their fans can witness and contribute to their professional progress and career success. As the model of fostered idols became increasingly popular in China, many reality talent shows featuring fostered idols thrived, the popular ones including Idol Producer, Youth with You, and Produce 101 China.
The audience of fostered idol shows determines which contestants get to debut mainly through online voting. As free votes are limited, many members of the audience get extra votes by purchasing premium memberships on the video platforms or sponsoring merchandise (often dairy drinks) with QR codes of votes attached to the packages. Therefore, the tremendous amounts of votes received by the contestants demonstrate not only the popularity of such shows but also the incredible consumption power of their audience, especially fans. Under the stimulation of the voting mechanism, individual consumption gradually evolved into collective consumption. Fan groups organize fundraising activities on platforms such as Taoba/OWhat and spend the funds on phone cards for more video platform accounts, premium memberships, and sponsored products. Organized fundraising evolved to become a prominent part of fan consumption in fostered idol shows. In April 2021, the funds raised by the fans of the Top 11 contestants of the show Chuang 2021 reached $23.6 million USD, and the total number of votes received by debuting contestants in the final episode exceeded 170 million (Yang 2021). These numbers represented huge economic profits for the show’s producers and the sponsoring merchandise.
Despite the significant economic value generated by fostered idol shows, both state-owned and private media have expressed negative attitudes towards the shows and the behavior of their audiences, mainly devoted fans. People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, has published articles online criticizing the suspicious and irrational fundraising activities in the shows. It argued that fans are the primary victims of fanatic voting activities and that younger audience members are misled to behave irrationally by the voting mechanisms (Xing 2020). Southern Weekly has also discussed how the “toxic” entertainment industry negatively influenced consumers, especially minors, both financially and mentally (Chen et al. 2021). In August 2021, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) of China announced that it would impose “stricter regulation on online reality shows.” On Sept. 2, 2021, the NRTA of China announced the suspension of fostered idol reality shows and officially took action against China’s “chaotic” fan culture. The regulation directly impacted fostered idol reality shows and related fan activities in various ways.
This article explores fan consumption in Chinese fostered idol reality shows with a focus on fundraising activities and evaluates the recent government regulation of these shows. We first introduce the background and examine the motivation behind fan consumption in the shows. The analysis involves the authors’ close observations of fan behavior and consumption on social media during the shows, corroborated by previous studies. We then provide a policy analysis regarding the regulation. It consists of an examination of the regulation rationale based on official announcements and private media articles and a normative assessment of the overall impacts and legitimacy of the regulation.
While there is extensive literature on fan consumption, there has been little research focused on idol reality shows within the East Asian context, and studies on Chinese fostered idol reality shows are even scarcer. Given the economic and social significance of fostered idol reality shows in China, this article will provide rich insight into the complicated nature of fan consumption as well as the rationale and efficacy of the regulation.
2. Idol Industry and Fostered Idol Reality Shows in China
Fostered idol reality shows emerged in China in the early 2000s. The 2005 TV show Super Girl (Chaoji Nyusheng) was among the first ones. The contestants of Super Girl were all amateurs. Instead of passively following the ‘shining stars’ like in earlier times, their fans gained power in deciding the career path of the contestants by voting for them via text messages. In the same era, the Internet became prevalent in China, which enabled fans to consume entertainment content easily and virtually connect to others. The fans formed fan groups and communities to communicate better and coordinate their activities (Kong 2012). Super Girl was a huge success. During its final round in 2005, the show had over 400 million audience members, which was unprecedented in Chinese history at that time (Joffe-Walt 2005).
The success of the Super Girl series opened up the path for other reality talent shows on TV and online that gave fans substantial power to determine the winners. In 2018, the reality show Idol Producer (Ouxiang Lianxisheng), which was adapted from the Korean show Produce 101, gained massive attention from the public. At the time, the concept of ‘idols’ had been introduced to China from Japanese and South Korean entertainment cultures. Korean idols are typically performers with extensive pre-debut professional training, while Japanese idols are marketed for their immaturity and potential for growth (Zhao and Wu 2020). Both experienced trainees of entertainment agencies and blank slates were present in Idol Producer and subsequent fostered idol reality shows. However, the fostering nature of the shows better resembled Japanese idol culture. Idol Producer was the first Chinese reality show that addressed the audience as ‘national producers’ with the decisive power of forming the debuting idol group. Compared to Super Girl, the contestants in Idol Producer were even more reliant on the votes from the audience. The voting mechanism expanded significantly with more paid options, which demanded significant time, emotional, and financial investment from fans (Yoshimitsu 2020).
Meanwhile, social media platforms developed rapidly in China, the most influential one being Weibo. The rise of social media facilitated interactions between fans and celebrities, the formation of fan communities, and the organization of fan activities. Gradually, the role of fans switched from consumers to ‘prosumers’ who could consume and produce simultaneously in various ways, such as purchasing advertising spaces for celebrities, writing fan fiction, and making celebrity-related merchandise. This change in the role of fans was projected into the broader entertainment industry and onto all celebrities with social media presence. Social media “traffic” (liuliang) thus gradually became a new quantitative criterion for assessing celebrities’ social influence and commercial value, which is often measured through the online activities of social media users surrounding a celebrity (Zhang and Negus 2020). Gradually, a divorce between traffic and professional celebrities emerged in the entertainment industry. The term “traffic celebrity” (liuliang mingxing) appeared in 2016 to describe celebrities with few recognized works but with large fan bases that have strong purchasing power, profound social influence, and significant commercial value (Lan 2020). The emphasis on traffic inevitably affected celebrity selection schemes and fostered idol reality shows. The number of votes overrode talent and skills and became the most critical measure of competence in the shows.
2.2 Fan Consumption Practices and Emotional Capitalism
As fostered idol reality shows evolved, paid votes emerged to encourage spending on online memberships and physical products, and many fans participated in organized fundraising activities. The fundraising platforms charged handling fees and displayed the contestants’ rankings in the shows and the number of funds raised for each (Gssn.gov.cn 2021). While little research examined the demographic composition of devoted fans of fostered idol shows, it is generally recognized that most fans are female. After analyzing over 250,000 data records with big data user portrait technology, He et al. (2022) presented a profile of Weibo fans of Cai Xukun. As one of the first and most representative winners of fostered idol shows in China, Cai had more than 37 million followers and over 15 million fans in his fan community on Weibo. The research shows that Cai’s fans are mostly female (83%) between the ages of 15 and 25 years old and that most live in urban areas (He et al. 2022). The demographic composition of Cai’s fans can shed light on the demographic composition of fans of fostered idol reality shows. People of this age range tend to be students or in their early careers and presumably do not have abundant socioeconomic resources. Yet in fostered idol shows, young fans indeed demonstrated remarkable purchasing power.
The shows and the consumption behavior of fans manifest emotional capitalism—a culture where “emotions have become entities to be evaluated, inspected, discussed, bargained, quantified, and commodified,” and economic transactions are imbued with “an unprecedented attention to the linguistic management of emotions” (Illouz 2007, 109). Following the logic of emotional capitalism, the parties on the production side of the shows quantified fans’ desires, commodified their loyalty toward the contestants, and turned all of their emotions into investment returns (Hu 2018; Jenkins 2006). Many fans posted pictures of their contributions to fundraising activities and other expenditures for the contestants to demonstrate their affection and support in online fan forums (Yang 2021). The behavior of following a celebrity without spending any money is referred to as baipiao in Chinese internet slang, the original meaning of which is to solicit a prostitute for free (Sun 2020). Baipiao fans were often perceived as inferior to other fans and marginalized (Yang 2021). Some fans produced goods related to their favorite contestant and gave them to other fans as gifts. However, they usually set specific requisites regarding expenditures on fundraising activities/related commercial products and the amount of work and involvement in the fan communities (measured by one’s level in online fan forums). The money and time could quantify and reflect the fans’ devotion to the contestants.
2.3 Motivation to Engage in Fan Consumption
Fan consumption can be motivated by personal formation and identity construction. In their 2007 study, Smith et al. found that fans rework consumption into a unique personal formation and gain a sense of settlement in their devoted attachments. They also found that devoted fans may compare themselves to more deeply involved fans such that their own consumption behavior does not seem fanatical. Seregina and Schouten (2016, 109) focused on identity construction and found that individuals who lack cultural capital—“an embodied understanding of the rules by which a society operates”—and social status may turn to fandom to accrue cultural capital and gain perceived status. Since Super Girl 2005, individual fans have formed online fan groups with group names. For instance, the fans of Yuchun Li, the winner of Super Girl 2005, addressed themselves as “Corn” (Yumi) because in Mandarin, “corn” is homophonic to Li’s name. Having fan group names may enable fans to connect with the contestants and find group affiliation. Participating in collective activities, such as fundraising, may deepen the bonds among fans and make them feel involved. In addition, there are typically a few opinion leaders in a fan group who are followed by many fellow fans and organize various fan activities. Their fan consumption may lead to a gain in perceived status and the satisfaction of self-esteem needs.
Fan consumption may also be examined with the model of consumer devotion. Developed by Pimentel and Reynolds (2004) in the context of college football fans, this model describes situations in which consumer loyalty is so intense that consumers will remain loyal at times of poor team performance and even provide exposure for the team at their own expense. Such devotion implies religious fervor and occurs when the team is significant to the fan’s self-worth and identity, and the fan has “proactive sustaining behavior,” such as display behavior, rituals, or sacrifices (Pimentel and Reynolds 2004). In fostered idol reality shows, the counterpart of ‘team performance’ is the contestant’s rank announced each round. When the rank of a particular contestant declines, rather than giving up on the contestant, their fans are usually more motivated to vote and participate in fundraising activities to help the contestant receive a better rank in the next round. Concerning proactive sustaining behavior, many fans check in on online fan pages and video platforms daily. It is also common for devoted fans to make banners, wear clothes or colors associated with the contestant, and socialize with other fans during offline activities. These behaviors can help them bond and assimilate with other fans and sustain their devotion to the contestant (Neale 2010; Pimentel and Reynolds 2004).
Nevertheless, there may be some unique motives for fans of fostered idol reality show contestants. Contestants in fostered idol reality shows are typically blank slates or trainees of some entertainment companies. Compared to established celebrities, they are closer to ordinary people and thus easier to connect with emotionally. They are also much more reliant on their fans to proceed in their career paths. Therefore, witnessing the contestants’ transition into stars may give their fans a sense of satisfaction analogous to what parents feel when watching their children grow up. Such “parental” love and satisfaction may motivate fans to engage in fan consumption as a means to support the contestants, almost selflessly (Yang 2009). Sometimes, the motivation may reach a level of intensity such that it transforms into a sense of obligation. Some fans may feel that because they have chosen the contestant, they are obligated to help the contestant gain greater exposure and succeed in the show at their own expense; they also tend to urge other fans to vote and participate in fundraising activities (Yang 2021). Such opinions regarding consumption can be highly transmissive in fan communities.
3. Government Regulation
In May 2021, one of the most influential ongoing reality shows, Youth With You 3, was suspended due to “controversies associated with the show” (NRTA of Beijing 2021). In August 2021, the NRTA of China announced it would impose “stricter regulation on online reality shows.” On September 2, it announced it would officially take action against the “chaotic” celebrity-fan culture, especially the fan culture of fostered idol reality shows (NRTA of China 2021). The NRTA of China restricted fundraising and online voting by temporarily removing fundraising apps from the Chinese App store and banning celebrity-related ranking charts on social media platforms. It also suspended fostered idol reality shows and claimed to eradicate the abnormal aesthetic views in the entertainment industry as well as to regulate the selection, performance styles, clothing, and makeup of celebrities (NRTA of China 2021).
3.1 Government Rationale for Regulation
One prominent market issue surrounding the shows that may have driven the regulation is ‘vote scalping.’ Since Idol Producer, fans have purchased large quantities of sponsoring products (mostly dairy drinks) to get additional votes, which gave rise to a vote-scalping shadow market. Vote scalpers purchase vast quantities of sponsored products and resell the votes at arbitrary prices. As the contest enters the later rounds and the products become out of stock, a single vote can be almost as expensive as a whole pack of bottled milk (Hao 2021). Vote scalpers may resell the drinks at lower prices or dump them if getting the QR code damaged the packaging (Hao 2021). In May 2021, as Youth With You 3 was approaching the final round, a video of vast quantities of dairy drinks being poured into a ditch generated heated public discussion. Although the source of the video remained unclear, the general public believed that the wasted drinks were vote-bounded merchandise of the show. Xinhua News, the official state press agency of China, posted a series of articles criticizing the shows’ producers and sponsors for creating such a voting mechanism, abandoning their social responsibilities by conniving food waste, and negatively impacting the pursuits and values of young people (Xinhua Net 2021). Although this scandal was not the only controversy surrounding Youth With You 3 at the time, it was considered a direct cause of the suspension.
Besides vote scalping, other market issues surrounding the voting mechanism of fostered idol shows include the purchase of accounts on the host video platforms and the emergence of voting agencies. Because each account can only vote a limited number of times per day, fan groups usually purchase many accounts and hire people to scan thousands of QR codes daily and vote (Ye 2021). Some people organize themselves into voting agency groups and earn money by voting for certain contestants on behalf of their fans (Hao 2021). While voting agency groups have received much less public attention than vote scalping, the emergence of under-regulated shadow markets is likely to be a concern of the government.
According to Xinhua News, the dumping of dairy products for caps is suspected of violating the anti-food waste law of the People’s Republic of China (Liu 2021). One might wonder why the government did not demand that the show’s producers adopt alternative voting mechanisms, such as selling the votes directly to the audience, to avoid food waste. In fact, the show’s producers could not do so because earlier regulations prohibited the shows and the audiences from being involved in the same economic transaction. In addition, following the mania for Super Girl in 2005, the government imposed regulations on TV talent shows and prohibited voting outside of the show, including text messages, phone calls, and internet votes (Xinhua Net 2007). Because there was no explicit regulation on merchandise-bounded votes, show producers chose to sell votes through retail products as a ‘safe choice’ to make profits. However, in February 2020, under the instruction of the NRTA of China, the China Netcasting Services Association enacted guidelines on the censorship of online reality show content on several major video platforms, which explicitly prohibited paid votes and any means that encourage the audience to vote by purchasing related products and memberships of the video platforms (China.huanqiu.com 2020). Even if no physical merchandise was involved, the voting mechanisms of the shows, which included paid votes, would violate these guidelines.
Furthermore, the legal issues that arise from using fundraising activities to finance voting-related expenditures could have also motivated the government’s intervention. To further incentivize participation in fundraising activities, fan leaders may organize fundraising battles with the fans of other contestants (sometimes from different shows) based on preset goals (Yang 2021, 124). If fans lose the battles or fail to meet their goals, there may be penalties, such as publicly paying the competitor compliments (Ai 2021). Some individual fans may stimulate participation by promising to make additional large donations if the total funds exceed a specific amount (Yang 2021). The amount of funding raised in one fundraising battle could be remarkable. For instance, in a battle among three contestants of Chuang 2021 and one contestant of Youth With You 3, the fan group of the top contestant Yu Liu raised almost $538,900 USD within five hours (W. Chen 2021). The fan groups of other contestants also raised tremendous amounts of funds, and one fan contributed as much as $26,700 USD (W. Chen 2021). While many media outlets have raised doubts about the legitimacy of these fundraising activities, money raised from fans is generally regarded as voluntarily donated money, and no specific law or regulation prohibits such activities (W. Chen 2021; Gssn.gov.cn 2021). Nevertheless, the trust-based nature of fundraising activities and the massive amount of money involved entails substantial risks because fund management may not be transparent to the donors. There have been cases in which the organizers of fundraising activities defrauded and absconded with the funds (Yang 2021; Blue Whale Media 2021; Southern Metropolis Daily 2021).
Beyond the market and legal controversies surrounding the shows, there further appears to be a clash between the social and ethical values that the shows promoted and the values endorsed by the Chinese government. To begin with, the production teams, platforms, and sponsors induced the audience to spend money and changed the nature of the shows from talent contests to competitions for fans’ consumption power, demonstrating and even celebrating emotional capitalism (Zhang 2021). Yet from the perspective of the government, it is problematic for consumers to devote so many resources to unnecessary and unimportant entertainment activities, even though such devotion is the consumer’s personal choice. The Chinese culture has embraced frugality as a traditional virtue, and in many articles, official media sources conveyed concern about fostered idol reality shows distorting young people’s monetary values and promoting extravagant consumption behavior (Zhang 2021; Dong 2021).
Additionally, some official media outlets have criticized the shows for distorting the aesthetic views of young people, especially the shows featuring male contestants. Under the influence of Japanese and Korean popular culture, many male contestants in the shows wear heavy makeup and are thin, good-looking, and attractive to a predominantly female audience. However, males in Chinese society typically do not wear makeup and instead celebrate masculinity. Those displaying fragility and femininity may be mocked and even disdained, primarily by other males. Ever since Idol Producer, there has been criticism of certain popular male contestants’ feminine appearances and personae on social media. Nevertheless, it was not until late August 2021 when Guangming Daily, an influential central newspaper, published an article denouncing male femininity in the entertainment industry and referring to such aesthetics as “sissy” and abnormal (X. Chen 2021).
Moreover, because the outcomes of fostered idol reality shows depend entirely on the number of votes, some contestants with relatively poor singing and dancing skills may still attract fans because of their physical appearance and personality and end up debuting as members of idol groups (Liu and Feng 2019). This phenomenon raises the question of to what extent people should celebrate physical beauty and youth, and whether popularity is more important than one’s abilities and skills. Such a selection scheme lowers the barriers to entry into the entertainment industry and discourages young professionals from setting high standards for themselves (Liu 2021).
These issues were perceived not only as problems with the shows but also with toxic idol fan culture. The government targeted the shows with regulations on the selection, performance styles, clothing, and makeup of celebrities following the suspension of the shows. The State seemed concerned about the shows’ power to shape young people’s consumption values, aesthetic standards, and attitudes toward effort and success. This power can be particularly strong when fans tie their identities to their idols and are influenced by other fans in the communities.
While there are fan communities on social media platforms for almost all celebrities, those for idols are typically the most active, especially when fostered idol reality shows are airing. During an ongoing season of a show, fans display a strong sense of collectivism. To support their contestant, they donate funds, vote, comment on relevant posts, report negative posts about the contestant, and occasionally argue with the fans of other contestants. Some fans’ devotion towards a contestant transforms into hostility towards competitors, their fans, and, overall, whoever does not like their preferred contestant, which can lead to cyber-bullying (Ding 2021). Also, because the voting mechanism is directly associated with the contestants’ futures, there is typically a pro-consumption atmosphere within fan communities that may put financial pressure on some fans, especially minors who are still economically dependent (Xinhua Net 2021; Yang 2021). The collectivist and pro-consumption atmosphere in fan communities is perceived as irrational by the public and the government, which may have been an important rationale for the government to impose regulation.
Although the regulation appeared to be caused by Youth With You 3’s scandals and to be implemented as a way to contain public outrage, the government had been concerned about the market, legal, and social/ethical issues associated with the shows, idol industry, and idol fan culture for a long time—which all could have motivated the regulation. Generally, the government and the mainstream media have portrayed devoted fans as victims trapped in a chaotic, toxic fan culture and taken advantage of by the parties on the production side. However, some media sources have blamed fans for behaving irrationally and supporting their idols blindly, thereby compromising their ability to make wise judgments and inducing other fans to act the same way (Xinhua Net 2021). While it is clear that the production teams, sponsors, and platforms created the voting mechanism and are responsible for turning talent contests into consumption competitions, the extent to which fans are accountable for the shows’ controversies and toxic fan culture remains debatable. Overall, the government sought to improve fans’ well-being by stopping them from devoting excessively to idols, emotionally and financially. It also sought to penalize the parties on the production side of the shows responsible for drawing public outrage, invoking market and legal controversies, and conflicting with government-endorsed values. The government seemed to believe that the most efficient way to achieve these goals was to halt the shows.
3.2 Regulation Impacts
One direct impact of the government intervention is the loss of profit that could have been made from the suspended shows and idol groups. The financial statement of iQiyi shows that the premium memberships during the shows’ broadcasting periods generated at least $18.8 million USD in revenue (Yan 2021). Suspending fostered idol shows inevitably led to a considerable profit loss for the production teams of ongoing and future shows. It also influenced the sponsors, especially those who were tied to the paid votes and who had to issue refunds for the sold merchandise (Youth with You iQiyi 2021). Nevertheless, according to People’s Daily (2021), although many fan groups stopped the fundraising activities immediately after the suspension of Youth with You 3, official merchandise related to the contestants was still massively consumed—the motivation for consumption remained.
While the suspension did not involve talent shows of other types, the requirement to remove online voting and ranking lists forced these shows to modify their rules and voting schemes. Although their specific responses varied, reality talent shows that previously had online voting features have adjusted to weaken the role of the audience and fans. Take the talent show that features singing and composing skills, The Coming One, for example. The fifth season of the show only had live voting by the audience watching the performances in person. Based on data released by the show producer, the number of overall views on Weibo for Season 4, which was broadcast before the regulation, is over 10 billion, while the number of overall views for Season 5 is only 1.74 billion (Weibo Variety Shows 2020; 2021).
The suspension of fostered idol reality shows inevitably narrowed the path for prospective idols. It pushed them to specialize their skills to fit into other fields, such as acting and singing, as there are still shows featuring prospective singers and actors. To some extent, the regulation filtered the contestant pool, as only the most determined individuals remained trainees during this difficult time. Moreover, halting fostered idol shows also pushed entertainment agencies to restructure their training schemes and evolve away from relying on the annual shows (Music Finance and Economics 2021).
However, while the suspension of idol selection shows seems unprecedented, the Chinese government has experience with censoring TV talent shows in the past. After the previous government regulations were passed in 2007, the Super Girl series was suspended for two years and resumed in 2009 (Xinhua Net 2009). Thus, the current regulation might be temporary and not significantly affect fostered idol reality shows and the industry in the long run.
The impacts of the regulation on fans, the audience, and the public have been varied, with fans being the most heavily affected group. While some fans felt liberated from the voting mechanisms and the disputes within and amongst fan communities, others found the regulation offensive and stigmatizing (Yuni 2021). The suspension of fostered idol reality shows and the rectification of fan culture provoked further judgment and criticism towards both the shows and their audience, especially toward devoted fans. Under the influence of the government and mainstream media, the public may believe that the shows are unambiguously bad and that the fans are unequivocally irrational, which can negatively impact the social status of the stigmatized parties. Indeed, there have been cases of people yelling at male contestants from the shows and labeling them as “sissies” following the government’s call for “banning the male femininity” (Bazhangmen 2021).
4. Normative Analysis
The regulation is paternalistic, which refers to the governmental practice of intervening in individuals’ freedom for their own good (Zamir 1998). Specifically, the regulation paternalizes the shows’ audiences, particularly the devoted fans—most of which are young females—by restricting their consumption of and participation in fostered idol reality shows. The following section evaluates this paternalistic regulation from the perspective of welfarist consequentialism, a major framework used in public policy analysis.
According to welfarist consequentialism, the rightness or wrongness of a policy or regulation should be determined by its impact on social welfare, which is a function of personal utility levels (Sen 1979). Welfarism considers individual preference satisfaction and assumes rational agents, positing that people hold coherent preferences over different outcomes and tend to pursue those preferences centered on personal welfare. Preferences can be either actual preferences (those a person actually holds) or ideal preferences. Ideal preferences are the preferences that a person would have if they considered their situation calmly and carefully, attended to all the relevant information about the consequences of having their actual preferences satisfied, and did not have any external pressure or prejudice influencing them (Zamir 1998). Actual preferences theory imposes a significant challenge to justifying paternalistic interventions. According to the theory, improving one’s well-being requires exclusively satisfying their actual preferences. Any intervention that frustrates one’s actual preferences would not promote their well-being (Zamir 1998). Conversely, ideal preferences theory may endorse paternalistic interventions if one’s actual preferences differ from their ideal ones, and intervening in their choices would help them to satisfy their ideal preferences.
Let us apply the logic of welfarist consequentialism to the regulation of fostered idol reality shows. As identified in the previous section, the regulation has various stakeholders. Suppose the platforms, producers, vote scalpers, and agencies primarily want to maximize economic profits and do not value the potentially negative social impact of the shows. Then, their actual preferences may be consistent with their ideal preferences prior to the regulation, and the imposition of the regulation should negatively affect their welfare. For prospective idols, the regulation may reduce their welfare by limiting their opportunities to be idols. However, former contestants may switch to other occupations, which can make them either better or worse off depending on the extent to which they prefer to be idols and can adapt their skills.
Because much more individuals are involved in the consumption of the shows, the regulation would be justified if its net effect on their welfare is positive. Nevertheless, the net impact is difficult to determine because the audience and fans were differentially affected. Although members of the general audience lost a source of entertainment, they will likely find substitutes with great ease due to their low attachment and investment in the shows. Thus, the impact may only be mildly negative or even insignificant. As for devoted fans—the group that the government is presumably most concerned about—the impact of the regulation on their welfare seems to be mixed.
To begin with, the regulation highlights some negative internalities borne by fans, referencing the unaccounted—for costs of show consumption and engaging in show—related fan activities. One prominent negative internality is the unpleasant emotions fans may experience during the shows. As the shows proceed, fans’ emotional well-being may be affected by the results of each round. When their preferred contestants have undesirable performances or receive lower ranks, they are likely to experience stress, sadness, and anger, which may penetrate their daily lives. Another internality for fans is the opportunity costs of their time and financial resources. The more devoted they are, the more likely they will spend time and money on the shows, and that time and money might have generated more benefits for fans if spent elsewhere. In addition, overconsuming may lead fans to lower their current and future living standards. Overconsumption can be prevalent within fan communities given fans’ young ages, their propensity to be influenced by others, and their potential lack of socioeconomic resources. Last but not least, from the government’s perspective, the identity formation of minors through the toxic idol fan culture can impose an internality on themselves and impede their personal growth.
The regulation may address these internalities directly by raising awareness among fans and halting their consumption of the shows. It also imposed restrictions on fan communities’ power to organize collective activities and pressure individual fans. When the fans’ actual preferences differ from their ideal preferences, the regulation may increase their welfare by nudging them to behave in a way they would not have with careful consideration, complete information, and no external pressure. Indeed, during a show, fan communities often use political-campaign-like slogans that frame participation in fundraising activities as a demonstration of devotion and affection for the contestants (Yang 2021). The slogans can be highly persuasive and induce fans to donate or consume related products out of herd mentality. Under such situations, paternalistic government intervention may help young fans make decisions that better reflect their ideal preferences; it may even preserve their rights and freedom by freeing them from compulsion.
Nevertheless, although the suspension may have encouraged contestants to explore other career paths and removed the need for fans to spend time and money to help their preferred contestants debut, most motives for fan consumption remain. Fans might continue to follow other celebrities and organize themselves into fan communities. They may still spend money on related merchandise to promote the commercial values of celebrities, and news stories about celebrities can still influence their emotions, even though the behavior and effects may not concentrate over a short period. In this case, the regulation would have little effect on fans’ behavior and welfare. Moreover, the regulation neglected that some fans could consume the shows and engage in relevant activities out of their own will after careful consideration—and may be satisfying their ideal preferences. Even the seemingly problematic features that blend voting and consumption, such as vote scalping, can involve willing sellers and buyers and be regarded as welfare-improving for at least some affected parties. In these instances, the regulation would reduce those fans’ welfare. Due to the differences in individual fans’ actual and ideal preferences, it is difficult to determine whether the regulation improved their overall welfare. Furthermore, while identity formation through fan culture may indeed impose an internality on minors, the stigmatization accompanying the regulation unambiguously hurts all fans, especially those who consider ‘being a fan’ as a significant part of their identities.
Lastly, it is important to consider how the regulation addresses the externalities of the shows’ consumption and production—the costs imposed on third parties, such as the general public. One major factor affecting the general welfare may be food-wasting from food merchandise with paid votes, negatively impacting the overall market environment and consumption atmosphere. Calling the shows to a halt directly addresses this externality by suppressing the activities in the shadow markets. However, as previously mentioned, the regulation inevitably generates deadweight loss by reducing the welfare of vote scalpers and the willing buyers of votes in these shadow markets. The most straightforward solution to the food-waste problem might be making the QR codes for extra votes separable from the merchandise. After the scalpers remove the QR codes for selling, they can resell the products instead of dumping them.
Another externality may be the negative influence the shows could have on the broader entertainment industry. The fast, star-producing mechanism de-emphasizes cumulative training and effort and celebrates ‘becoming popular overnight,’ which may influence the mentality of agencies and trainees and contaminate the entertainment industry environment. In addition, the explicit manifestation of emotional capitalism in the shows, such as the correlation between the amount of money raised and the contestants’ rank, might reshape the values of outsiders, especially minors, due to the shows’ significant social impact. The regulation highlights these social costs, but fostered idol reality shows are not the only cause of these ills. A larger-scale industrial reform may be necessary to address these costs.
In general, the regulation has imposed negative effects on producers’ welfare and mixed effects on consumers’ welfare, especially devoted fans. The extent to which it can address the shows’ externalities and improve the general public’s welfare is also limited. Because of the variation in fans’ individual preferences and the inherent difficulty with measuring and comparing welfare effects, the welfarist consequentialist analysis yielded an unclear result and cannot unambiguously justify the paternalistic intervention, of which the positive effects were unevenly distributed among the affected parties. Less ambiguous, however, is that the regulation would have improved overall social welfare more if it was a gentle nudge rather than a hard ban. If fans were better informed of the potential consequences of their consumption practices and behavior, and if they were protected from being compelled to consume while still being allowed to make their own choices, they would act in a way that better reflects their individual ideal preferences. Meanwhile, if the showrunners had the opportunity to modify the game rules, the negative impact on producers would be reduced and they would make a profit in a more socially conscious manner.
With a focus on fostered idol reality shows in China, the study investigated fan consumption behavior in these shows and the recent government regulation. It first reviewed the development of the idol industry and shows and examined the motivation behind fan consumption. Although fans’ consumption behavior is mainly portrayed as ‘irrational’ by the media, we can generally understand this motivation in the frameworks of personal identity formation and consumer devotion. In addition, we found that the ‘fostering’ aspect of the shows is unique and makes fans feel more emotionally attached to the contestants and obligated to support them financially.
Through investigating a variety of private and public media articles, we analyzed the rationale behind government intervention in the idol industry and the suspension of related shows. While the scandals surrounding Youth With You 3 seemed to be the direct cause of the series of regulations, we believe the show was only a catalyst. The shadow markets associated with voting, legal controversies, and social issues could have all motivated top-down rectification. The regulation has directly influenced the shows’ producers, contestants, agencies, sponsors, and fans. The impact on fans has been mixed, and other stakeholders of the shows have been negatively impacted. However, because past government regulations over talent shows were temporary, fostered idol reality shows may resume, perhaps in modified forms, when the current situation cools down, so the long-term impact of the regulation may be insignificant.
After evaluating the regulation from a welfarist consequentialist perspective and considering the internalities and externalities involved, we conclude that it is unclear whether such regulation is justified. The regulation conveyed the government’s long-standing tendency to be a paternalistic ‘nanny state,’ attempting to instill ‘proper’ social behavior in its citizens. Indeed, the regulation improved the welfare of some fans, especially minors, by informing them of the potential negative consequences of engaging in the shows and protecting them against coercive consumption. However, it simultaneously hurt the interests of the parties on the production side of the shows, reduced the welfare of the fans who satisfy their ideal preferences through consuming the shows, and reinforced the existing stigmatization of fans and idol fan culture. In addition, the regulation may not adequately address the externalities of the shows to improve the general public’s welfare.
Despite the negative media portrayal, it is worth noting that fostered idol reality shows could have some positive impacts. For example, they offered opportunities for contestants from diverse backgrounds, some of whom might have devoted themselves to this industry for a long time. These contestants could be neutral or even positive influences on audiences and fans. However, such benefits disappeared with the suspension of the shows.
Finally, we would like to acknowledge some limitations of this study and suggest directions for future research. The study incorporated extensive information about fostered idol reality shows and fan culture in China based on actual cases, government announcements, media articles, and the authors’ close observations of fan communities on social media platforms. Nevertheless, it is not a comprehensive account of this complex topic and should be complemented with more empirical evidence in the future, such as in-depth interviews with individual fans and large-scale surveys among fan communities. Moreover, because the study was completed within one year after the announcement of the regulation, it could only assess the short-term impacts and conjecture about future impacts. Follow-up studies are needed to verify the predictions and evaluate the medium and long-term impacts.
Additionally, as mentioned in the background section, idol culture and fostered idol shows are imported from Japan and South Korea, but there are few comparable cases of government intervention in those countries. Therefore, comparing the shows’ mechanisms, social contexts, and political structures across different East Asian countries may produce valuable insights.
The authors are grateful for the valuable comments made by Professor Malte Dold.
Ai, X. (2021). “倒奶事件”背后的商业合谋：畸形“打投”，错的不仅是 饭圈 [The conspiracy behind the yogurt wasting scandal: the toxic voting scheme is not just a fan community issue]. YCWB. http://ep.ycwb.com/epaper/ycwb/h5/html5/2021-05/10/content_10_383976.htm.
Bazhangmen (@八掌门). (2021). 甘望星机场被男性路人骂 [Gan Wangxing was cursed by a male passerby at the airport]. [Video attached] [Weibo post]. Sina Weibo. https://m.weibo.cn/status/4681322389833296?wm=3333_2001&from=10C2193010&sourcetype=weixin.
Blue Whale Media (2021). 大吧主卷款千万跑路了，爱豆你知道吗？[Fan community leaders have absconded, do idols themselves know?]. [WeChat official platform post]. WeChat. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/KSw5nd03BMDjFs74Ij-IHg.
Chen, W. (2021). 偶像选秀综艺乱象调查：灰色“集资”泛滥 资金该 由谁管理？[A research on the chaotic idol selection reality shows: the grey zone of fundraising]. Xinhua Net. http://www.xinhuanet.com/fortune/2021-03/29/c_1127266575.htm.
Chen, X. [光明网]. (2021). “娘炮形象”等畸形审美必须遏制 [The “sissy” aesthetics needs to end]. August 27, 2021. [Wechat Official Platform Post]. WeChat. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/0oUp9OcJxTC4mkwAtukz0Q.
Chen, Y., Meng, Y., Lin, Z., and Zhang W. (2021). 谁是“饭圈”文化背后的操纵者 [Who is the manipulator behind the fan culture]. Southern Weekly. https://www.infzm.com/contents/213229.
China.huanqiu.com. (2020).《网络综艺节目内容审核标准细则》发布 [The detailed rules of censoring internet reality shows have been announced]. https://china.huanqiu.com/article/9CaKrnKpwm7.
Ding, H. (2021). 狂热的“饭圈文化”，凉了 [The crazy fan culture has gone]. Dec. 29, 2021. https://m.bjnews.com.cn/detail/164076962814668.html.
Dong, X. (2021). 人民网三评“倒奶事件“之二:多少利益暗中驱动? [People’s daily comments on the yogurt wasting incidence (2 of 3), the interests behind this action]. People’s Daily Online. http://opinion.people.com.cn/n1/2021/0508/c223228-32097922.html.
Gssn.gov.cn. (2021). “饭圈集资”风险及法律问题研究 [The risks and legal issues behind fan fundraisings]. http://gssn.gov.cn/ztzl/jrxc/202109/t20210910_707196.html.
Hao, Y. [Blue Whale Media]. (2021). 疯狂的“奶票”[The Crazy “Yogurt Votes”]. [WeChat official platform post]. WeChat. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/OpEsObZBNArjID4U0gAeZA
He, G., Pu, Q., and Wang, H. (2022). Characteristics and Culture of Fan based from the Perspective of Big Data. Advances in Social Sciences, 11(2), 524-530.
Hu, C. (2018). Online Communities, Fanatic Consumption, and Free Labour (网络社区、狂热消费与免费劳动). China Youth Studies (中国青年研究), 2018(6), 5-12.
Illouz, E. (2007). Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (1st ed.). Polity.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (Revised ed.). NYU Press.
Joffe-Walt, Benjamin. (2005). Mad About the Girl: A Pop Idol for China. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2005/oct/07/chinathemedia.broadcasting.
Kong, S. (2012). The ‘Affective Alliance’: ‘Undercover,’ Internet Media Fandom, and the Sociality of Cultural Consumption in Postsocialist China. Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 24(1), 1-47.
Lan, B. (2020). 当前流量明星的生成机制及其反思. (The Mechanism Behind the Production of “Traffic Celebrities” and Reflections on It). Changjiang Literature and Art Review (长江文艺评论), 3, 37-42.
Liu, L., and Feng W. (2019). 不只蔡徐坤吴亦凡！流量明星被群嘲，也能黑转粉，原因是……[Not only Cai Xukun and Kris Wu! The traffic celebrities were humiliated but regained public respect for these reasons]. Shanghai Observer. https://www.shobserver.com/news/detail?id=150218.
Liu, X. (2021). 这样的选秀节目该浇盆冷水了[Reality shows of this type need to stop]. Nanfang Daily. http://epaper.southcn.com/nfdaily/html/2021-05/07/content_7942117.htm
Music Finance and Economics [音乐财经]. (2021). 选秀没了，自主养成能否成为偶像经纪公司的新出路？[Now that the fostered idol survival shows are gone. Is self incubating a new path for idol agencies?]. [WeChat official platform post]. WeChat. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/_vJBcLVpd3KaVyzz4L5vFQ.
National Radio and Television Administration of Beijing. (2021). 北京市广播电视局责令爱奇艺暂停《青春有你》第三季后续节目录制 [NRTA Beijing Announces Suspension of iQiyi’s Upcoming Episodes of Youth with You Season 3]. [WeChat official platform post]. WeChat. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/qznZYJws-XI_wxF-NOCrhg.
National Radio and Television Administration of China. (2021). 国家广播电视总局办公厅关于进一步加强文艺节目及其人员管理的通知 [NRTA China Announces Regulation over Entertainment Shows and Participants]. http://www.nrta.gov.cn/art/2021/9/2/art_113_57756.html.
Neale, L. (2010). Loyalty and the Ritualistic Consumption of Entertainment. Continuum, 24(6), 905-919.
People’s Daily. (2021). 人民日报：节目虽停“氪金”不停，是谁 在推波助澜？[People’s Daily: The show is stopped, but the spending is not]. 2022. https://view.inews.qq.com/a/20210517A0E55U00#&v_p=89&WBAPIAnalysisOriUICodes=10000010_10000003_10001054_10000003&launchid=10000365–x&wm=3333_2001&aid=01A8Kv0OV9IUIPZkZV5ExhGPgkHG5DSB1oiJF6EyVY60Eqz6U.&from=10C1193010.
Pimentel, R., and Reynolds, K. (2004). A Model for Consumer Devotion: Affective Commitment with Proactive Sustaining Behaviors. Academy of Marketing Science Review, 2004(5), 1-45.
Sen, A. (1979). Personal Utilities and Public Judgements: Or What’s Wrong With Welfare Economics. The Economic Journal, 89(355), 537–558.
Seregina, A., and Schouten, J. W. (2016). Resolving Identity Ambiguity Through Transcending Fandom. Consumption Markets & Culture, 20(2), 107-130. 10.1080/10253866.2016.1189417
Smith, S., Fisher, D., and Cole, S. J. (2007). The Lived Meanings of Fanaticism: Understanding the Complex Role of Labels and Categories in Defining the Self in Consumer Culture. Consumption Markets & Culture, 10(2), 77-94.
Southern Metropolis Daily (2021). 饭圈站姐以倒卖选秀奶票为幌子诈骗百万. [Fan community leaders were involved with over 1 million RMB yogurt vote frauds].[Weibo post]. Sina Weibo. https://m.weibo.cn/status/4716871863506890?wm=3333_2001&from=10C1193010&sourcetype=weixin.
Sun, M. (2020). K-Pop Fan Labor and an Alternative Creative Industry: A Case Study of Got7 Chinese Fans. Global Media and China, 5(4), 389-406.
Weibo Variety Shows (@微博综艺). (2020) 乐团季微博收官战报来啦！[Here comes the data report for The Coming One Season 4!]. [Image attached][Weibo post]. Sina Weibo. https://m.weibo.cn/status/4549074101469842?wm=3333_2001&from=10C5293010&sourcetype=weixin.
Weibo Variety Shows (@微博综艺). (2021) 采风报告 [The Coming One Season 5’s data report]. [Image attached][Weibo post]. Sina Weibo. https://m.weibo.cn/status/4694734230783910?wm=3333_2001&from=10C5293010&sourcetype=weixin.
Xing, Y. (2020). 人民网三评“饭圈” [Critics on the fan community]. People’s Daily Online. http://opinion.people.com.cn/GB/8213/420650/433811/index.html
Xinhua Net. (2007). 广电总局禁止省级上星频道黄金时段播选秀节目 [NRTA has suspended prime-time TV reality shows]. https://news.sohu.com/20070921/n252288438.shtml.
Xinhua Net. (2009) 湖南卫视宣布“超女“重启动 或改名“快乐女声“ [“Super Girl” is likely to restart with the new name of “Happy Girl”]. Xinhua Net. (2021 May 4). 别把青年人带沟里! [Do not Lead the Younger Generation to the Sink!]. [Weibo Post]. Sina Weibo. https://m.weibo.cn/status/4633180634354057?wm=3333_2001&from=10C1193010&sourcetype=weixin .
Xinhua Net. (2021). 粉丝沦为牟利工具 “饭圈”文化走向畸形如何治？[The fans are now the money-earning machines – how do we correct the toxic fan culture?]. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2021-05/28/c_1127500924.htm.
Yan, Y. [道略音乐产业]. (2021). 选秀4年，爱奇艺赚了多少？2张专辑赚2236.5万元！400位偶像，未出道便带来42亿收入，仅门票就挣4.42亿元. [How much did iQiyi earn in 4 years of fostered idol reality shows? 400 idols generated 4.2 billion RMB before their debut, with concert tickets contributing 442 million]. [WeChat official platform post]. WeChat. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/xSubFVXo5-kDDfj0UxAt6A.
Yang, A. (2021). Online Ethnographic Research on Fundraising Among Fans of Reality Survival Shows (选秀节目中粉丝集资的网络民族志研究). Radio & TV Journal (视听), 2021(11), 124-125.
Yang, L. (2009). All for Love: The Corn Fandom, Prosumers, and the Chinese way of Creating a Superstar. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12(5), 527–543.
Ye, X. (2021). 疯狂倒奶，粉丝打投游戏陷入“囚徒困境”[The crazy yogurt wastes leads fan voting to a “prisoner’s dilemma”]. Finance.sina.com.cn. https://finance.sina.com.cn/tech/2021-05-07/doc-ikmxzfmm1071138.shtml
Yoshimitsu, M. (2020). Affective Economics in the East Asian Media and Entertainment Industry: Comparative Case Studies of Music Competition Television Series. 長崎県立大学東アジア研究所『東アジア評論』, 12, 83-92.
Youth with You iQiyi [@爱奇艺青春有你]. (2021). 真果粒青春有你3“活动装产品”的退货及赔偿相关处理办法如下，我们一定妥善处理，确保用户的利益[Compensation mechanism from the title sponsor of the show]. [Image attached] [Weibo post]. Sina Weibo. https://m.weibo.cn/status/4634350098844934?wm=3333_2001&from=10C1193010&sourcetype=weixin.
Yuni [三号检票厅员工]. (2021). 都不能怪饭圈了吗？[Can’t we blame the fan communities?]. [WeChat official platform post]. WeChat. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/rDpjL_MpvwQdY3U6D_MPiA.
Zamir, E. (1998). The Efficiency of Paternalism. Virginia Law Review, 84(2), 229-286.
Zhao, S., and Wu, X. (2020). Motivations and Consumption Practices of Fostered Idol Fans: A Self-Determination Theory Approach. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 38(1), 91-100.
Zhang, M. (2021). 对选秀链条畸变，该出手时就出手 [Actions required for the toxic reality shows]. http://m.xinhuanet.com/2021-05/06/c_1127414771.htm.
Zhang, Q., and Negus, K. (2020). East Asian Pop Music Idol Production and the Emergence of Data Fandom in China. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 23(4), 493-511.
- Throughout the article, we make a distinction between the general audience and fans. While the general audience is anyone who watches the shows, the fans are a group of the audience who are emotionally attached to one or more of the show contestants and participate in the voting process in various ways. Fans will be the focus of this article. ↵
- Fan consumption practices in the Chinese entertainment industry include paying for the celebrity’s performances and works, purchasing celebrity-related products, spending on charities in the celebrity's name, and fundraising to support the celebrity. While all types of fan consumption are present in fostered idol shows, fundraising among fans is particularly intriguing due to its purposes and scale. ↵
- We use the exchange rate 1 USD = 6.37 RMB from March 24th, 2022 throughout the article. ↵
- Ever since the early “Corn” fandom, many fans, mostly female, have jokingly addressed themselves and sometimes others as “mom fans (mafen)” and the contestant as their child. While this perceived mother-child relationship between fans and celebrities, along with other perceived intimate relationships, exists in the general entertainment industry, we believe it is particularly prevalent and relevant in fostered idol reality shows. ↵
- In addition, from Super Girl to Youth with You, fostered idol reality shows have featured voting and free expression from the audience and contestants. The rules and time span of the shows are similar to that of political elections, both involving multiple rounds of voting and determining the results based on the number of votes counted towards the candidates. Thus, they are believed to nourish democratic practices and enhance real-world civic engagement in China (Joffe-Walt 2005). Suspending the shows may forgo these potential political benefits. ↵
- The target of such regulations on young females is based on demographic information of Cai Xukun’s fans as explained in section 2.2, which acts as a representative model of celebrity fans in China. ↵