Program's popularity is a slam dunk for young viewers
TV tastes are fickle. Take the appearance of men, for example. Gone are the muscular, hairy or sweaty, macho guys of yesteryear, as many current variety shows tend to opt for androgenous young men sporting elaborate eye shadow and lip gloss. As they sing and dance on stage, they redefine the concept of male beauty and spark debate online. But, like fashion and music, even this trend is cyclical, eventually coming full circle - like say, a hoop. In the sense of the prevailing male aesthetic, the showbiz industry is changing rapidly.
Manliness is back. Sweaty, hairy chest-heaving, instruction-shouting, skill-displaying manliness has risen again. With the return of the hit sports franchise Dunk of China, which started its third season from Oct 17, the reality show has pulled audiences back to a more traditional sense of aesthetics, driven by viewers' need for testosterone-charged masculinity and exemplified by the participating athletes.
The latest season gathers four basketball celebrities, Wang Shipeng and Zhu Fangyu, now retired, but who once played alongside legend Yao Ming to propel Chinese men's basketball to its golden era in 2008, as well as current stars Zhou Qi and Guo Ailun, who are ranked among the most influential stars in the Chinese Basketball Association, or CBA.
Each of them serves as a coach to rally a team, made up of players shortlisted from about 18,000 professionals, student-athletes and amateur enthusiasts from home and abroad.
After a series of games between different teams, the show will see the birth of a champion team consisting of up to 16 players.
In an attempt to add a new slant, this season also invites actor Deng Lun as the show's "manager" and young female singers Chen Xinwei, Jin Zihan, Nineone and Xu Yiyang to serve as the four teams' cheerleaders, to help the coaches encourage their players.
For director-producer Peng Zhengyuan, who has helmed the franchise since last year's second season, Dunk of China indicates a trending change in China's entertainment industry.
"China's variety show industry has experienced an unprecedented expansion in the last four or five years, propelling producers to seek new formats. We think that basketball, as a much-loved sport, will be an appealing theme to draw a bigger audience," says Peng, who's been a diehard basketball fan, obsessed with NBA legends since his adolescence.
"With their stunning skills and strong will etched in my mind for many years, I've always dreamed of inviting some iconic stars to a reality show, enabling an audience to see a lesser-known side of them off the court," says Peng.
His wish was fulfilled in the second season, with former NBA players Nick Young and Dwyane Wade.
Unfortunately, the third season was seriously affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, causing a two-month delay in filming, which only started in early September. The production crew also faced further obstacles, including having to wait for players returning from other countries to finish their quarantine.
"Basketball has an ability to make people feel positive and energetic. That helps us to cope with those challenges," says Peng.
Echoing his words, former basketball star Wang says the show provides an influential platform for young players, helping them make a name for themselves among a larger group of fans and basketball club managers.
"The athletes are the best ambassadors for their sport. I hope the show will raise and expand the popularity of basketball to more youngsters," says Wang.
That appeal seems to have already been answered. On the micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo, Dunk of China's third season has already netted a positive response, accumulating 6 billion "clicks" on related topics.
On review platform Douban, upon which the show has achieved a score of 7.8 points out of 10, one online fan comments: "If there was a variety show that can make a female audience scream and give a male audience the impetus to rush outdoors to play basketball, I believe Dunk of China has made it."