House of Cards, credibility gap blunt China annual TV expose

SHANGHAI, March 14 Thu Mar 13, 2014 5:00pm EDT

SHANGHAI, March 14 (Reuters) - Waning popularity and a wounded reputation are likely to dull the edge of China's consumer day TV expose when it airs on Saturday, offering some relief for companies that have in the past taken pains to avoid any fallout from the once-a-year show.

The "3.15" show, similar to CBS network's "60 Minutes" in the United States, has often triggered a damage control campaign by the local and global firms it targets and that have included Apple Inc and carmaker Volkswagen AG.

Consumer rights are sensitive issues in China which has been beset by a series of product safety scandals over the past few years. These scandals are often fanned by the media, and have the potential to go viral and stick around: KFC-parent Yum Brands Inc has struggled to quell anger over Chinese media reports in late 2012 about excessive antibiotic use by a few KFC suppliers in China.

But the show, like other programmes by state-run China Central Television, is struggling to click with younger viewers hooked to online programming and imports such as British detective show "Sherlock" and U.S. political drama "House of Cards".

"Now I spend much time watching videos, mostly U.S. and UK TV drama, on my iPad tablet and cell phone. Over the last month I've been following Sherlock," said Chen Kang, 23, a technician based in the eastern city of Wuxi. "I don't watch much regular TV now, let alone CCTV and the 3.15 show."

Kang's generation - a key demographic driving Chinese consumption patterns - are around 30 percent less likely than their elders to tune into gala-style shows on CCTV, according to data from Chinese media analysis firm CTR.

CCTV could not be reached for comment.

CCTV WOUNDED

Negative reports in Chinese media, including on state TV, can have a serious impact for global firms because of how quickly the complaints spread online.

"I've never watched 3.15 but I always hear what's happened another way," said Cai Jiejing, 26, a media professional in Shanghai. Cai said she watches "House of Cards" and "Big Bang Theory" on online Chinese TV sites Sohu and Youku.

But China's state broadcaster has also come under fire over the past year, with consumers, economists and even CCTV staff criticising a report in October targeting high prices at U.S. coffee chain Starbucks Corp.

The country's active and influential online commentators also rushed to the defence of U.S. smartphone maker Apple when it was criticised on last year's "3.15" show over its warranty policy in China.

"I think that scepticism over the years has increased as more information has come out about back stories on certain issues," said Sam Flemming, Shanghai-based founder and CEO of social media information firm CIC, which helps firms assess the consumer response to media exposes such as "3.15".

Some media professionals said CCTV may air a particularly hard-hitting consumer day show to shore up its reputation. Colleen Cheng, co-managing director at Ogilvy PR Beijing said food and e-commerce companies were likely targets this year, but cautioned that CCTV was very secretive about its programming.

"CCTV keep this very confidential and until the last minute we won't know which companies it's going to be," she said.