China’s takeout delivery drivers – lovingly known as 外卖小哥 – just got their own reality TV show on one of China’s most successful regional TV channels, Jiangsu Satellite TV (which airs the long-running hit dating show If You Are the One).
Midnight Delivery, on every Friday night at 8.30pm, follows the story of three different delivery workers each episode. Viewers witness the hidden hardships behind the super convenient service of food delivery giants like Meituan, watching as the workers dash up flights of stairs and swerve through alleyways on motorbikes as the total order time inches up minute-by-minute on the delivery app. The workers sometimes must make tough choices, like paying a fee to cancel an order, rather than deliver an order late and risk the hit to their server rating.
The backdrop of the show is the thriving night economy of China’s bustling Tier-1 and New Tier-1 cities, including Beijing, Chongqing, Wuhan, Changsha, and Shanghai. Smaller cities like Kunshan and Sertar (a majority Tibetan region in Sichuan) also get their own episodes, offering viewers a taste of different geographies, architectural styles, and atmospheres.
Takeout delivery drivers in China have assumed a hero-like status since the pandemic. They were instrumental in getting essential goods to people who had no other way of accessing them under draconian lockdowns and closed management measures. They even became state-sanctioned symbols of the strength of the national spirit in a time of crisis. In Shanghai, where residents saw food shortages during the two-month lockdown of 2022, delivery drivers were a lifeline, finding ways to evade restrictions so they could serve the community.
The content of entertainment media in China is closely monitored by the National Radio and Television Administration, which moved from state control to direct Party control under the Propaganda Department in 2018. TV producers in China have to perform a balancing act – creating engaging content with intrigue, conflict, and emotional resonance, all whilst avoiding sensitive topics and promoting positive values.
Spotlighting 外卖小哥 is a clever solution to this problem, letting the drama of real life speak for itself. Behind the fast pace of the job are the stories of the drivers, typically migrants or students struggling to make ends meet. The positive energy injected by the fortitude of these laobaixing is hard to resist, even if the audience knows how the story will end.
Reviewers on Douban, China’s Rotten Tomatoes, were pleased with the result, mostly giving Midnight Delivery five stars. The show appears to have even helped give curmudgeonly consumers a new perspective:
“I’ve had orders be cancelled and given bad reviews, and afterwards even held a grudge towards the driver. It turns out they don’t want to be late and are even risking their lives along the way. This is precisely the value of documentaries – they dispel prejudice.”