Millions of people across China are eagerly waiting for the last episode of reality TV show ‘Dad, Where are We Going?’. This show, introduced from South Korea to China and produced by Hunan Television, has been a huge hit at this time when there is an excess of singing contests on Chinese television. In the main Chinese social networking sites like Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo or Renren.com, topics relevant to the show have been topping popularity lists since its first broadcast in early October.
Five male celebrities—Taiwanese actor Lin Zhiying, film director Wang Yuelun, former diver and Olympic gold-medalist Tian Liang, actor Guo Tao and famous model Zhang Liang—participate with their children, aged three to six, in the successive challenges designed by the program. As it is common in reality television, the participants’ unscripted performances are documented as raw material for post-production editing. Featuring five fathers with their children, this show is predominantly humorous, with a pinch of competitiveness. The first season consists of twelve episodes, two for each of the six destinations where the different challenges were held. Both the fathers and the children are assigned tasks and monitored for viewers to examine their conversations, interactions and relationship. In the first few episodes, the five fathers, all of them successful individuals in their own fields, appeared frustrated by their clumsiness and inability to handle a naughty and disobedient child. For the audience, this is a rare opportunity to get a close look at celebrities’ private lives and parenting skills.
It is the five children who impressed the audience the most and caused an upsurge in discussion on education. The five little kids all have very distinct characters and special skills. For instance, Cindy, Tian Liang’s daughter, who has evidently inherited her father’s ‘sporty genes’, has amazing stamina and is a very skilled runner, which has won her the nickname of ‘the girl like the wind’. And four-year-old Kimi, Lin Zhiying’s son, has melted viewers’ hearts with his babbling and chattering. However, cute children are not the only reason why the program has become so successful, especially against a backdrop of fierce competition coming from other contests and TV series. Something beyond that has managed to create ties with the audience and win them over, maintaining their interest for weeks.
According to Xie Dikui, the director of ‘Dad, Where are We Going’, the biggest selling point is that the show challenges the prevailing idea that mothers are the primary family caregivers. Family life is an issue always worth debating and discussing. In current Chinese society, women are still subject to traditional patriarchal values, and are expected to take primary responsibility in the domestic sphere. It is often alleged that women are better at taking care of children and doing household chores, although more and more women are becoming successful professionals. This show explores the role of fathers in domestic life, bringing it up for consideration and discussion. At the beginning of the show, there seems to be a consensus among the participants that fathers do not cook or do not need to cook. Nonetheless, when they are put into a desperate situation when the hungry children are crying to them for food in their mothers’ absence, it begins to dawn on the fathers that they ought to do something, and possibly that they can also make a difference at home. The kids look up to their fathers and fully trust them, giving them the opportunity to exercise their own educational skills without the involvement of mothers. The fathers’ frequent setbacks are entertaining for the audience, while the small talk and interactions between fathers and children allow the audience to empathise by reminding them of their own personal experience. The underlying message embedded in the show is that it is essential for fathers to get involved in their children’s early education and development.
Furthermore, even though it is an imported reality TV show, ‘Dad, Where are We Going’ is nicely tailored to the Chinese context. In recent years, the television industry has focused on reality shows, taking advantage of the characteristics of television as a mass medium; unlike films, television programs are presented in a format that is convenient for the audience: easily understood and easily consumed. Reality shows compete for authenticity and tap into the audience’s wishes and anxieties: ‘Dad, Where are We Going’ exploits the anxiety produced by the need for modern parents to juggle professional and personal life. While reality television is able to narrow the gap between viewers and content, this hyper-reality can make the audience take up values that are being intentionally cultivated and promoted. If singing contests, which were copied from Western talent shows and have flourished in the Chinese television market, represent individualism, ‘Dad, Where are We Going’ is a very good example of how traditional values can also sell very well in China.
It is very easy to get a sense of the show’s immense popularity on the Internet. The five kids are already the apple of China’s eye, and the five families’ laughter accompanies the country through the cold winter. ‘Dad, Where are We Going?’ leads the audience to reflect on their own family life, promoting the idea that in today’s highly individualistic society, we should also pay attention to family. This is not simply a traditional value, but a significant source of happiness.