GOVERNMENT CONTROL OF TELEVISION IN CHINA

NEW CONTROLS ON CHINESE TELEVISION ENTERTAINMENT INTRODUCED IN 2011

In October 2011, the New York Times reported, China’s media propaganda and censorship agency---the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) ---ordered the country's 34 satellite channels limit themselves to two entertainment programs each week and a maximum of 90 minutes of entertainment content every day from 19:30 to 22:00. Broadcasters are also required to air at least two hours of state-approved news every evening between 06:00 and midnight and show at least two 30-minute news programmes between 18:00 and 23:30. The broadcasters were also told to disregard audience ratings in their programming decisions. The ministry said the measures were aimed at rooting out “excessive entertainment and vulgar tendencies.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, Michael Wines and Edward Wong, New York Times, October 26, 2011]

The rules apply to CCTV-1, the general programming channel of Central China Television, but not to CCTV-3, which specializes in arts and entertainment, according to a report in the English-language edition of Global Times, an official newspaper.

Many people in the industry have interpreted the decree and earlier measures by central officials as attempts to bolster the ratings of CCTV against the onslaught of entertainment shows produced by satellite stations, which have been wildly successful. Last year, officials told producers of “If You Are the One,” a popular dating show on Jiangsu Satellite Television, to tone down the program. Last month, the authorities suspended a talent show on Hunan Satellite Television, “Super Girl,” for exceeding a broadcast time limit.

Many industry observers said the show may have been offensive for other reasons, including prompting home viewers to show support for their favorite contestants through cellphone texting, an action akin to voting. The shutdown of “Super Girl” was taken as a warning throughout the television industry and presaged the new rules.

Bill Bishop, a business consultant and media industry analyst in Beijing, wrote on his blog, DigiCha, that the new limits could drive television viewers to look for entertainment on the Internet. On the other hand, he added, officials might be preparing restrictions for online video content. “The trend in China appears to be towards more, not less, regulation,” he wrote. “Investors may want to consider factoring in greater regulatory risk.”

Policy-Making Decisions Behind New Controls on Television Entertainment

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: The sweeping policy “effectively wipes out scores of entertainment shows on prime-time television. The authorities evidently determined that trends inspired by the dating show “If You Are the One” and a popular talent show, “Super Girl,” had gone too far, and they responded with a policy to curb what they call “excessive entertainment.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 1, 2012]

That a dating show could help set off the toughest crackdown on television in years exposes the growing tension at the heart of the Communist Party’s control of the entertainment industry. For decades, the party has pushed television networks here to embrace the market, but conservative cadres have grown increasingly fearful of the kinds of programs that court audiences, draw advertising and project a global image not shaped by the state. Television, after all, occupies a singular position in the state’s media arsenal: with its 1.2 billion viewers and more than 3,000 channels, it is the party’s greatest vehicle for transmitting propaganda, whether through the evening news or staid historical dramas.

“A conflict has arisen: On the one hand, they’re pushing for the building of a commercial industry, but on the other hand they wonder if this commercialization has led to an overall decline in cultural quality and moral cultivation,” said Yin Hong, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who studies television.

The party’s definition of “entertainment shows” encompasses game shows, dating shows and celebrity talk shows. As in the West, they are cheap to produce but earn high ratings and advertising revenue, which is critical since stations get little or no government subsidies. Now, the new rules, which were announced in late October, are forcing television executives and producers at 34 satellite stations across China to cut many entertainment shows from their lineups to limit what regulators describe as “vulgar tendencies.”

The tightening of television is at the fore of a major new effort to control culture overseen by President Hu Jintao that is also permeating film, publishing, the Internet and the performing arts. Government regulators issued the television guidelines right after the party’s Central Committee made culture and ideology the focus of a meeting in October. Mr. Yin, who advised officials in the prelude to the meeting, said cadres had originally intended to issue a paper that would push cultural industries closer to the market. But starting half a year ago, he said, senior officials began growing more worried about “social morality,” so they steered the policy toward the control of culture. Regarding television specifically, he said, “many old comrades” frequently complained about entertainment shows and “the idolizing of celebrities.”

SARFT Increases Requirement for Modern Dramas

China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has issued a requirement for provincial satellite TV stations to increase the number of TV dramas with a modern setting as a proportion of total TV dramas to at least 40 percent by 2013. [Source: Louise Duffy, RapidTV News, December 13, 2011]

The regulations have five components: the 40 percent minimum quota for modern-day dramas; a ban on all TV dramas that depict false historical events, such as time travellers; redefined limits on entertainment content during primetime hours; police dramas remain strictly regulated, but can depict the personal lives of police officers; by 2013, 15 percent of broadcast content should contain subject matter relevant to children, rural viewers and ethnic minorities.

Effects of the New Rules on Television “Entertainment”

The order by SARFT to curb ''excessive entertainment'' went into effect on 1 January, 2012. After that satellite broadcasters in China cut entertainment TV by two-thirds with the number of entertainment shows aired during prime time each week has dropping from 126 to 38. ,"Satellite channels have started to broadcast programmes that promote traditional virtues and socialist core values," SARFT said in a statement. [Source: BBC, January 4, 2012]

The New York Times reported: Under the new rules, only nine “entertainment shows” can be shown nationally per night, down from an official estimate this fall of 126 per week. A panel convened by regulators will decide which ones will remain if the stations do not trim. Ideas for new shows must be approved by censors. Satellite stations are also expected to increase their news programming and broadcast at least one show that promotes traditional Chinese virtues and the “socialist core value system.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 1, 2012]

The BBC reported: Talent shows and reality TV are among the biggest casualties of the cuts, the BBC said. The list of restricted programmes also included talk shows and emotional stories that were deemed to be of "low taste", said the Xinhua news report. However the SARFT statement also said that popular dating shows, such as If You Are The One, and soap operas, such as Li Yuan Chun, produced by Henan Satellite TV, will still be on air during prime time on weekends. In the piece published in a Communist Party magazine, President Hu Jintao also urged efforts to boost the country's own soft power, said Xinhua.

“The whole point here is that SARFT is trying to get TV station presidents back to the roots,” a person once involved with “If You Are the One,” who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the New York Times. “What are the roots? TV is supposed to be the mouthpiece of the party in the country. You’re supposed to broadcast propaganda instead of sensationalistic content.”

New Rules on Television “Entertainment” and TV Money

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: Reining in television is not just ideological, but is also tied to advertising money, people in the industry contend. Officials at Sarft are close to those at China Central Television, or CCTV, the state-run television network that is the largest in the country. CCTV still dominates the industry, but it has ceded market share to provincial satellite stations because they are producing the most popular entertainment shows. CCTV and Sarft have a revolving-door relationship: In November, a former vice minister of Sarft, Hu Zhanfan , took over as president of CCTV. The network also remits a fraction of its annual revenue to Sarft. From 2001 to 2005, it gave the agency $675 million, according to statistics from CCTV. By contrast, provincial stations remit revenue to local authorities, who have little incentive to censor successful shows. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, January 1, 2012]

So SARFT’s crackdown on entertainment shows is partly aimed at enriching CCTV, industry observers argue. The announcement of the new order in October may already have yielded benefits for the network. On Nov. 7, at its annual auction for advertising spots in 2012, CCTV earned $2.2 billion, a 12.5 percent increase over the previous year. SARFT and CCTV officials did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Tightening the vise could backfire. Some analysts say that the more television is regulated, the more viewers will watch shows on the Internet, over which Sarft wields much less power.

Ads Banned in Middle of TV Dramas

In November 2011, the New York Times reported, “Officials announced Monday that the government would impose a ban on advertisements in the middle of television dramas starting Jan. 1. The agency imposing the ban, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), said on its Web site that ads would only be able to appear at the start and end of an episode, which generally run 45 minutes. Analysts say the new regulation would result in lower ad revenues for television networks since many companies want to place their ads in the middle of a program. The new policy is the latest in a series of moves by the agency to tighten restrictions on television. In October, it announced limits on entertainment shows broadcast nationwide during primetime hours.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, November 28, 2011]

David Bandurski of the China Media Project wrote: In July 2011 “SARFT held a “discussion forum” to address the issue of “entertainment excessiveness” in Chinese television programming, giving bosses from various provincial television networks an ostensible opportunity to offer their views on new restrictions that already seemed a foregone conclusion. The entertainment programming ban, known in China by the shorthand xian yu ling “, finally came in September and took effect in October. It forced television stations to broadcast “entertainment programs” no more than three times a week during prime time (5-10pm).” [Source: David Bandurski, China Media Project, November 29, 2011]

The latest SARFT ban on advertising in television dramas expressly prohibits the interruption of dramas with ads, but does not prevent broadcasters from airing advertisements before and after dramas, or from placing paid-for plugs directly into the dramas themselves. There are some ambiguities here that could lead to interesting cheats or workarounds from television broadcasters, something we’ll come to later.

Why Ads Are Banned in TV Dramas and Communist Party Cultural Reform

David Bandurski of the China Media Project wrote: “But behind a swarm of questions like, “Will the rule kill off advertising revenues in the television sector?” and “Will broadcasters find a way to sneak around the rule?:, there looms a far more basic question: Why? Why, indeed. The ready answer seems to be that SARFT is putting its regulatory muscle where the Party’s mouth is on the broader issue of “cultural reforms.” To recap, the main theme at the recent plenary session of the Party’s 17th Central Committee was the building of a new cultural vibrancy in China through what was billed as a concerted process of cultural reform. In the Party’s formulation, this policy would bring a windfall of global “soft power” for China and give China the non-material confidence to stand strong “in the forest of nations.” [Source: David Bandurski, China Media Project, November 29, 2011]

The talk of “cultural renewal” at the meeting came with a whole set of political and ideological imperatives. And superficially at least, it seems that SARFT is now muscling in on the television sector with some of these imperatives under its arm.First of all, the “Notice” coming out of the October plenum said culture had to “uphold the main theme” and adhere to “correct guidance of public opinion,” both code for towing the Party’s political line. Further, the “Notice” stressed that “Marxism must be upheld as the guiding principle” of cultural reforms carried out “with the ideological armor of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” This would ensure cultural reforms “moved in the correct [political] direction.”

More directly relevant to this ad-related ban, however, the “Notice” defined “the building of a public culture service system” as one of the chief goals of cultural reforms. In yesterday’s official notice from SARFT, “actively developing cultural work in the public welfare” as prioritized at the recent sixth plenum is given as justification for the ban on advertising. The idea, basically, is that advertisements pollute the public welfare value of the television space, and removing them from television dramas is a service to the Chinese public.

Some members of the public have understood the ban in exactly this way. Internet user Yan Ni wrote on her weblog today:"The public opinion power of ordinary people is pretty substantial. The new SARFT regulations have surfaced, and beginning January 2012 advertisements can’t be inserted into television dramas. This gives the audience back a harmonious and efficient television environment. The hopes of ordinary people have been answered. This is a good thing, a very good thing.”

This of course is a fair initial reaction from the sofa. But there are important institutional, economic, practical and, yes, political questions that are left hanging by this SARFT action and its public service justification. The section of October’s “Notice” that deals with “building a public culture service system” states that “public welfare cultural units” will form the “backbone” of this project, “supported by public financing.” The same section also talks about “employing government procurement, project subsidies, direct subsidies, interest subsidies, tax reduction and other policy measures” to “encourage various cultural firms to participate in public culture service.” Clearly, providing state funding for public welfare programming is one thing, and forcing public welfare programming standards on commercially operating enterprises is another.

This begs the question of the exact institutional nature of the television networks that will be impacted by the SARFT policy. Since the 1990s, media in China have been weaned off government support and encouraged to commercialize. In a competitive national market, they have been forced to fight for ad dollars, a fight for their survival. But the Party of course maintains the Party nature of all media in China, which is to say that there are no truly “independent” media even if the vast majority of Chinese media today have become financially independent.

So are these television networks “public welfare institutions?” Or are they for-profit entities? The answer is that they are neither and both, a question that Wei Yingjie addressed at the Economic Observer: “T]he rationality and feasibility of the “advertising ban” policy remain in question. In terms of the policy itself, SARFT can of course issue this or that regulation given that it is the department that overseas broadcast television nationwide. But the question of whether or not the policy is rational is a matter of whether or not it accommodates the industry’s own laws of development. So we have to make clear: are mainland television stations ultimately public welfare institutions or are they for-profit institutions? The answer is that mainland television stations are not purely public welfare institutions, nor are they entirely marketized institutions. Rather, they are compounds of both.

The core question, then, is this. Who is paying for the “public welfare” mandate? And for that matter, who is paying for the cultural reforms trumpeted so loudly at October’s meeting? Wei sums it up like this: “The issue is really simple. Mainland television stations do not rely on fiscal appropriations to survive, and so they must be permitted to go and find sustenance in the marketplace.” It’s entirely unreasonable, he suggests, to expect profit-driven television stations to take a hit for “public welfare” without the government stepping up with its pocketbook---and arguably goes against the “spirit” of the Party’s October “Notice”, which indicates that public financing will support the so-called “public culture service system” that is the core justification of the SARFT action.

Wei Yingjie said: “This means that while administrative departments [like SARFT] can demand that television stations at various levels have a great public welfare quality about them, the government must finance these stations, otherwise there is no reason to inhibit the television stations in carrying out commercial activities.

Ban on Television Time Travel

In April 2011 CNN reported: China has been cracking down on dissent of late, as the recent detainment of artist Ai Weiwei suggests. But the latest guidance on television programming from the State Administration of Radio Film and Television in China borders on the surreal---or, rather, an attack against the surreal. [Source: CNN, April 14, 2011]

New guidelines issued on March 31 discourage plot lines that contain elements of "fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots, absurd techniques, even propagating feudal superstitions, fatalism and reincarnation, ambiguous moral lessons, and a lack of positive thinking." “The government says---TV dramas shouldn’t have characters that travel back in time and rewrite history. They say this goes against Chinese heritage,” reports CNN’s Eunice Yoon. “They also say that myth, superstitions and reincarnation are all questionable.”

The Chinese censors seem to be especially sensitive these days. But for the television and film industry, such strictures would seem to eliminate any Chinese version of “Star Trek,” “The X-Files,” “Quantum Leap” or “Dr. Who.” And does that mean rebroadcast of huge Hollywood moneymakers like “Back to the Future” and the “Terminator” series are now forbidden?

Time-Travel Drama Disrespects History

  According to China Hush. “There’s an interesting trend in China’s film and television industry: more and more time-travel themed dramas are made and aired. In these time-travel based TV plays, usually the protagonist is from the modern time and for some reasons and via some means, travels through time and all the way back to the ancient China where he/she will constantly experience the "culture shock" but gradually get used to it and eventually develop a romance in that era. Though obviously the Chinese audience is found of this genre of shows, the country’s authority -General Bureau of Radio, Film and Television, to be exact, is not happy about this trend and calls a halt to the making of this type of drama. [Source: QQ, China Hush, April 3, 2011]

From the end of last year, the time-travel themed drama is becoming more and more popular. Most of these time-travel dramas are based on real historical stories but with many newly added, and usually exaggerated elements to make it funny and more attractive. Nothing is off limits in this television genre. While some find it hilarious, others think the exaggeration and even ridiculous elements added into the story is a real source of annoyance and is a disrespectful for history.

The authority’s decision was made on the Television Director Committee Meeting on April 1st---but obviously it’s not a prank to fans of the drama genre. The authority has a good reason to go against the genre. "The time-travel drama is becoming a hot theme for TV and films. But its content and the exaggerated performance style are questionable. Many stories are totally made-up and are made to strain for an effect of novelty. The producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore."

Shen Hua (Myth) is the country’s first time-travel TV play and a successful one. The play depicts how a young adolescent travels through time to the China of 2000 years ago and becomes sworn brother with Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, (both are prominent military leaders and political figures during the late Qin Dynasty period of Chinese history) and eventually ends up being an army general leading troops of thousands of soldiers. On the same time, his twin brother and families in the modern days is fighting with a mystery man to find him.

Shen Hua (Myth) is a success in terms of box office but too much made-up stories on the real once-exist historical person makes controversy inevitable. Also many people complain there’re too many mistakes on history facts, making it unbearable to watch.

Besides of the over-exaggerated time-travel dramas, the bureau is also making it clear that no more new film and TV versions of the Four Great Classical Novels should be produced and aired on the screen in the near future. Since 2010, dramas of the Four Great Classical Novels are respectively remade within one year. Attention are wide for sure, but people holds mixed opinion towards these remakes. The major opinion being that the remakes are made in a rush and with lots of changes of the original stories; the original TV version of the four great made years ago is classic and is not easy to be surpassed.

China Issues New Rules to Limit Foreign Television Shows

In February 2012, AP reported: China's television broadcasters will be limited in the number of imported series they can show, the government has announced, as China continues to try to rein in foreign influence. Under the new rules, no foreign TV series may be shown during the primetime hours of 7pm to 10pm and overseas-produced shows "could take up no more than 25 percent of total programming time each day," the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television said. [Source: Associated Press, February 14, 2012]

It also said domestic channels would not be allowed to show too much programming from any one country or region, but did not elaborate. The move comes in a politically sensitive year for China, with a planned change of leadership and after President Hu Jintao said the Communist party needed to get a firmer grip on Chinese culture.

In early January, Hu told party members that hostile forces abroad were trying to westernise and divide the country with their cultural influence and that officials must remain vigilant against such efforts. Hu did not say who the hostile forces were, but Chinese leaders have tried to bolster their legitimacy with a more demanding public by depicting China as being engaged in an ideological and cultural war with the west.

Hu's remarks are part of the Communist party's broader push to reinforce socialist principles in an attempt to counter calls by liberal Chinese for "universal values" such as freedom of expression, which state media often portray as western concepts unsuited to China's circumstances. Chinese leaders are under pressure from a public upset over income inequality, corruption and other ills of rapid growth and that feels empowered by rising prosperity and social media to criticise the government.

To compete for ideological influence, party leaders have said China must create more cultural products such as books, films and art to attract Chinese and foreign audiences. As part of efforts to wrest back Communist party control over cultural industries, China also recently said it would limit reality TV shows and other light fare shown on satellite television stations.

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore wrote in the Asian Times, “Imported television shows watched by millions will be canned during China's prime "golden time" hours, the government announced. Last month, popular prime-time entertainment programs were slashed by two-thirds. This was after programs featuring time travel were all but banned last year. In the latest signs of an escalating clampdown on entertainment in China, the television broadcast regulator has declared that "vulgar" foreign television shows - which mostly hail from Asia - will be barred 7-10 pm. The newest rules aim to boost China's domestic television industry, forcing audiences away from Asian competition towards local shows. Many feel that the move is also an attempt to protect state-run China Central Television (CCTV), known for its stiff evening news and stale dramas. [Source: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, Asian Times, February 24, 2012]

In the latest rules, all foreign shows - which are mainly sourced from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea - must pass state approval. "TV series that contain vulgar and violent scenes should not be imported," stated China Daily, adding that "severe punishments" will be handed out to channels who violate the new rules. According to the state-run newspaper, the regulations will help create a "favorable environment for TV shows made by companies on the Chinese mainland".

Result of China’s Clampdown on Vulgar Television

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore wrote in the Asian Times, “By the end of last year, China's 34 satellite channels had cut the number of entertainment shows - largely spin-offs of Western hits such as American Idol and Top Gear - from 126 to just 38 during the prime-time hours, marking a 69 percent decrease. The ban came into effect officially on January 1. In the place of the rags to riches singing competitions and sassy dating shows which have proliferated under China's enterprising provincial television channels, SARFT stated that each channel must air "morality building" programs weekly. Talent contents will be limited to just 10 nationwide per year.

"SARFT does not want provincial TV to pose a threat to the national influence of CCTV. So they have stopped many programs," says Dr Grace Leung, a visiting scholar at Beijing's Tsinghua University who specializes in television regulation.

Propaganda over profit remains a crucial concern for SARFT, which functions under the propaganda arm of the Communist Party. Pushing the party creed over the competitiveness of the television industry as a whole remains paramount. "With more than 96 or 97 percent of the total population [tuning in], TV is still the most influential vehicle for propaganda. One of SARFT's major tasks is ideological control," says Leung. "There is concern whether [satellite stations] are doing the correct job to educate their audience rather than provide entertainment alone. So profit making is not a primary concern for them - they would prefer to stick to their original task of educating and propaganda to prevent controversial issues arising," she adds.

"The cycle of tightening and loosening up is nothing new in China," says Ying Zhu, author of Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television. "Obviously the tightening up cannot last long when the issue of bread and butter is at stake. The real clash is between the mandate of a Chinese cultural tradition dictated by morality and the demand of a market system dictated by profit."

The newest regulations, however, might backfire. Internet users in China now number over 500 million and many people are switching off their television sets in favor of finding entertainment on their smart phones and laptops, where censorship is less pervasive and the state has less hold. "Only people like my mother-in-law would watch [programs] on TV and now even she has switched to the Internet," says Raymond Zhou, 49, a Beijing-based newspaper columnist and social critic. "These regulations are going to drive more and more young people away from television, because they are leaving anyway. You are giving them the extra push - now they leave happily."

Image Sources: Wikicommons, Amazon Chinese DVD and video rental websites such as China Culture Network

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2012


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