Chinese reality show set in Spain becomes ratings smash

Series featuring celebrities travelling round Europe on the cheap has been watched by 350 million

The seven stars of the reality show in Barcelona.
The seven stars of the reality show in Barcelona.Hunan TV

On Chinese television, which is still strictly controlled by the state, and where the bulk of programming consists of sports, old movies and South Korean soap operas, reality TV rules. Shows for couples, such as Fei Cheng Wu Rao (or, If You’re Not Sincere, Don’t Try), have garnered viewing figures in the tens of millions, and prompted the censors to intervene, fearful of the image they portray of society. Others have put celebrities in difficult situations. But the most popular at the moment has Spain as its backdrop.

Divas Hit the Road charts the fortunes of seven celebrities – five sisters and two male chaperones – as they travel first through Italy and then the rest of Europe on €120 a day.

The divas are veteran performers Peipei Zheng (who played Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon); Kaili Zhang and Tao Liu, who have appeared in many Chinese TV shows; and Qing Xu, who played Bruce Willis’s wife in 2012’s Looper.

Representing the younger generation is Feier Li, famous for her romantic roles on television and in movies; Hans Zhang, tasked with the role of guide; and singer Chenyu Hua, who looks after the money and warns the divas when they are about to overspend their daily budget.

The show, produced by Hunan TV, has been advertised throughout China and has attracted up to 350 million viewers at peak times. The Spanish section was shot in April, and the series began airing that same month on Fridays at 10pm Beijing time. Since then, it has attracted an ever-larger audience share. The first episode garnered 6.8 percent, while the group was in Italy, rising to 8.4 percent for the May 23 episode, the first to take place in Spain, making it the most watched for its time slot, according to the data provided by CSM Media Research for the Baidu website.

‘Divas Hit the Road’ charts the fortunes of seven celebrities as they travel round Europe on €120 a day

The show has also attracted a huge internet following. The first three episodes were seen online by 59 million people according to the daily Global Times. The series, targeted at an 18 to 45 age group with a university education, has increased Hunan TV’s website traffic tenfold, and attracts three million unique users daily; little wonder that other producers are looking for ways to copy the formula. The participants’ escapades have also been widely discussed on the social networks: will Zhang deliberately forget where her passport is, 10 minutes before boarding the group’s flight to Barcelona? How powerful is the romantic chemistry between the younger members of the entourage?

“The idea was to show how the individuals within a group relate to each other with limited time and resources while travelling,” says the program’s director Liao Ke. To do that, Hunan TV has spared no expense in making the series: some 90 people took part in the Spanish stage of shooting and local production company Globomedia was also called in. Cameras were installed everywhere, including in the divas’ bedrooms.

Spain was chosen over other countries because “it is a place that ordinary Chinese already know, and want to know more about,” says Liao. The decision may also have had to do with practical aspects such as the weather: “This is a lovely month in Spain, it doesn’t rain too much,” he explains, adding that this made shooting exteriors much easier than, say, in France or Germany.

The troupe visited Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Carmona, Ronda and Cádiz, and were not afraid to delve into just about every cliché: bullfights at Madrid’s Las Ventas, soccer at Real Madrid’s Bernabéu stadium, flamenco classes in Seville... and all washed down with big jugs of sangria. That said, the divas were also impressed by Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia basilica, and the white houses that perch on the cliff tops of Ronda.

Spain was chosen as “it is a place that ordinary Chinese already know, and want to know more about”

With their limited budget of just €120 a day, the group travelled on low-cost airlines and trains, and stayed in cheap hotels. The participants have also suffered the same mishaps as other tourists, such as having their handbags stolen. Other problems were more akin to those of proper divas: after turning up at Florence airport with a huge array of suitcases, they were told they could check in just one, with a maximum weight of 25 kilos.

“We filmed 24/7, never stopping: everything you see really happened. The divas were filmed throughout the trip,” says Liao, explaining that the team encountered a lot of problems when trying to film on location without permission.

The divas were free to travel where they wanted, or where they could agree on, which meant some last-minute changes: they were supposed to go to Jerez, but decided against it the night before departure. They also found it difficult not being able to speak Italian or Spanish.

The final result has proved an unqualified success, in part, says Liao, because it has shown China’s middle classes that it is possible to travel abroad. The seven divas’ ups and downs show that travelling is relatively easy and doesn’t have to be expensive. China is emerging as the world’s number-one source of overseas travelers, and if Divas Hit the Road inspires its viewers to follow in their idols’ footsteps, the Spanish tourism sector could be given a major boost in the coming years.

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