It is the television show that everybody watches and everybody loves to hate.
On Sunday night, the eve of the Chinese New Year, a billion people could tune in for a ritual that is as deeply ingrained in the holiday tradition as watching the Rose Parade is for Americans.
The show is CCTV's annual New Year's Gala, a five-hour pastiche of dancing, singing, comedy, magic tricks, propaganda and kitsch. CCTV claims that more than 90% of the Chinese population watches the show (more on that claim later), making it by far the most popular in China and one of the most watched television programs in the world.
But the tradition is in jeopardy as younger viewers, turned off by the increasingly heavy hand of the Communist Party censor, tune out.
Last year, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television issued a series of guidelines that limit programming it deems too frivolous, too sexy or too irreverent, reducing much of CCTV's content to blandness.
This year, some of China's most popular entertainers have dropped out or refused to appear in the gala, a bit of feel-good (or else) fluff that has aired since 1983 in almost exactly the same format, although it used to run 61/2 hours.
A sampling from last year: A singer in a low-cut red dress belted out "The Flag Is Brighter," with lyrics praising the Communist Party, while dancers unfurled red banners around her. Break-dancers dressed as migrant construction workers did a routine to a revolutionary ballad, "We Workers Have Strength." Dancers kitted out as Mongolians, Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities twirled to a song called "Big Happy Family."
Typically, Chinese families spend the night with the television on while they chat with relatives, play mah-jongg, eat dumplings and light firecrackers.
The most prominent dropout in this year's gala is Zhao Benshan, whose announcement Thursday that he was withdrawing from the show after 21 consecutive years made headlines around the country.
Although the 55-year-old actor cited exhaustion, there was widespread speculation in the television industry that the skit he submitted this year didn't get approval.
"This is the most censored show on Chinese television," said Wu Renchu, a film critic based in Shanghai. He said the gala acts must go through three rounds of approval.
"There is more and more ideology and less entertainment. It is all about praising the achievements of the party and the nation. With stand-up comedy, you can't have anything that touches on the reality of life in China."
Another casualty of the new reign of censorship is popular singer Na Ying.
CCTV refused to let her perform a song with a few words of English ("Always friends. Closest friends. Best friends."), part of a campaign by the broadcaster to reduce the use of English on television.
Jiang Kun, a master of the Chinese comic art known as crosstalk, is also off the program this year, with columnists speculating it's because his skit touched on a train crash last year in Wenzhou.
China's most famous female comic, Song Dandan, protested that she wouldn't appear on the gala "unless they arrest me, sentence me.... I really don't want to go."
To drive home the point, many of the refuseniks appeared this year on a rival show that aired Jan. 17 on Hunan Provincial Television, a feisty regional broadcaster.
The censorship has alienated many viewers.
"The comedy pieces in the past used to talk about many things, like social issues. Now it is just happy dancing and singing and skits about the boring trivia of life," said Yu Jingwei, a 21-year-old management student. "My parents watch, but even they are getting tired of it."
Ke Huixin, a 66-year-old professor at the Communication University of China, said she usually keeps the gala on as background music in an upstairs room while she works at her computer downstairs.
"Now people have more choices of what to watch, so it is natural they are finding something more interesting to watch," Ke said.
Although CCTV's own research trumpets the more than 90% viewership statistic, a poll last year found the number closer to 70%, and another survey found that only about 15% of viewers liked the show.
"It is a crazy phenomenon," said Alison Friedman, a Beijing-based dance and theater producer. "Everybody complains about the gala, but they still watch it and then they talk about how bad it was."
Although the gala itself isn't funny, it does inspire some chuckles from China's more subversive comics.
After a CCTV director was convicted in 2003 of taking bribes from a songwriter who wanted his music performed on the gala, foul-mouthed comedian Guo Degang riffed: "You got to be on the Spring Festival Gala to become a big star!… The director told me I can be on the show only if I clean the table, chair, deliver the lunch boxes and boil some water for the crew. Oh, I can also walk the director's dog."
A performance on the 2010 show in which a Uighur folk singer praised the Communist Party's policies as yakexi, the Uighur word for good, seven months after a Uighur uprising left 200 dead was widely ridiculed online.
The lyrics went as follows: "I, Maimati, am full of joy. With my donkey, I am going to town. Brand-new bank notes on my shoulder....What is yakexi? The party's policies are yakexi."
Demick is a Times staff writer and Lee is a special correspondent. Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.