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Tell-all TV

EVERY story has at least two sides, and often more, so it can be hard to sort out conflicting versions to arrive at a reasonable version of the "truth."

The concept of multi-sided truths and the challenge of unraveling them inspired local TV producer Chen Ye to develop a nationwide hit, an emotional problem-solving TV show, "Magic Cube of Happiness."

It's one of a new genre known as qinggan ju or "emotion programs," in which distressed people, mostly young, come on the program to discuss all kinds of edgy issues, many of them heartrending. There are many scenes of tears.

Another, more sensational and voyeuristic show, "Psychological Treatment in a Chamber of Secrets," on Jiangsu Satellite TV, films an actual, unedited hour of psychotherapy with deeply unhappy people. There are lots of closeups of pain and critics call it cruelly invasive. Psychology is still not widely accepted in China.

But "Magic Cube" and others are a little kinder. These so-called "emotion shows" address all kind of topics, such as the soaring price of housing that couples cannot afford, extramarital affairs, excruciating pressure to marry, lack of communication between demanding parents and stressed-out young people, among others.

Since it began airing in January (9:20pm, Monday-Friday, Dragon TV; it will be a daily program after June 1), ratings have shot through the roof, or the cube. It's far more popular than and different from mediation shows such as "Old Uncle" that parents and grandparents love because of the sharp-tongued auntie mediator Bai Wanqing. Young people find her abrasive and pushy.

In the hourlong "Magic Cube of Happiness," the main narrator - the initiator who seeks help - sits in a large transparent cube with hostess Chen Rong and airs all kinds of problems.

They include property disputes, dating woes, family quarrels, late marriages, tyrannical mothers-in-law, perceived discrimination against single post-1980s generation, paternity and pregnancy out of wedlock, and lots more.

On the outer sides of the cube, other parties to the conflict (parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses) each state their own case.

'Everyone lies'

A psychologist, often local practitioner Lin Yizhen, frequently sits on one side and comments, trying to help people recognize underlying issues and reach some sort of resolution. A small studio audience of 20-30 people chimes in; the show is also live online so Netizens share their often-pointed views.

In the end, some sort of "truth" or resolution is generally achieved.

"Everyone's description reveals some truth, but not the whole," producer Chen says. "Everyone is lying about something. We try to bring the real facts to light by inviting almost all the persons concerned."

Some problems are quite intimate, disturbing and sensational, prompting questions about their authenticity, day after day. The producer claims they're all true, but admits the participants get a warm-up hour and coaching before the show, so they tell an emotional focused story and don't ramble.

It's unusual in conservative Chinese society to "air dirty linen," but some people are desperate for some kind of help. Some may hope that public airing will shame parties in a dispute, causing them to lose face and capitulate.

In any case, the show is a sensation. Some riveting cases are so involved that they spill over and take two days to sort out.

It's one of the nation's top three shows aired at the same time. "Many disputes are commonplace in this age of rapid urbanization," says producer Chen. "Human relationships in a modern city are quite fragile and changeable."

Chen says around half the cases are provided by the Psychological Counseling Center of East China Normal University, a partner in the program. Others are turned up by Chen's team and proposed by Netizens themselves who want to go on the show.

Sometimes it's difficult to get reserved people to tell all and Chen's team may spend a couple of weeks trying to persuade everyone to appear.

"Some people slammed doors in our face and refused to appear," Chen says. "Sometimes we camped out and waited overnight to get their permission."

But since the show has become popular and influential, more people are willing to appear to get help.

"Some are really mentally on the verge of collapse and some don't have friends to talk to," says Chen.

A very popular episode was "My Tsinghua Wife" that generated heated discussion. A man sits inside the cube and complains that his materialist wife, a graduate of prestigious Tsinghua University, abandoned him after eight years' marriage and decided to move abroad for a better life.

The wife sat on one side.

During the show, when Netizens expressed anger toward her, she shot back, "How dare you criticize me? At least I went to Tsinghua. How about you?"

The couple agreed to divorce.

Producer Chen says the show was so popular that he heard people discussing it in a restaurant, saying the woman shamed both her university and the post-1980s generation.

"At that moment I realized our show's responsibility toward young people. A show that airs ethical and moral norms can help people release stress and heal emotional distress."

Some people doubt the cases are true because often the narrator seems to be scripted. Some say amateur actors must be enlisted to produce daily sensations.

Chen admits that they prepare general scripts for the narrator to save time and make the stories coherent.

"But they're all true," he says. "This way, the audience can get a clear story. Actually, this isn't just an emotional interview program but a combination of reality TV and interview."

Touch the heart

The show encourages people from other provinces to address their emotional problems on TV. Upcoming programs will concern migrant workers and professionals from out of town.

Psychologist Lin, a frequent guest, attributes popularity of the "Cube" to cases that touch the heart.

One case involved a father-son quarrel. The young man getting an MBA urged his father to mortgage the house and get a loan so he could start his own business. The father resisted. Both complained on the show.

But Lin observed that the young man was trying to prove himself to his father who had been very strict and never openly expressed love.

Lin asked the father to tell his son he loved him and give him a hug. Both wept, embraced and were reconciled.

"People's aspirations for love and happiness are universal," Lin says. "There is a positive intention and reason behind every behavior. What we try to do is to resolve the narrators' underlying emotional injuries and trauma instead of criticizing. Everyone has opportunities to make changes."

Other 'emotion shows'

'Psychological Treatment in a Chamber of Secrets'

Jiangsu Satellite TV, 9:20pm, Thursdays

The new reality program invites people with serious problems or "psychological trauma" to a "chamber of secrets" to be treated by a psychologist for one hour. The whole process is filmed.

It's believed to be the first domestic TV program to air an entire, unedited session with a psychologist. Critics say it's a cruel invasion of privacy and there are too many scenes of a individual person's pain.

"Post-1980s Generation Drama Theater"

Channel Young, 8pm, daily

Producers say the hourlong mini-dramas are fiction, but all based on real cases and issues. In the drama, a "clinic" scene offers advice to characters in emotional pain.


Hunan Satellite TV, 8:30pm, Mondays

The hourlong show focuses on growing-up stories of post-1980s and post-1990s generation. A panel of experts, TV figures and young people share views about young people's confusion and difficulties, including issues such as relations with parents, individuality, Internet love, campus love and marriage.

"If You're the One"

Jiangsu Satellite TV, 9:20pm, Saturdays-Sundays

In the matchmaking program, young people talk about love, chat with each other and play games. Psychologists weigh in. Young women vote to eliminate guys.


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